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Although John Donne (duhn) is known chiefly as a lyric poet, the posthumous volume Poems, by J.D., which includes the lyrics, represents only a small part of his literary output. Donne was famous in his own age mainly as a preacher; in fact, he was probably the most popular preacher of an age when preaching held the same fascination for the general public that the cinema has today. Various sermons of Donne’s were published during his lifetime, and several collections were published in the following decades. Without a commitment to Donne’s religious values, however, few today would want to read through many of his sermons. Donne must, however, be credited with the careful articulation of the parts of his sermons, which create a resounding unity of theme; and his control of prose rhythm and his ingenious imagery retain their power, even if modern readers are no longer disposed to see the majesty of God mirrored in such writing.

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Excerpts from Donne’s sermons thus have a continuing vitality for general readers in a way that excerpts from the sermons of, for example, Lancelot Andrewes cannot. In the early seventeenth century, Andrewes had been the most popular preacher before Donne, and, as bishop of Winchester, he held a more important position. He also had a greater reputation as a stylist, but for modern readers, Andrewes carries to an extreme the baroque fashion of “crumbling a text” (analyzing in minute detail). The sermons of Andrewes are now unreadable without special training in theology and classical languages. On the other hand, though also writing for an educated audience with a serious interest in divinity, Donne wears his scholarship more easily and can still be read by the general student without special preparation. His sermon to the Virginia Company is the first sermon in English to make a missionary appeal.

The single most famous of Donne’s sermons was his last. Death’s Duell (1632), preached before King Charles on February 25, 1631, is a profound meditation on mortality. Human mortality is always a major theme with Donne, but here he reaches a new eloquence. Full of startling imagery, the sermon takes as its theme the paradox that life is death and death is life—although Christ’s death delivers humankind from death. When this last sermon of Donne’s was published, Henry King, bishop of Chichester, remarked that “as he exceeded others at first so at last he exceeded himself.”

A work of similar theme but published by Donne in his own lifetime is the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624). Composed, as R. C. Bald has shown, with extreme rapidity during a serious illness and convalescence in 1623, this work is based on the structured meditational technique of Saint Francis de Sales, involving the sensuous evocation of scenes, although, as Thomas F. Van Laan has suggested, the work is perhaps also influenced by the Ejercicios espirituales (1548; The Spiritual Exercises, 1736) of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. It is divided into twenty-three sections, each consisting of a meditation, an expostulation, and a prayer. The work is an artfully constructed whole of sustained emotional power, but the meditations have achieved a special fame with their vivid evocations of the theme that sickness brings people closer to God by putting them in touch with their frailty and mortality. Various meditations from the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions present famous pictures of the tolling of the death knell, of the body as a microcosm, and of the curious medical practices of the day, for example, the application of live pigeons to Donne’s feet to try to draw the vapors of fever from his head. By this last practice, Donne discovers that he is his own executioner because the vapors are believed to be the consequence of his melancholy, and this is no more than the studiousness required of him by his calling as a preacher. Although in past centuries most readers found the work’s self-consciousness and introspection alienating, the contemporary sensibility finds these characteristics especially congenial. The three meditations on the tolling of the bells have, in particular, provided titles and catchphrases for popular writers.

A posthumously published early study of mortality by Donne is Essayes in Divinity (1651). Written in a knotty, baroque style, the work is a collection of curiously impersonal considerations of the Creation and of the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The essays show none of the fire of the sermons and of the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. A very different sort of contemplation of mortality is provided in Biathanatos (1646). The casuistical reasoning perhaps shows evidence of Donne’s Jesuit background. The same approach to logic and a similar iconoclasm are apparent in Juvenilia: Or, Certaine Paradoxes and Problemes (1633; the first complete version was, however, not published until 1923).

The earliest of Donne’s publications were two works of religious controversy of a more serious nature. These works also show Donne’s Jesuit background, but in them, he is reacting against his upbringing and presenting a case for Anglican moderation in the face of Roman Catholic—and especially Jesuit—pretensions. Pseudo-Martyr (1610) was written at the explicit request of King James, according to Donne’s first biographer, Izaak Walton. Here and throughout his subsequent career, Donne is a strongly committed Erastian, seeing the Church as properly subordinate in this world to secular authority.

The other of these early works of controversy, Ignatius His Conclave (1611), which appeared in Latin as well as English, is still amusing to modern readers who are unlikely to come to it with quite the strong partisan feeling of its original audience.


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John Donne was a remarkably influential poet in his day. Despite the fact that it was only after his death that a substantial body of his poetry was published, the elegies and satires (and to a lesser extent the divine poems and the songs and sonnets) had already created a new poetic mode during Donne’s lifetime as a result of circulating in manuscript. Thomas Carew, in a memorial elegy published in the first edition of Donne’s poems, described him as ruling the “universal monarchy of wit.” The poetry of the School of Donne was usually characterized in its own day by its “strong lines.” This characterization seems to have meant that Donne and his followers were to be distinguished from the Sons of Ben, the poets influenced by Ben Jonson, chiefly by their experiments with rough meter and conversational syntax; Jonson, however, was also—somewhat confusingly—praised for strong lines. Donne’s own characteristic metrics involve lines densely packed with syllables. He makes great use not only of syncope (dropping of an unstressed vowel within a word) and elision (dropping of an unstressed vowel at the juncture between words) but also of a device almost unique to Donne among English poets—synaloepha (speeding up of adjacent vowels at the juncture between words with no actual dropping). By hindsight, Donne, Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Henry King, George Herbert, John Cleveland, Richard Crashaw, Abraham Cowley, Henry Vaughan, Andrew Marvell, and others of the School of Donne share not only strong lines but also a common fund of imagery. Eschewing for the most part classical allusions, these poets turned to the imagery of everyday life and of the new learning in science and philosophy.

In the middle of the seventeenth century, there occurred what T. S. Eliot has memorably described as a “dissociation of sensibility,” after which it became increasingly difficult to see Donne’s secular and religious values as part of a consistent whole. The beginnings of this attitude were already apparent in Donne’s own day; in a letter, for example, he describes Biathanatos as the work not of Dr. Donne but of the youthful Jack Donne. Toward the end of the century, the change of perspective is complete when John Dryden describes Donne unsympathetically as one who “perplexes the Minds of the Fair Sex with nice Speculations of philosophy.” The Restoration and the eighteenth century had lost Donne’s sense of religious commitment and thus scrutinized a style in isolation from the content it intended to express. Donne’s poetry was condemned as artificial, and his reputation disappeared almost overnight.

This was the situation when Samuel Johnson wrote the famous strictures on Donne in his Life of Cowley. That these remarks occur in the Life of Cowley is perhaps a commentary on the fallen stature of the earlier poets: Donne did not himself merit individual treatment in Lives of the Poets (1779-1781). Conceding that to write like Donne “it was at least necessary to read and think,” Johnson describes the wit of the School of Donne—accurately enough—as the “discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Although many readers of the earlier seventeenth century and of the twentieth century would consider the description high praise, for Johnson it was a condemnation. For him, the “most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” He popularized the term “Metaphysical poetry” for this yoking; the term had, however, been used earlier, even in Donne’s own day.

Donne’s stature and influence in the twentieth century and beyond are equal to his great stature and wide influence in the seventeenth century, but the attitude represented by Johnson remained the norm for the centuries between. Donne’s modern-day prestige is based on values different from those that accounted for his prestige in his own day. The seventeenth century took its religion seriously but understood religion as part of the whole fabric of life. Donne’s stature as a preacher was for this reason part of his prestige as a poet. In addition, the fact that he wrote love poetry and sometimes used graphic erotic imagery did not in his own day seem incongruous with his calling as a preacher.

The twentieth century did not, of course, recover the intense religiosity of the early seventeenth century, but what T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and other poets of their circle had discovered in the 1920’s was an aestheticism as intense as this religiosity. Their values naturally led them to praise lyric poetry in preference to epic and to prize intensity of emotion in literary work of all kinds. They disparaged the poetry of John Milton because it was an expression of ideas rather than of feeling and offered Donne as a model and a more appropriate great author for the period. The restoration of Donne’s prestige was remarkably complete; but, paradoxically, precisely because the triumph of Donne was so complete, the denigration of Milton never quite occurred. The values that Eliot and others praised in Donne were looked for—and discovered—in Milton as well.

Although Donne was perhaps a more exciting figure during his mid-twentieth century “rediscovery” than he is in the twenty-first century, because to appreciate him meant to throw over the eighteenth and nineteenth century allegiance to Milton as the great poet of the language, Donne’s stature as a major figure has become assured. Modern-day scholarly opinion has, however, been moving inevitably toward seeing the divine poems as the capstone of his career. Scholarly opinion has, in fact, moved beyond Eliot’s position and come to value literary works simply because they have religious content, since intensity of feeling will surely be found in a poetry of religious commitment. This is not a way of appreciating Donne and the Metaphysicals that would have been understood in the seventeenth century.

Discussion Topics

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What literary habits of John Donne kept even important later poets and critics from appreciating his poetry?

What is there in “Metaphysical poetry” that has made it attractive from the time of T. S. Eliot on?

Writers are often advised to take pains to begin their works well. What characteristics of Donne’s poems make clear that he understood this sort of advice?

Explain why, with respect to “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” mourning is forbidden.

What literary techniques, especially the use of metaphor, in “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” resemble those in the poetry of “Jack Donne”?

Donne ends “Hymn to God My God, in My Sickness” with a paradox: “Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.” Find several other paradoxes of this type in Donne’s poetry.

What does “thinking and feeling simultaneously” mean? What does Eliot’s need to emphasize this concept suggest about the ordinary state of our emotional and intellectual processes?


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Bloom, Harold, ed. John Donne and the Metaphysical Poets. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2008. A collection of critical analysis of Donne’s poetry and that of the other Metaphysical poets.

Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art. Rev. ed. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1990. Carey’s exposition of the whole range of Donne’s poetry is exact and detailed. Its arrangement is thematic rather than biographical, which produces some forceful new appraisals. Includes an index.

Edwards, David L. John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2002. Biography of Donne that looks at how his life influenced his works.

Guibbory, Achsah, ed. Cambridge Companion to John Donne. New York: Cambridge, 2006. Covers both criticism and biography. Topics include Donne’s political and religious world, his satires, his erotic poems, an explication of his poems, and gender and death in his poetry.

Johnson, Jeffrey. The Theology of John Donne. New York: D. S. Brewer, 1999. A portrayal of the religious writings of Donne as the result of a well-founded knowledge of Christian theology and Donne as a full-fledged religious thinker. Includes bibliographic references and an index.

Saunders, Ben. Desiring Donne: Poetry, Sexuality, Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006. An examination of desire and love in the poetry of Donne that examines the seventeenth century perspective on love and desire.

Sherwood, Terry. Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne’s Thought. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1984. Attempts to trace Donne’s understanding of the complex interrelationship of body and soul back from his later, more mature work. Theological and psychological perspectives are central. Includes an index.

Stubbs, John. John Donne: The Reformed Soul. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. A readable and scholarly biography of the poet.

Sugg, Richard. John Donne. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Provides a coherent overview of Donne’s life and work and explains the Renaissance world in which he lived.

Targoff, Ramie. John Donne, Body and Soul. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Targoff explains the seemingly disparate nature of Donne’s writings by arguing that Donne’s theme was always the union of body and soul.

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