The Religious Poetry of John Donne

Critic: Helen Gardner
Source: "The Religious Poetry of John Donne," in John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Helen Gardner, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 123-36.
Criticism about: La Carona; Holy Sonnets; "A Litany"; "Batter my heart"; "Hymn to God the Father"; Songs and Sonnets; "The Lamentations of Jeremy"; "Upon the Annunciation and Passion"; "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward"; "Hymn to Christ"; "Hymn to God my God, in my sickness"
Author Covered: John Donne (1572-1631)

Table of Contents
Essay | Source Citation
[In the following excerpt from her general introduction to a 1952 edition of The Divine Poems of John Donne, Gardner compares "La Carona" and "A Litany" with the Holy Sonnets in her study of Donne's religious poetry.]

With the probable exception of "The Cross," for which no precise date can be suggested, and which is more a verse-letter than a divine poem, the earliest of Donne's Divine Poems appears to be La Corona. La Corona is a single poem, made up of seven linked sonnets, each of which celebrates not so much an event in the life of Christ as a mystery of faith. Those brought up in a different tradition might well wonder why Donne should devote one sonnet of his seven to the Finding in the Temple, and omit all reference to the events of the Ministry, except for a brief reference to miracles. The emphasis on the beginning and close of the life of Christ is characteristic of mediaeval art, whether we think of a series of windows like those at Fairford, or of the mediaeval dramatic cycles. It was dictated by the desire to present with simplicity the Christian scheme of man's redemption. The popular devotional equivalent of this emphasis upon the plan of salvation was the meditation on the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, and reference to them explains at once why Donne would find it natural to pass directly from the Finding in the Temple to the events of Holy Week. Habits of prayer, like other early habits, can survive modifications of a man's intellectual position. It is doubtful whether Donne felt there was anything particularly Catholic in concentrating on the Mysteries of the Faith, or in addressing his second and third sonnets to the Blessed Virgin, or in apostrophizing St. Joseph in his fourth; but it is also doubtful whether anyone who had been brought up as a Protestant would have done so.

La Corona has been undervalued as a poem by comparison with the Holy Sonnets, because the difference of intention behind the two sets of sonnets has not been recognized. The La Corona sonnets are inspired by liturgical prayer and praise--oral prayer; not by private meditation and the tradition of mental prayer. They echo the language of collects and office hymns, which expound the doctrines of the Catholic Faith, recalling the events from which those doctrines are derived, but not attempting to picture them in detail. Instead of the scene of the maiden alone in her room at Nazareth, there is a theological paradox: "Thy Makers maker, and thy Fathers mother." The scandal of the Cross is presented not by a vivid picture of its actual ignominy and agony, but by the thought that here the Lord of Fate suffered a fate at the hand of his creatures. The petitions with which the last three poems end, though couched in the singular, are petitions which any man might pray. Each is the appropriate response to the mystery propounded. It is not surprising to find that the first sonnet of the set is a weaving together of phrases from the Advent Offices in the Breviary, and that the second draws on the Hours of the Blessed Virgin. As always happens with Donne, direct dependence on sources weakens as he proceeds. But the impulse with which he began La Corona is clearly visible in the first two sonnets. His "crowne of prayer and praise" was to be woven from the prayers and praises of the Church. It is possible that he chose to use the sonnet, a form he had used before this only for epistles, because he wished to write formally and impersonally: to create an offering of beauty and dignity. La Corona is perhaps no more than a religious exercise, but it is an accomplished one. The sonnets are packed with meaning, with striking and memorable expressions of the commonplaces of Christian belief. The last line of each, repeated as the first line of the next, is both a fine climax and a fine opening. Unlike the majority of Elizabethan sonneteers, Donne has chosen the more difficult form of the sonnet. He follows Sidney in limiting the rhymes of the octave to two, and employs Sidney's most favored arrangement of those rhymes in two closed quatrains. He alternates between two arrangements of the rhymes of the sestet. His seventh sonnet presented a problem; if it contrasted with his sixth, it would be the same as his first. He chose the lesser evil, and repeated the form of the sixth sonnet in the seventh, in order to make the last lead round again to the first and form a circle.

"A Litany," which is probably the next important divine poem, is less successful than La Corona, but more interesting. Donne has cast his "meditation in verse" into the formal mould of a litany. On the other hand, he has employed a stanza of his own invention. The contrast between the simple traditional outline of the poem and the intricacies of the separate stanzas is the formal expression of the poem's ambiguity. It appears impersonal, but is, in fact, highly personal. It tells us much, though indirectly, of its author's mind at the time when it was written, not least because it is in some ways uncharacteristic of him. It has the special interest of poems which are the product of a period of transition, when in the process of reshaping a personality some elements are stressed to the exclusion of others. "A Litany" is remarkable for a quality that is rare in Donne's poetry, though it is often found in his letters and sermons: sobriety. Although it is the wittiest of the Divine Poems, startling in paradox, precise in antithesis, and packed with allusions, its intellectual ingenuity and verbal audacity are employed to define an ideal of moderation in all things. Sir Herbert Grierson called it "wire-drawn and tormented." "Wire-drawn" it may be called with justice; it analyzes temptations with scrupulosity, and shows a wary sense of the distinctions that divide the tainted from the innocent act or motive. But "tormented" seems less just, even if we confine the word to the style. The ideal which is aspired to is simplicity of motive, "evennesse" of piety, and a keeping of "meane waies." Something of this ideal is already realized in the deliberate care with which the aspiration is expressed. At first sight the poem may appear overingenious. On further acquaintance it comes to seem not so much ingenious as exact; less witty, and more wise.

We know from Donne's letter to Goodyer, in which he refers to its composition, that "A Litany" was written during an illness and in a mood of dejection [see letter dated 1609]. The "low devout melancholie" of La Corona has deepened into a sin from which Donne prays to be delivered in the first verse.... It is a casuist's poem and shows traces both of the current debate on the Oath of Allegiance and of Donne's personal searchings of conscience in his years of failure, when he was still hoping for worldly success and, if Walton is right, had already been offered and had rejected advancement in the Church. Donne, who was "subtle to plague himself," must have been conscious of the contrast between his relatives, who for conscience' sake had chosen exile, imprisonment or death, and himself. He had conformed to the Established Church and was using his powers in its defence, and had even been offered a means of maintenance in its ministry. The rather exaggerated stress in "A Litany" on the compatibility of the service of God with "this worlds sweet" may reflect his need, at this time, to assure himself that the way that appears easier is not, for that reason, necessarily wrong. Intransigence may even, he hints, be a form of self-indulgence, an easy way out of the strain of conflicting duties:

for Oh, to some Not to be Martyrs, is a martyrdome.

But if this seems an oversubtle explanation, there is another reason why Donne should at this period pray more strongly to be delivered from contempt of the world than from overvaluing it. The temptation to despise what one has not obtained and to cry, because one has been unsuccessful, "the world's not worth my care" is strong to ambitious natures. It must have been strong to Donne who had by nature both the melancholy and the scorn of the satirist. If we remember the circumstances of his life at Mitcham--his anxiety for his wife whom he had brought to poverty and for the future of his growing family, his inability to find secure employment and his broken health--the petitions of "A Litany" gain in meaning. We see the passionate and hyperbolical Donne, the proud and irritable young man of the Satires and Elegies, attempting to school himself to patience, not rejecting with scorn a world that has disappointed him, but praying that he may accept what life brings in a religious spirit. His declarations that happiness may exist in courts, and that the earth is not our prison, show an affinity with the contemporary movement in France, which Bremond described under the name of "l'humanisme devot." They also contrast most interestingly with the pessimism of some Jacobean writers, particularly Webster, with whom Donne is often compared. The dying Antonio's cry, "And let my Sonne, flie the Courts of Princess," and Vittoria's last words, "O happy they that never saw the Court," only sum up the constant Senecan despising of the world in Webster's two greatest plays. "A Litany" has none of this cynicism. It is, whatever else we may say of it, a singularly unbitter poem, although it was written at a bitter time.

In many ways it is the most Anglican of the Divine Poems and continually anticipates Donne's leading ideas as a preacher. Although we may see in his restoration of the saints, whom Cranmer had banished from the Litany, a further sign of his loyalty to "the ancient ways," his own praise of his poem in his letter to Goodyer makes the typical Anglican claim of avoiding both excess and defect:

That by which it will deserve best acceptation, is, That neither the Roman Church need call it defective, because it abhors not the particular mention of the blessed Triumphers in heaven; nor the Reformed can discreetly accuse it, of attributing more then a rectified devotion ought to doe.

We may also see in the whole poem a habit of mind which has been shaped by the practice of systematic self-examination, and thinks more in terms of particular sins and failings than in terms of general and total unworthiness; but the particular sins which Donne prays to be delivered from are not the traditional sins. There is no trace of the old classifications under which the conscience can be examined: sins against God and sins against my neighbor, or the seven deadly sins and their branches. Instead the sins in "A Litany" can all be referred back to two general philosophic conceptions: the conception of virtue as the mean between two extremes, and the related conception of virtue as the proper use of all the faculties. Donne anticipates here that ideal of "reasonable piety" which is so familiar later in the century in the manuals of the Caroline divines. The resolute rejection of otherworldliness, the antiascetic and antimystical bias of the poem, the concentration on "a daily beauty" and the sanctification of ordinary life, with the consequent ignoring of any conception of sanctity as something extraordinary and heroic, the exaltation of the undramatic virtues of patience, discretion, and a sober cheerfulness--all these things are characteristic of Anglican piety in the seventeenth century and after. In comparison with the Roman Catholic books of devotion, which they frequently drew upon and adapted, the Anglican manuals seem to some tastes rather dry, with their stress on edification and "practical piety" and the "duties of daily life." "A Litany" has something of this dryness. It has neither the warmth of mediaeval religious devotion, nor the exalted note of the Counter-Reformation. It reflects the intellectuality which Anglicanism derived from its break with mediaeval tradition and its return to the patristic ages.

But in spite of its many felicities in thought and expression, its beauty of temper, its interest in what it tells us of Donne's mind, and its historical interest as an early expression by a writer of genius of a piety characteristic of the Church of England, "A Litany" cannot be regarded as a wholly successful poem. It is an elaborate private prayer, rather incongruously cast into a liturgical form. Donne's letter to Goodyer shows he was aware of the discrepancy between such a "divine and publique" name and his "own little thoughts." He attempted to defend himself by the examples of two Latin litanies which he had found "amongst ancient annals." The defense is not a very cogent one. The litanies he refers to, although written by individuals, are genuine litanies, suitable for general use. Donne's poem could hardly be prayed by anyone but himself. Although he preserves the structure of a litany (Invocations, Deprecations, Obsecrations, and Intercessions), he does not preserve the most important formal element in a litany, the unvarying responses in each section. His opening invocations to the Persons of the Trinity have each a particular petition in place of the repeated "Miserere nobis." He is, of course, debarred by his membership of a Reformed Church from using the response "Ora pro nobis"; instead he exercises his ingenuity in finding suitable petitions for each group of saints to make, or for us to make as we remember them. There is some awkwardness in this "rectified devotion," which, accepting that the saints pray for men, avoids direct requests for their suffrages while suggesting fitting subjects for their intercessions; and the absence of any response makes these stanzas formally unsatisfactory. With the Deprecations, Obsecrations, and Intercessions, he makes use of the responses "Libera nos" and "Audi nos"; but he treats them as refrains to be modified according to each stanza, as he had loved to adapt and twist refrains in his love-poetry. In one place he goes so far as to invert his response, and beg the Lord not to hear. One may sympathize with Donne's desire to find a form for his meditation; but the incompatibility between the material of the poem and the chosen form is too great. The form has had to be too much twisted to fit the material, and the material has been moulded to the form rather than expressed by it.

Most critics have agreed in regarding La Corona and "A Litany" as inferior to the Holy Sonnets, which give an immediate impression of spontaneity. Their superiority has been ascribed to their having been written ten years later, and their vehemence and anguished intensity have been connected with a deepening of Donne's religious experience after the death of his wife. There can be no question of their poetic greatness, nor of their difference from La Corona and "A Litany"; but I do not believe that greatness or that difference to be due to the reasons which are usually given. The accepted date rests on an assumption which the textual history of the sonnets does not support: the assumption that the three Holy Sonnets which the Westmoreland manuscript alone preserves were written at the same time as the other sixteen. These three sonnets are, as Sir Herbert Grierson called all the Holy Sonnets, "separate ejaculations"; but the other sixteen fall into clearly recognizable sets of sonnets on familiar themes for meditation. They are as traditional in their way as La Corona and "A Litany" are, and as the three Hymns are not. The Hymns are truly occasional; each arises out of a particular situation and a personal mood. But in theme and treatment the Holy Sonnets, if we ignore the three Westmoreland sonnets, depend on a long-established form of religious exercise: not oral prayer, but the simplest method of mental prayer, meditation. To say this is not to impugn their originality or their power. Donne has used the tradition of meditation in his own way; and it suits his genius as a poet far better than do the more formal ways of prayer he drew upon in La Corona and "A Litany." Yet although, with the possible exception of the Hymns, the Holy Sonnets are his greatest divine poems, I do not myself feel that they spring from a deeper religious experience than that which lies behind "A Litany." The evidence which points to a date in 1609 does not seem to me to conflict with their character as religious poems; on the contrary it accords rather better with it than does the hitherto accepted date.

Many readers have felt a discrepancy between the Holy Sonnets and the picture which Walton gives of Donne's later years, and between the Holy Sonnets and the sermons and Hymns. There is a note of exaggeration in them. This is apparent, not only in the violence of such a colloquy as "Batter my heart," but also in the strained note of such lines as these:

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?

O God, Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,

And my teares, make a heavenly Lethean flood,

And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie.

That thou remember them, some claime as debt, I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

At first sight the closing couplet seems the expression of a deep humility; but it cannot be compared for depth of religious feeling with the "Hymn to God the Father," where, however great the sin is, the mercy of God is implied to be the greater....

The almost histrionic note of the Holy Sonnets may be attributed partly to the meditation's deliberate stimulation of emotion; it is the special danger of this exercise that, in stimulating feeling, it may falsify it, and overdramatize the spiritual life. But Donne's choice of subjects and his whole-hearted use of the method are symptoms of a condition of mind very different from the mood of La Corona or even from the conflicts which can be felt behind "A Litany." The meditation on sin and on judgment is strong medicine; the mere fact that his mind turned to it suggests some sickness in the soul. The "low devout melancholie" of La Corona, the "dejection" of "A Litany" are replaced by something darker. In both his preparatory prayers Donne uses a more terrible word, despair. The note of anguish is unmistakable. The image of a soul in meditation which the Holy Sonnets present is an image of a soul working out of its salvation in fear and trembling. The two poles between which it oscillates are faith in the mercy of God in Christ, and a sense of personal unworthiness that is very near to despair. The flaws in their spiritual temper are a part of their peculiar power. No other religious poems make us feel so acutely the predicament of the natural man called to be the spiritual man. None present more vividly man's recognition of the gulf that divides him from God and the effort of faith to lay hold on the miracle by which Christianity declares that the gulf has been bridged.

Donne's art in writing them was to seem "to use no art at all." His language has the ring of a living voice, admonishing his own soul, expostulating with his Maker, defying Death, or pouring itself out in supplication. He creates, as much as in some of the Songs and Sonnets, the illusion of a present experience, throwing his stress on such words as "now" and "here" and "this." And, as often there, he gives an extreme emphasis to the personal pronouns:

Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I

Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,

Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

The plain unadorned speech, with its idiomatic turns, its rapid questions, its exclamatory Oh's and Ah's, wrests the movement of the sonnet to its own movement. The line is weighted with heavy monosyllables, or lengthened by heavy secondary stresses, which demand the same emphasis as the main stress takes. It may be stretched out to

All whom warre, dearth, age, argues, tyrannies,

after it has been contracted to

From death, you numberlesse infinities.

Many lines can be reduced to ten syllables only by a more drastic use of elision than Donne allowed himself elsewhere, except in the Satires; and others, if we are to trust the best manuscripts, are a syllable short and fill out the line by a pause. This dramatic language has a magic that is unanalyzable: words, movement, and feeling have a unity in which no element outweighs the other.

The effect of completely natural speech is achieved by exploiting to the full the potentialities of the sonnet. The formal distinction of octave and sestet becomes a dramatic contrast. The openings of Donne's sestets are as dramatic as the openings of the sonnets themselves: impatient as in

Why doth the devill then usurpe in mee?

or gentle as in

Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke;

or imploring as in

But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space.

Though the turn in each of these is different, in all three there is that sudden difference in tension that makes a change dramatic. Donne avoids also the main danger of the couplet ending: that it may seem an afterthought, or an addition, or a mere summary. His final couplets, whether separate or running on from the preceding line, are true rhetorical climaxes, with the weight of the poem behind them. Except for Hopkins, no poet has crammed more into the sonnet than Donne. In spite of all the liberties he takes with his line, he succeeds in the one essential of the sonnet: he appears to need exactly fourteen lines to say exactly what he has to say. Donne possibly chose the sonnet form as appropriate for a set of formal meditations, but both in meditation and in the writing of his sonnets he converts traditional material to his own use. He was not, I believe, aiming at originality, and therefore the originality of the Holy Sonnets is the more profound.

With the exception of "The Lamentations of Jeremy," in which Donne, like so many of his contemporaries, but with more success than most, attempted the unrewarding task of paraphrasing the Scriptures, the remainder of the Divine Poems are occasional. The poem "Upon the Annunciation and Passion" is very near in mood and style to La Corona. As there, Donne writes with strict objectivity. He contemplates two mysteries which are facets of one supreme mystery, and tries to express what any Christian might feel. On the other hand, ``Good Friday, Riding Westward" is a highly personal poem: a free, discursive meditation arising out of a particular situation. The elaborate preliminary conceit of the contrary motions of the heavenly bodies extends itself into astronomical images, until the recollection of the Passion sweeps away all thoughts but penitence. As in some of the finest of the Songs and Sonnets, Donne draws out an initial conceit to its limit in order, as it seems, to throw it away when "to brave clearnesse all things are reduc'd." What he first sees as an incongruity--his turning his back on his crucified Savior--he comes to see as perhaps the better posture, and finally as congruous for a sinner. The poem hinges on the sudden apostrophe:

and thou look'st towards mee,

O Saviour, as thou hang'st upon the tree.

After this, discursive meditation contracts itself to penitent prayer. The mounting tension of the poem--from leisurely speculation, through the imagination kindled by "that spectacle of too much weight for mee," to passionate humility--makes it a dramatic monologue. So also does the sense it gives us of a second person present--the silent figure whose eyes the poet feels watching him as he rides away to the west.

"Good Friday" is the last divine poem Donne wrote before his ordination and it points forward to the Hymns. They also arise from particular situations, are free, not formal meditations, and have the same unforced feeling. They are the only lyrics among the Divine Poems, and it is not only in their use of the pun and conceit that they remind us of the Songs and Sonnets. They have the spontaneity which La Corona and "A Litany" lack, without the overemphasis of the Holy Sonnets. In them Donne's imagination has room for play. Each sprang from a moment of crisis. The "Hymn to Christ" was written on the eve of his journey overseas with Doncaster, a journey from which, as his Valediction Sermon shows, he felt he might not return. It is a finer treatment of the subject of the sonnet written after his wife's death in the Westmoreland manuscript. While the sonnet is general and reflective, in the Hymn his imagination is fired by his immediate circumstances and he translates his thoughts into striking and moving symbols. The "Hymn to God the Father" was written, according to Walton, during Donne's grave illness of 1623, and the "Hymn to God my God, in my sickness," whether it should be dated during the same illness or in 1631, was written when he thought himself at the point of death. In both the conclusion is the same: "So, in his purple wrapp'd receive mee Lord," and "Sweare by thy selfe." Donne's earliest poem on religion, the third Satire, ended with the words "God himselfe to trust," and it is fitting that what is possibly his last divine poem, and certainly one of his best known, should end with the memory of the promise to Abraham, the type of the faithful. For the Divine Poems are poems of faith, not of vision. Donne goes by a road which is not lit by any flashes of ecstasy, and, in the words he had carved on his tomb, "aspicit Eum cujus nomen est Oriens." The absence of ecstasy makes his divine poems so different from his love poems. There is an ecstasy of joy and an ecstasy of grief in his love-poetry; in his divine poetry we are conscious almost always of an effort of will. In the Holy Sonnets there is passion and longing, and in the Hymns some of the "modest assurance" which Walton attributed to Donne's last hours, but there is no rapture....

Donne was a man of strong passions, in whom an appetite for life was crossed by a deep distaste for it. He is satirist and elegist at the same period, and even in the same poem. The scorn of the satirist invades the world of amorous elegy; his gayest poems have a note of bitterness, his most passionate lyrics are rarely free from a note of contempt, even if it is only a sardonic aside or illustration. In his love-poetry he set the ecstasy of lovers over against the dull, foolish, or sordid business of the world, or exalted one member of her sex by depreciating all the rest, or, in revulsion from the "queasie pain of being belov'd and loving," turned on his partner with savagery or mockery. But he was also a man of strong and loyal affections: a good son, a devoted husband, a loving father, and a warm and constant friend. From the beginning there is this other side to Donne. In moral and psychological terms, Donne's problem was to come to terms with a world which alternately enthralled and disgusted him, to be the master and not the slave of his temperament. Like Wordsworth in his middle years, he came to long for "a repose that ever is the same." He did not look to religion for an ecstasy of the spirit which would efface the memory of the ecstasy of the flesh; but for an "evennesse" of piety which would preserve him from despair. In the boldest of the Holy Sonnets it is in order that he may "rise and stand" that he prays to be overthrown, and in order that he may be ever chaste that he prays God to ravish him. The struggles and conflicts to which the Divine Poems witness did not lead to the secret heights and depths of the contemplative life, but to the public life of duty and charity which Walton describes. That Donne had to wrestle to the end is clear. Like Dr. Johnson, with whom, in his natural melancholy and as a practical moralist, he has much in common, he remained burdened by the consciousness of his sins and aware of his need for mercy at the judgment.

Donne's divine poems are the product of conflict between his will and his temperament. They lack, therefore, the greatness of his love-poetry, whose power lies in its "unchartered freedom": in the energy of will with which he explores and expresses the range of his temperament. In his love-poetry he is not concerned with what he ought or ought not to feel, but with the expression of feeling itself. Passion is there its own justification, and so is disgust, or hatred or grief. In his divine poetry feeling and thought are judged by the standard of what a Christian should feel or think. As a love poet he seems to owe nothing to what any other man in love had ever felt or said before him; his language is all his own. As a divine poet he cannot escape using the language of the Bible, and of hymns and prayers, or remembering the words of Christian writers. Christianity is a revealed religion, contained in the Scriptures and the experience of Christian souls; the Christian poet cannot voyage alone. The truths of Donne's love-poetry are truths of the imagination, which freely transmutes personal experience. They are his own discoveries. The truths of revelation are the accepted basis of his religious poetry, and imagination has here another task. It is, to some extent, fettered. Donne anticipated Johnson's criticism of "poetical devotion," and was perhaps his own best critic, when he wrote to Sir Robert Carr, apologizing for his poem on Hamilton:

You know my uttermost when it was best, and even then I did best when I had least truth for my subjects. In this present case there is so much truth as it defeats all Poetry.... If you had commanded mee to have waited on his body to Scotland and preached there, I would have embraced the obligation with more alacrity.

But although the Divine Poems are not the record of discoveries, but of struggles to appropriate a truth which has been revealed, that truth does not "defeat all Poetry," but gives us a poetry whose intensity is a moral intensity. Some religious poetry, Herbert's perhaps, can be regarded as a species of love-poetry; but Donne's is not of that kind. The image of Christ as Lover appears in only two of his poems--both written soon after the death of his wife. The image which dominates his divine poetry is the image of Christ as Savior, the victor over sin and death. The strength with which his imagination presents this figure is the measure of his need, and that need is the subject of the finest of his religious poems.

Source Citation: Gardner, Helen, "The Religious Poetry of John Donne," in John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Helen Gardner, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962, pp. 123-36.