Sunday, November 7, 2010

Donne: A Religious Poet

The intensity of Donne’s feeling and the inner conflict is reflected in his religious poetry. His religious sonnets and songs are intensely personal and sincere. Donne was a Catholic by birth. He felt humbled and persecuted like other Catholics of his age. Religion, for most of the people, was a matter of accident.
Those who liked antiquity and tradition turned to Rome, those who disliked formality and ritual turned to Geneva. But, religion should be, according to Donne, a matter of deliberate choice, made after careful study and consideration. Many of the principles Rome did not stand his intellectual inquiry. It is difficult to fix the precise date of his conversion. It is, however, Convenient to assume that by 1598, when Donne entered Sir Thomas Egerton’s service, he must have embraced the Church of England. Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, could never have employed a distinguished Catholic for important public duty.
Donne’s conversion to Anglicanism greatly influenced his poetry. Grierson calls this conversion, a “reconciliation, an acquiescence in the faith of his country—the established religion of his legal sovereign”. Probably, the Renaissance spirit, leaning towards nationalism, was partly responsible for Donne’s change of faith. But the conversion caused Donne some pangs and heart-searching. Dr. Johnson says: “A convert from Popery to Protestantism gives up so much of what he has held as sacred as anything that he retains; there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be sincere and lasting”. Undoubtedly, Donne felt this laceration of the mind and this conflict between the old and the new faith. “Show me dear Christ thy spouse so bright and clear”. There was also the other conflict in Donne—the conflict between ambition and asceticism, between the prospects of civil service and the claims of a religious life. But after a number of years, Donne continued to retain a soft corner for Catholics.
Main Aspects of Donne’s Religious Poetry
Donne was essentially a religious man, though he moved from one denomination to another. His spirit of rational faith continued throughout his life. The following are the main aspects of Donne’s religious poetry:
(i) Conflict and doubt
As a man of the Renaissance, he could not but question the assumptions and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Being born in a particular religion is one proposition and being convinced of the Tightness of one’s faith, is quite another. As he was sceptical of the religious dogmas of the Catholic Church, he adopted the Anglican faith, but even so his mind was not at peace. He could not reconcile the inner conflicts and as such he prayed for God’s mercy and grace, so that he might be able to build his faith on a sound foundation. In his A Hymn to God the Father, he ultimately arrives at a firm faith. It is perhaps the culmination of his spiritual quest.
(ii) Note of introspection
The metaphysical clement which is so evident in his love poems, finds expression of an inner heart searching. He digs deep within himself in order to measure his sincerity and devotion to God and above all his consciousness of sin and the need of penitence. His fear of death—Donne must have seen many of his friends on their death-beds and their last struggles—makes him repent for his past follies and hence his prayer to God for His mercy and compassion. The Holy Sonets particularly maybe regarded as poems of repentance, and supplications for divine grace. Donne’s intention is not to preach morality or to turn men to virtue. Grierson writes in this connection: “To be didactic is never the first intention of Donne’s religious poems, but rather, to express himself, to analyse and lay bare his own moods of agitation, of aspiration and of humiliation, in the quest of God, and the surrender of his soul to Him. The same erudite and surprising imagery, the same passionate, and reasoning strain, meet us in both”.
(iii) The themes of his religious poetry
Donne found the contemporary world dry and corrupt. He felt that its degeneration would lead to untold human misery. The main theme of his religious poems is the transitoriness of this world, the fleeting nature of physical joys and earthly happiness, the sufferings of the soul imprisoned in the body and the pettiness and insignificance of man. Above all, the shadow of death is all pervasive and this makes him turn to Christ as the Saviour. Even so, his metaphysical craftsmanship treats God as ‘ravisher’ who saves him from the clutches of the Devil. Though Donne regarded the world a vanity of vanities, he could not completely detach himself from the joys of the world and there is a turn from other-worldliness to worldliness. However, we cannot doubt the sincerity of his religious feelings and his earnest prayer to God for deliverance. His moral earnestness is reflected in his consciousness of sin and unworthiness for deserving the grace of Christ He uses the images of Christ as a lover who will woo his soul.
(iv) Parallelism with love poetry
There is a great similarity of thought and treatment between the love poems and holy sonnets, though the theme is different. The spirit behind the two categories of poems is the same. There is the same subtle spirit which analyses the inner experiences like the experiences of love. The same kind of learned and shocking imagery is found in the love poems:
Is the Pacific sea my home? or are
The Eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and
All straits (and none but straits) are ways to them.
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Ham, or Shem.
Similarly in his treatment of divine love, the poet uses sexual images in holy situations. As for example:
Betray kind husband thy spouse to cur sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild Dove
Who is most true, and pleasing to thee then
When she’s embraced and open to most men.
Critical survey of Donne’s religious poetry
There are two notes in Donne’s religious poems—the Catholic and the Anglican. The Progress of the Soul leans towards Catholicism and it records the doubts and longings of a troubled subtle soul. The following lines show the working of the mind and are full of bold and echoing vowel sounds:
O might those sights and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent.
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourned in vain;
In mine Idolatory what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste? What griefs my heart did vent?
That sufferance was my sin; now I repent.
Cause I ‘did suffer I must suffer pain.
The Progress of the Soul, though written in 1601 was published after his death, in 1633. Ben Jonson called it “the conceit of Donne’s transformation.” Donne describes his theme in the very first stanza.
I sing the progress of a deathless soul
Whom Fate, which God made, but doth not control
Pla’d in most shapes; all lines before the low
Yok’d us, and when; and since, in this I sing
He describes the soul of heresy which began in paradise (in the apple) and roamed through souls of Luther, Mahomed and Calvin and is now at rest in England:
The great soul which here among us now
Doth dwell, and moves that hand, and tongue and brow,
Which as the moon the sea moves us.
Donne moves from the aesthetic to the ethical plane of existence. His curiosity about the microcosm and his scepticism find expression here:
There’s nothing simply good, nor all alone,
Of every quality comparison,

The only measure is, and judge, opinion.
The poem was written soon after the inner crisis and his conversion:
For though through many straits and lands I roam,
I launch at Paradise and I sail towards home.
The psychological problem finds its solution in a spiritual reintegration.
The Divine Poems include ‘La Corona’ and six holy sonnets on Annunciation, Nativity, Temple Crucifying, Ressurrection and Ascenstion. Donne seeks divine grace to crown his efforts:
But do not with a vile crown of frail bays,
Reward my muses white sincerity,
But what thy thorny crown gain’d, that gives me
A crown of glory, which doth flower always
The other, group of sonnets also entitled Holy Sonnets contains 19 sacred poems. They belong to the period of doubt and intense inner struggle which preceded Donne’s entry into the Church of England. Here is a mood of melancholy and despair.
This is my play’s last scene here heavens appoint.
My pilgrimage’s last mile. (Sonnet VI)
Despair behind and death before doth caste
Such terror and my feeble flesh doth waste.
In sonnet II, Christ appears as a lover and Donne as a temple usurped by the Devil.
Myself a temple of thy spirit divine
Why doth the devil then usurp on me...
In Sonnet III, Donne is sincerely repentant for his past sins:
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have moum’d in vain....
No ease, for long, yet vehement grief hath been
The effect and cause, the punishment and sin.
In Sonnet IV, Donne compares himself to a felon charged with treason, and yet he cannot resist conceits.
Christ’s blood, though red, will whiten the souls stained and polluted with sin.
Oh make thyself with holy mourning black
And red with blushing, as them an with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.
Sonnet V shows Donne’s Renaissance-spirit--his wander-lust:
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new lands, can write,
Power new seas in ruined eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly.
Donne prays sincerely for pardon for his misdeeds:
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.
The pilgrim-soul is not afraid of death.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.
In Sonnet XIII, Donne brings forward the argument that because beautiful women have liked him in his youth, so Christ, the Incarnation of Beauty, should be kind to him:
No, no; but as in my idolatry,
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pity, foulness only is
A sign of rigour: so 1 say to thee.
In Sonnet XVII, Donne refers to the death of his wife which has now made him turn his attention to spiritual attainment:
Since she whom I lov’d hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead.
In Sonnet XVIII, Donne expresses his desire to see the true church (England, Rome, Geneva) undivided, because it is indivisible. The bride of Christ is the mistress of the whole world.
Who is most true, and pleasing to thee then
When she is embrac’d and open to most men.
The Hymn to God, written during his serious illness in 1623, is a sincere prayer to God to receive him in His grace:
So, in his purple wrapp’d receive me Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other Crown,
And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word
Be this my Text my sermon to mine own,
Therefore that he may arise the lord throws down.
The Divine Poems contain a vivid and moving record of a brilliant mind struggling towards God. Truth, is the goal but there are hurdles and temptations in the way. Donne is not afraid of analysing the appalling difficulties of faith. The vacillations, the doubts, of this imperfect but sincere man are reflected in all their passion. Donne’s aim is not didactic or moral; he wishes to lay bare his own moods, his aspirations, his sins, his humiliation in the quest of God. He is the most sincere and introspective Anglican poet of the seventeenth century. He had experienced the intensification of religious feeling mentioned in the holy sonnets. Walton writes: “His aspect was cheerful and such as gave a silent testimony of a clear knowing soul, of a conscience at peace with itself. His melting eye showed that he had a soft heart full of noble compassion, of too brave a soul to offer injuries and too much a Christian not to pardon them in others.” W.B. Yeats, a mystic poet, writes of Donne, “his pedantries and his obscenities, the rock and loam of his Eden, but make us the more certain that one who is but a man like us all has seen God!”
Some critics question use of the metaphysical method in holy sonnets and religious poems. Grierson, however, justifies use of the metaphysical method in these serious poems. He writes: “Here, he recaptures the peculiar charm of his early love verse their best, the unique blend of passionate feelings and rapid subtle thinking, the strange sense that his verse gives of a certain conflict between the passionate thought and the varied and often elaborate pattern into which he moulds its expression, resulting in a strange blend of harshness and constraint with reverberating and penetrating harmony. No poems give more...the sense of conflict of soul, of faith and hope snatched and held desperately....”
Donne’s religious poetry cannot be called mystical poetry. Donne does not forget his self as the mystics do. His is always conscious of his environment, of the world in which he lives and of his passionate friendships. As such his religious poetry lacks the transparent ecstacy found in great religious poetry. Helen White writes in this connection: “There was something in Donne’s imagination that drove it out in those magnificent figures that sweep earth and sky, but whatever emotion such passages arouse in us, Donne was not the man to lose himself. In another world beyond the release of death, he hoped to see his God face to face, and without end. But he was not disposed to anticipate the privileges of that world in this, nor even in general try to do so... The result is that in most of the mystical passages in both his poetry and his prose, the marvellous thrust into the ineffable is followed by a quick pull-back into the world of there-and-now with its lucid sense-detail and its ineluctable common sense.”
Donne’s holy sonnets are deservedly famous and are remarkable. They embody his deeply felt emotions in a language reflecting conscious craftsmanship.

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