The Literary Value of Donne’s Sermons
by Evelyn M. Simpson
John Donne was essentially a poet. It is as a poet, primarily, that he holds and will continue to hold his place in English literature. But in the later years of his life his creative power had to express itself for the most part in “that other harmony of prose.” To his contemporaries it would have seemed hardly fitting that a Dean of St. Paul’s should spend his time in idle versemaking. Occasionally the poetic impulse was too strong for him, and he composed one of his great sonnets or hymns, but for most of his time he labored in his vocation of preaching, and in this way he produced his finest prose.
Prose was a medium of literary expression which he had already used in the Paradoxes and Problems, Biathanatos, Ignatius his Conclave, and Essays in Divinity. He became an artist in prose as well as in verse. He had the poet’s feeling for the color and sound of words, and the instinct for the right word in the right place. He was able to please, or surprise, or shock, in prose as he had done in verse. His prose lacks something of the concentrated intensity of his verse, it is true. Prose by its very nature tends to be more diffuse than poetry, and less individual. Yet Donne’s prose conveys to us the unmistakable flavor of the man’s personality, and the study of it is an exciting experience.
In prose Donne belongs to the school of Hooker and Jeremy Taylor, of Milton and Sir Thomas Browne. Like them he had been trained to write Latin prose, and he carried into his writing of his native language that mastery of the long period, that control of subordinate clauses, which is one of the marks of a Latin stylist. His greatest effects, such as that at the close of the terrible and majestic passage on damnation, are obtained by the marshaling of clause on clause, till the climax comes like a peal of thunder.
Donne did not attain at once to this mastery of the long period. One of his early attempts in prose, the “Character of a Dunce,” consists of one
“The Literary Value of Donne’s Sermons.” Contributed by Evelyn M. Simpson as Section IV of the General Introduction to The Sermons of John Donne, edited by George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson ( University of California Press, 1953-1962), vol. i ( 1953), pp. 83 -4, 88 - 103. Copyright 1953 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Regents of the University of California.
enormous sentence which in a modern edition occupies three pages of print. This sentence has, however, no organic unity; it is really a string of sentences separated from one another at intervals by commas, and colons, and its structure would be much improved if all the colons and some of the commas were replaced by full stops. But in the interval between the writing of the “Character of a Dunce” and the sermons, Donne gave himself the severe intellectual exercise of composing a whole book, Conclave Ignati, in Latin. Also he trained himself in the writing of English in Biathanatos, Pseudo-Martyr, and Essays in Divinity. None of these works can approach the great sermons in style, but in all of them are passages in which Donne begins to try his powers and to give hints of greatness. . . . *
He brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter, though thou have no Spring; though in the wayes of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benummed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the Sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons. 1
As we reread this passage, so exquisite in its cadences that the attempt to analyze its technique seems almost profane, we become conscious not only of Donne’s subtle use of alliteration and antithesis, but also of music deriving from a kind of parallelism characteristic of another form of poetry, the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms and Prophets. This form of poetry has been at home in English ever since Tindale’s great translation of 1534, though indeed we may trace its influence right back to the Old English period and the days of Caedmon and Cynewulf. Donne was a Hebrew scholar, and he studied the Old Testament in three different languages–in the original Hebrew, which he quotes at times to show the force of some particular word; in the Latin of the Vulgate, with which he had been familiar from childhood; and finally, in the English of the Geneva Bible and the Authorized Version. His Sermons are saturated with the language of Hebrew poetry, and also with its parallelism and antithesis.
Two or three examples must suffice to show the skill with which Donne chooses passages from the English Bible, dwells on them, and incorporates them into his own prose. Here is one from a Whitsunday sermon in which Donne had taken as his text, “And the Spirit of God moved upon the
[A discussion of Donne's use of alliteration, antithesis, and repetition is omitted here. Ed.]
LXXX Sermons, No. 2, p. 13.
face of the waters.” He has, in mystical fashion, interpreted the waters in divers ways. Finally he remembers a verse in one of the great stories of the Old Testament, the tragedy of David and Absalom. He turns from the waters of baptism, and the waters of affliction, to the last and deepest waters of all, the waters of death:
To end all with the end of all, Death comes to us in the name, and notion of waters too, in the Scriptures. The Widow of Tekoah said to David in the behalfe of Absalon, by the Counsaile of Joab, The water of death overflowes all; we must needs dye, saies she, and are as water spilt upon the ground, which cannot be gathered up againe: yet God devises meanes, that his banished, be not expelled from him. So the Spirit of God moves upon the face of these waters, the Spirit of life upon the danger of death. 2
The incorporation of these words into Donne’s own prose is carried a stage further in one of his meditations upon death. “Looke upon the water, and we are as that, and as that spilt upon the ground.” 3
An Easter sermon contains a passage leading up, with fine effect, to two verses of Scripture which might seem to contradict each other. Donne does not quote the second verse from the Authorized Version; he paraphrases the last few words in order to emphasize the contrast at which he is aiming.
Little know we, how little a way a soule hath to goe to heaven, when it departs from the body; Whether it must passe locally, through Moone, and Sun, and Firmament, (and if all that must be done, all that may be done, in lesse time then I have proposed the doubt in) or whether that soule finde new light in the same roome, and be not carried into any other, but that the glory of heaven be diffused over all, I know not, I dispute not, I inquire not. Without disputing, or inquiring, I know, that when Christ sayes, That God is not the God of the dead, he saies that to assure me, that those whom I call dead, are alive. And when the Apostle tels me, That God is not ashamed to be called the God of the dead, he tels me that to assure me, That Gods servants lose nothing by dying. 4
Elsewhere Donne brings together two familiar verses from the Epistle to the Hebrews and a much less familiar one from the Prophet Jeremiah, and weaves them into the structure of his own prose:
Here we have no continuing City; first, no City, no such large being, and then no continuing at all, it is but a sojourning. . . . Here we are but Viatores, Passengers, wayfaring men; This life is but the high-way, and thou canst not build thy hopes here. . . . What the Prophet sayes to thy Saviour (O the hope of Israel, the Saviour thereof in time of trouble, why shouldest
Fifty Sermons, No. 30, p. 270.
LXXX Sermons, No. 22, pp. 219-220.
thou be a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man, that turnes aside to tarry for a night?) say thou to thy soule, Since thou art a stranger in the land, a wayfaring man, turned aside to tarry for a night, since the night is past, Arise and depart, for here is not thy rest. . . . 5
These are not purple passages, but paragraphs which occur in the ordinary course of Donne’s argument. The poetry of the Hebrew prophets mingles naturally with his own stately English prose. We are accustomed to think of the Authorized Version as a monument of the English language, using chiefly words of native origin, plain, direct, and vigorous. Donne’s vocabulary, which incorporates so much of the phraseology of the Bible, is distinguished by the same qualities. At times Donne uses Latinisms and turns of phrase derived from Latin syntax, but in the sermons the English Bible is the most potent of all the influences which have helped to mold his style.
The vocabulary used by Donne in the sermons is much larger than that employed in his poems. It includes such words as agnomination, binominous, colluctation, commonefaction, conculcation, consubstantiality, inchoation, inintelligibleness, innotescence, longanimity, lycanthropy, macilency, significative, supergression, superplusage, and the like, as well as theological terms like the hypostatical union of two natures in Christ, the impassibility of the Divine Nature, or the impenitablenesse of those who sin against the Holy Ghost. However useful such words may be in theological controversy, they do little to increase the effectiveness of Donne’s style. As soon as he is moved by a strong emotion, they drop out of his speech, which returns to the native idiom that he could use so well. On death, a subject which always moved him deeply, he says:
It comes equally to us all, and makes us all equall when it comes. The ashes of an Oak in the Chimney, are no Epitaph of that Oak, to tell me how high or how large that was; It tels me not what flocks it sheltered while it stood, nor what men it hurt when it fell. The dust of great persons graves is speechlesse too, it sayes nothing, it distinguishes nothing: As soon the dust of a wretch whom thou wouldest not, as of a Prince whom thou couldest not look upon, will trouble thine eyes, if the winde blow it thither; and when a whirle-wind hath blowne the dust of the Church-yard into the Church, and the man sweeps out the dust of the Church into the Churchyard, who will undertake to sift those dusts again, and to pronounce, This is the Patrician, this is the noble flowre, and this the yeomanly, this the Plebeian bran? 6
Death is not a banishing of you out of this world; but it is a visitation of your kindred that lie in the earth; neither are any nearer of kin to you, then the earth it selfe, and the wormes of the earth. You heap earth upon your soules, and encumber them with more and more flesh, by a superfluous and
luxuriant diet; You adde earth to earth in new purchases, and measure not by Acres, but by Manors, nor by Manors, but by Shires; And there is a little Quillet, a little Close, worth all these, A quiet Grave. 7
Donne’s sentences, when he chooses, can be as terse, pithy, and colloquial as Bunyan’s, or as eloquent and rhetorical as Milton’s. To illustrate this, we may set side by side two passages in which his theme is the same –his consciousness that his repentance for his early sins has been accepted by God.
I doubt not of mine own salvation, and in whom can I have so much occasion of doubt, as in myself? When I come to heaven, shall I be able to say to any there, Lord, how got you hither? Was any man less likely to come thither than I? 8
The colloquial vigor of these sentences is in strong contrast with the sustained eloquence of the second passage, taken from a Lenten sermon on job’s cry, “O earth, cover not thou my blood”
And truly, so may I, so may every soule say, that is rectified, refreshed, restored, re-established by the seales of Gods pardon, and his mercy, so the world would take knowledge of the consequences of my sins, as well as of the sins themselves, and read my leafes on both sides, and heare the second part of my story, as well as the first; so the world would look upon my temporall calamities, the bodily sicknesses, and the penuriousnesse of my fortune contracted by my sins, and upon my spirituall calamities, dejections of spirit, sadnesse of heart, declinations towards a diffidence and distrust in the mercy of God, and then, when the world sees me in this agony and bloody sweat would also see the Angels of heaven ministring comforts unto me; so they would consider me in my Peccavi, and God in his Transtulit, Me in my earnest Confessions, God in his powerfull Absolutions, Me drawne out of one Sea of blood, the blood of mine owne soule, and cast into another Sea, the bottomlesse Sea of the blood of Christ Jesus; so they would know as well what God hath done for my soule, as what my soule and body have done against my God; so they would reade me throughout, and look upon me altogether, I would joyne with Job, in his confident adjuration, O Earth cover not thou my blood; Let all the world know all the sins of my youth, and of mine age too, and I would not doubt, but God should receive more glory, and the world more benefit, then if I had never sinned. 9
Though the theme is essentially the same, the difference in treatment corresponds to a significant change in the thought. In the first passage Donne is thinking primarily of his hearers. He wishes to console some dejected soul by the mention of his own assurance that God has shown
Ibid., NO. 46, p. 463.
Ibid., No. 24, p. 241.
Ibid., No. 13, p. 132.
mercy to himself a sinner. He is using prose of the plainest and most direct kind for its ordinary purpose, the communication of a fact by the speaker to his hearers. But in the second passage his imagination is fired by a metaphysical idea–the possibility that evil may be transmuted into good. From the thought of his own repentance accepted by God’s mercy, he rises to the contemplation of an active divine energy which can make evil itself an instrument of a greater good. This was an idea peculiarly dear to Donne. He had given crude expression to it in his early Paradoxes, and he elaborated it in several of his sermons. Here he almost forgets his hearers in order on the one hand to meditate aloud on his own agonies and calamities, and on the other to consider that “bottomlesse Sea of the blood of Christ Jesus” in which his sins have been drowned. The words kindle and glow, “the wheels take fire from the mere rapidity of their motion,” as Coleridge finely said of Donne’s poetry, 10 and so the sentences take to themselves something of the music and rhythm of poetry.
This paradoxical idea, that evil may be transformed into an instrument for good, leads us to a consideration of Donne’s use of paradox in general. In the poems, both secular and divine, he had constantly employed paradox, and it is characteristic of him that his earliest attempts at literary prose were short pieces modeled on the Italian paradossi. In the sermons he delights to expound the great paradoxes of the Christian religion–God made man in order that man may be made one with God; Christ who is Very God of Very God bearing every humiliation even to the death of the cross; or the believer who dies to live contrasted with the natural man who lives to die. Of the Crucifixion, Donne writes:
. . . I see those hands stretched out, that stretched out the heavens, and those feet racked, to which they that racked them are foot-stooles; I heare him, from whom his nearest friends fled, pray for his enemies, and him, whom his Father forsooke, not forsake his brethren; I see him that cloathes this body with his creatures, or else it would wither, and cloathes this soule with his Righteousness, or else it would perish, hang naked upon the Crosse; And him that hath, him that is, the Fountain of the Water of Life, cry out, He thirsts. . . . 11
Biographia Literaria ( Oxford, 1907), ii. 56.
LXXX Sermons, NO. 40, p. 401. The whole of this passage should be compared with Donne poem “Good Friday,” lines 21-27 (ed. Grierson, i. 336-337):
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And turn all spheares at once, peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that fleshe which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
Of the faithful who died in the great plague epidemic of 1625 he says to their friends and relatives:
But are all these dead? They were, says the Text; they were in your eyes, and therefore we forbid not that office of the eye, that holy tenderness, to weep for them that are so dead. But there was a part in every one of them, that could not die; which the God of life, who breathed it into them, from his own mouth, hath suck’d into his own bosome. . . . When time shall be no more, when death shall be no more, they shall renew, or rather continue their being. 12
Paradox can be used in a very different fashion for the purpose of sarcastic rebuke. Donne has sharp words for the insincerity and irreverence of some of his hearers:
God’s House is the house of Prayers; It is his Court of Requests; There he receives petitions, there he gives Order upon them. And you come to God in his House, as though you came to keepe him company, to sit downe, and talke with him halfe an houre; or you come as Ambassadors, covered in his presence, as though ye came from as great a Prince as he. You meet below, and there make your bargaines, for biting, for devouring Usury, and then you come up hither to prayers, and so make God your Broker. You rob, and spoile, and eat his people as bread, by Extortion, and bribery, and deceitful waights and measures, and deluding oathes in buying and selling, and then come hither, and so make God your Receiver, and his house a den of Thieves. His house is Sanctum Sanctorum. The holiest of holies, and you make it onely Sanctuarium; It should be a place sanctified by your devotions, and you make it onely a Sanctuary to privilege Malefactors, A place that may redeeme you from the ill opinion of men, who must in charity be bound to thinke well of you, because they see you here. 13
Paradox and irony are closely linked, for there is often an ironical intention behind the paradox. Donne has a keen eye for life’s little ironies, while at the same time he never forgets the final and tremendous irony of death. Thus to the heavy paterfamilias, inclined to become a domestic tyrant, he gives a word of advice.
Call not light faults by heavie Names; Call not all sociablenesse, and Conversation, Disloyaltie in thy Wife; Nor all levitie, or pleasurablenesse, Incorrigiblenesse in thy Sonne; nor all negligence or forgetfulnesse, perfidiousnesse in thy Servants; Nor let every light disorder within doores, shut thee out of doores, or make thee a stranger in thine owne House. In a smoakie roome, it may bee enough to open a Windowe without leaving the place; . . . 14
XXVI Sermons, No. 21, pp. 296-297.
LXXX Sermons, No. 68, p. 692.
The First Sermon Preached to King Charles, 1625, p. 53.
This irony, sometimes humorous, sometimes bitter, pervades the sermons, giving them a characteristic flavor. Donne applies it even to himself in a remorseless analysis of his own failures in prayer:
I throw my selfe down in my Chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his Angels, for the noise of a Flie, for the ratling of a Coach, for the whining of a doore; I talke on, in the same posture of praying; Eyes lifted up; knees bowed downe; as though I prayed to God; and, if God, or his Angels should aske me, when I thought last of God in that prayer, I cannot tell: Sometimes I finde that I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell. A memory of yesterdays pleasures, a feare of to morrows dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine eare, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a Chimera in my braine, troubles me in my prayer. So certainely is there nothing, nothing in spirituall things, perfect in this world. 15
Nothing is more characteristic of Donne’s poetry than his startlingly original imagery. In the sermons he is less deliberately bent on surprising his hearers, so that flowers and birds are not excluded from his metaphorical garden. Of the everlasting day of eternity he remarks: “And all the powerful Kings, and all the beautifull Queenes of this world, were but as a bed of flowers, some gathered at six, some at seaven, some at eight, All in one Morning, in respect of this Day.” 16
Even more beautiful is the picture of the soul rising in dazzling whiteness “like a Lily in Paradise, out of red earth” from the enfolding blade of Christ’s protecting merit. 17 Yet even in these comparisons there is usually some trace of that “fundamental brain-work” which distinguished Donne’s imagery from that of lesser men. In the last-mentioned passage the “red earth” is not merely a vivid contrast to the whiteness of the lily; it is also a reminder that in Donne’s theology man was created from red soil. “In the great field of clay, of red earth, that man was made of, and mankind, I am a clod.” 18
There are some images in the sermons which surprise us by their homeliness. The preacher who indulges in empty rhetoric is described as a man who “having made a Pye of Plums, without meat, offers it to sale in every Market.” 19 The worldly man is likened to a foolish mother who “in the midst of many sweet children” wastes her time in making dolls for her own amusement, or to a man who pushes into a village fair to look upon “sixpenny pictures, and three-farthing prints,” while at home he has “Chamber and Galleries . . . full of curious masterpeeces.” 20 Or Donne goes to the poultry yard for a metaphor: “All egges are not hatched that
LXXX Sermons, No. 80, p. 820.
Ibid., No. 73, p. 748.
Ibid., No. 27, p. 274.
Ibid., No. 34, p. 338.
Ibid., No. 12, p. 114.
Fifty Sermons, No. 29, p. 256.
the hen sits upon; neither could Christ himselfe get all the chickens that were hatched, to come, and to stay under his wings.” 21
Some of Donne’s images are grotesque or macabre. The monstrously large, such as elephants 22 and whales, or the absurdly small, such as flies and fleas, appear in his prose works as well as in his poems. He has an elaborate comparison in which the preacher rebuking sin is likened to a fisherman harpooning a whale:
The rebuke of sin, is like the fishing of Whales; the Marke is great enough; one can scarce misse hitting; but if there be not sea room and line enough, and a dexterity in letting out that line, he that hath fixed his harping Iron, in the Whale, endangers himselfe, and his boate; God hath made us fishers of Men; and when we have struck a Whale, touch’d the conscience of any person, which thought himselfe above rebuke, and increpation, it struggles, and strives, and as much as it can, endevours to draw fishers, and boate, the Man and his fortune into contempt, and danger. But if God tye a sicknesse, or any other calamity, to the end of the line, that will winde up this Whale againe, to the boate, bring back this rebellious sinner better advised, to the mouth of the Minister, for more counsaile, and to a better souplenesse, and inclinablenesse to conforme himselfe, to that which he shall after receive from him; onely calamity makes way for a rebuke to enter. 23
Any anthology of Donne’s prose will supply so many examples of the macabre that it is unnecessary here to do more than to quote one only, in which he adds a fresh touch to the well-worn image of life as a journey to a distant city by reminding his hearers of the gallows which were placed at a conspicuous spot outside any town of importance. “As he that travails weary, and late towards a great City, is glad when he comes to a place of execution, because he knows that is neer the town; so when thou comest to the gate of death, [be] glad of that, for it is but one step from that to thy Jerusalem.” 24
The sermons contain a large number of images of that ingenious and far-fetched kind which distinguishes his poetry. As Dr. Johnson asked “Who but Donne would have thought that a good man is a telescope?” so we may ask in turn who else would have compared a good man’s life to an engraving.
Bee pleased to remember that those Pictures which are deliver’d in a minute, from a print upon a paper, had many dayes, weeks, Moneths time for the graving of those Pictures in the Copper; So this Picture of that
LXXX Sermons, No. 7. p. 70.
For elephants see Fifty Sermons, No. 40, p. 371.
Fifty Sermons, No. 10, pp. 74-75.
XXVI Sermons, No. 20, pp. 294-295, first numbering.
dying Man, that dies in Christ, that dies the death of the Righteous, that embraces Death as a Sleepe, was graving all his life; All his publique actions were the lights, and all his private the shadowes of this Picture. 25
In all these examples, the image, whether used for metaphor or simile, has been portrayed in set terms. But Donne can also suggest an image by the use of the appropriate verbs. “Implicite beleevers, ignorant beleevers, the adversary may swallow; but the understanding beleever, he must chaw, and pick bones, before he come to assimilate him, and make him like himself.” 26Here the verbs “swallow,” “chaw,” “pick bones,” at once conjure up before the reader’s eye a grim figure like that of Bunyan’s Giant Slay-good who “was rifling Feeble-mind, with a purpose after that to pick his bones; for he was of the nature of flesh-eaters.”
There are a certain number of images in Donne’s sermons which give us a shock of surprise of a different kind. There is an incongruity about metaphors taken from the theater or the gaminghouse, used as they are by Donne to illustrate some profound truth of religion; it is the converse of his use in the poems of some image drawn from theology or metaphysics in the service of profane love. We feel a shock of surprise at the sight of these unequally yoked pairs. The discovery of occult resemblances between things apparently unlike was singled out by Dr. Johnson as one of the distinctive marks of the wit of Donne and his followers. When the things coupled are sacred and secular, a suggestion of profanity arises. In the love poems Donne is sometimes deliberately profane, and it may be that in the divine poems and the sermons he occasionally uses incongruous secular metaphors with the contrary intention of reclaiming that which had been polluted for the service of the sanctuary. Thus in one of the “Holy Sonnets” he cries to the picture of Christ:
No, no; but as in my idolatrie
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pitty, foulnesse onely is
A signe of rigour: so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assigned,
This beauteous forme assures a piteous minde. 27
So in the sermons we find: “God st even to the words of our foule and unchaste love, that thereby he might raise us to the heavenly love of himselfe, and his Son.” 28
It may be, however, that in these passages Donne was writing, as he usually did, with no watertight compartments in his mind. Life is one,
Ibid., No. 15, p. 218.
LXXX Sermons, No. 18, p. 178.
Poems, i. 328.
LXXX Sermons, No. 41, p. 406.
in all its manifestations, ugly or beautiful; the reality behind is one, and is manifested in the secular as well as in the sacred. “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing; and whatsoever hath any beeing, is by that very beeing, a glasse in which we see God, who is the roote, and the fountaine of all beeing.” 29
Thus Donne obtains for himself a range of imagery incomparably wider than that of other preachers. He can draw his metaphors from the royal court and the stage, from the tavern and the gaminghouse. Here is a striking reminder that Donne had been in his youth a great frequenter of plays. He says that God is not to be truly found by the soul in “those transitory and interlocutory prayers, which out of custome and fashion we make, and still proceed in our sin; when we pretend to speake to God, but like Comedians upon a stage, turne over our shoulder, and whisper to the Devill.” 30
The image of the gods as gamesters who sport with mankind in a game of chance is one that has found favor with atheistic philosophers, but was hardly to be expected from the pulpit of St. Paul’s. Donne, however, uses it without any irreverence to condemn the deeper irreligion of those Puritan preachers who proclaimed man’s predestination to damnation before his birth. The whole passage is a noble protest of a truly religious spirit against that grim doctrine:
Never propose to thyself such a God as thou wert not bound to imitate: Thou mistakest God, if thou make him to be any such thing, or make him to do any such thing, as thou in thy proportion shouldst not be, or shouldst not do. And shouldst thou curse any man that had never offended, never transgrest, never trespast thee? Can God have done so? Imagine God, as the Poet saith, Ludere in humanis, to play but a game at Chesse with this world; to sport himself with making little things great, and great things nothing: Imagine God to be but at play with us, but a gamester; yet will a gamester curse, before he be in danger of losing any thing? Will God curse man, before man have sinned? 31
There is an image drawn from the game of bowls, a favorite Elizabethan pastime, in XXVI Sermons: “For though it may seem a degree of flattery, to preach against little sins in such a City as this, where greater sins do abound; yet because these be the materials and elements of greater sins, (and it is impossible to say where a Bowl will lie, that is let fall down a hill, though it be let never so gently out of the hand) . . . . ” 32
Beauty finds strange resting places. The perplexed and tortured soul of Donne sought her not in the light of setting suns, but in the obscure processes of the mind of man. He thought of the Supreme Beauty as a
Ibid., No. 23, p. 227.
Ibid., No. 59, p. 596.
Fifty Sermons, No. 26, p. 224.
XXVI Sermons, No. 24, p. 335.
mathematical symbol–God the Circle. The beauty of nature was seen by him, not in sea or sky, but in “the peacefull succession, and connexion of causes, and effects.” 33 “The correspondence and relation of all parts of Nature to one Author, the concinnity and dependence of every piece and joint of this frame of the world, the admirable order, the immutable succession, the lively and certain generation, and birth of effects from their Parents, the causes: in all these, though there be no sound, no voice, yet we may even see that it is an excellent song, an admirable piece of musick and harmony. . . .” 34
We cannot read Donne’s sermons aright without realizing that this preacher was essentially a poet, who when he was debarred from the ordinary forms of verse threw his energy into weaving new rhythms and harmonies in prose. There was nothing unreal or factitious in such an exercise, nothing which detracted from his profound sincerity. He could not express the truth of himself save in poetry, or in a rhythmical prose which had all the essentials of poetry. Poetry to such a man as Donne is the resolution of an inner conflict, a means of harmonizing discordant forces. There are some of his sermons, admittedly only a few, which are in effect poems. Donne planned them under the influence of some strong emotion, and their structure is fundamentally that of a poem. A good example is to be found in the sermon preached in St. Paul’s on Easter Day, 1629. Donne based it on a highly poetical passage of the Book of job, that describing the vision of Eliphaz the Temanite. At first sight no text could seem less suitable for an Easter meditation than this Hebrew vision, in which Eliphaz, a wild man out of the desert, is shaken to the very marrow of his bones by an unseen presence which declares the unapproachable holiness of God.
Fear came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones to shake.
Then a spirit passed before my face;
the hair of my flesh stood up:
It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof:
an image was before mine eyes;
There was silence, and I heard a voice, saying,
Shall mortal man be more just than God?
shall a man be more pure than his Maker?
Behold, he put no trust in his servants;
and his angels he charged with folly:
How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
which are crushed before the moth?
LXXX Sermons, No. 15, p. 146. For God as a circle, Ibid., No. 2, p. 14: “God is a circle himselfe, and he will make thee one.”
XXVI Sermons, No. 13, p. 181, second numbering.
They are destroyed from morning to evening:
they perish for ever, without any regarding it. 35
Donne evidently intended to shake his hearers out of the complacency with which they anticipated an eloquent sermon on somewhat conventional lines. For several years in succession he had given them his finest discourses on the resurrection of the dead. He believed profoundly in the Christian hope of immortality, but he himself had lately passed through deep waters of sorrow and sickness. In 1627 he had lost his daughter Lucy, and two beloved friends, Magdalen Danvers and Lucy, Countess of Bedford. In the late summer of 1628 he had been attacked by a high fever and a quinsy, which confined him to his bed. For some weeks he was unable to preach, and a rumor got about that he was dead. He was now an old man by the standard of those days, and he knew that he had not much longer to live. Before the prospect of meeting the Eyes of God, he asked himself the question of the vision–“Shall mortal man be more just than God?”-and became conscious of his complete unworthiness. In the sermon, he presented to his hearers the dilemma of Eliphaz, and he arranged it in a series of paragraphs, at the end of which the text, which in the Hebrew is itself a line of poetry, is repeated as a refrain varying slightly from stanza to stanza. This was a device which he had used in several of his poems, such as “The Will,” “An Epithalamion on the Lady Elizabeth and Count Palatine being married,” and “Epithalamion made at Lincoln’s Inn.” In the sermon, the text, “Behold, he put no trust in his servants, and his Angels he charged with folly,” is repeated at the end of nine paragraphs, first in the original form, and then with such modifications as “God put no trust in those servants, but . . .” or, “In those servants he put no trust, and those Angels he charged with folly.”
In the last three paragraphs the refrain is discarded, and Donne turns from the clouded vision of Eliphaz to the clearer revelation of God in Christ. He remembers that with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. He offers to all his hearers the salvation which he himself has received. He rejoices in the multitude of those that shall be saved, and takes up into his own prose the great phrases of the Te Deum, which on Easter Day the Church sings with renewed gladness after the silence and austerity of Lent. “There is not only one Angel, aGabriel; But to thee all Angels cry aloud; and Cherubim, and Seraphim, are plurall terminations; many Cherubs, many Seraphs in heaven. There is not only one Monarchall Apostle, a Peter, but The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee. There is not onely a Proto-Martyr, a Stephen, but The noble army of Martyrs praise thee.” 36
Finally he returns to one of his favorite books, the Revelation of St.
Job 4. 14-20. The text given is that of the Authorized Version, except that the parallel clauses are printed on separate lines.
LXXX Sermons, No. 24, p. 241.
John, and recalls another version which had been in his mind for years-that in which St. John on the Isle of Patmos saw the four angels standing “at the round world’s imagin’d corners,” and then the great multitude that no man could number of the redeemed from every nation and kindred.
The key of David opens, and no man shuts. The Son of David, is the key of David, Christ Jesus; He hath opened heaven for us all; let no man shut out himself, by diffidence in Gods mercy, nor shut out any other man, by overvaluing his own purity, in respect of others. . . . That so, . . . that multitude which no man can number, of all Nations, and Kindreds, and People, and Tongues, may enter with that acclamation, Salvation to our God, which sitteth upon the Throne, and to the Lamb for ever. And unto this City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the innumerable company of Angels, to the general assembly, and Church of the first born, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things then that of Abel, Blessed God bring us all, for thy Sons sake, and by the operation of thy Spirit. Amen.
Thus, though the sermon is written in prose, its underlying structure is poetical. We are reminded of the words of a living poet who is also well known for his prose, Sir Osbert Sitwell, who has declared: “I can claim never to have written a book, or a short story, or an essay that I did not conceive as if it were a poem, and in that resides the value, such as it is, of my work.” 37 We may doubt whether Donne would have made such a claim for the large number of his sermons which are occupied chiefly with doctrinal or controversial matters, but we can make it for the beautiful sermon which he preached on the death of the righteous on the first Friday in Lent 1627/ 1628. This is conceived as a poem on the text, “When he had said this, he fell asleep.” Sleep here is the sleep of death, not to Donne the “sleep that knows no waking,” but the sleep from which the righteous awake to find themselves in the immediate presence of God.
Donne opens his sermon thus: “We that will dy with Christ upon Good-Friday, must hear his own bell toll all Lent; he that will be partaker of his passion at last, must conform himself to his discipline of prayer and fasting before. . . . We begin to hear Christs bell toll now, and is not our bell in the chime?” 38
He considers the life and death of St. Stephen as a model for the Christian, and uses prose of the ordinary kind for most of the sermon. Then, as he nears the close, he turns from edification to ecstasy. Poetry is the only possible vehicle, as Dante knew, for conveying even a remote
Great Morning ( London, 1948), p. 135.
XXVI Sermons, No. 15, p. 205.
apprehension of the meaning of the Beatific Vision. Once again Donne turns to an Old Testament story for his starting point–that of Jacob in the wilderness, fleeing from his brother’s vengeance, and sleeping at last in exhaustion with his head pillowed on a great stone. In his sleep he sees a ladder set up from earth to heaven, on which the angels of God ascend and descend continually, while above it stands the God against whom he has sinned, and who yet promises him mercy and guidance. “And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” With exquisite artistry Donne omits Jacob’s fear, and chooses only those phrases which suit the awakening of the righteous. He continues:
They shall awake as Jacob did,
and say as Jacob said,
Surely the Lord is in this place,
and this is no other but the house of God,
and the gate of heaven,
And into that gate they shall enter,
and in that house they shall dwell,
where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun,
no darkenesse nor dazling,
but one equall light,
no noyse nor silence,
but one equall musick,
no fears nor hopes,
but one equall possession,
no foes nor friends,
but one equall communion and Identity,
no ends nor beginnings,
but one equall eternity.
Keepe us Lord so awake in the duties of our Callings, that we may thus sleepe in thy Peace, and wake in thy glory, . . . 39
XXVI Sermons, No. 15, p. 219. I have printed the parallel clauses on separate lines to make the construction clear.