John Donne, it is clear, is not everyone’s cup of tea. In a notable essay in 1990, Stanley Fish wrote this: “Donne is sick and his poetry is sick. . . . Donne is bulimic, someone who gorges himself to a point beyond satiety, and then sticks his finger down his throat and throws up.” Perhaps this comment tells us more about the critic than the poet, but Fish is not alone in his negative assessment. Even T. S. Eliot, who more than any other recent poet approaches Donne in his sheer brilliance with their common mother tongue, found in his work nothing but “a vast jumble of incoherent erudition on which he drew for purely poetic effects.”
Despite such comments, Donne continues to attract readers, especially among Christians, and especially during the season of Lent. Above all, Donne is the poet of embodiment. He writes about things we can see and feel: fleas, ants, bearbaiting, the sudden blush of a young girl, a long voyage at sea, theatres that “are filled with emptiness,” and wartime in an “age of rusty iron.” He also writes a lot about himself and his torturous relationship with God. After he died, Donne was called “a second St. Augustine.” The Doctor of Grace is quoted more than seven hundred times in Donne’s surviving sermons. There is no doubt that he read and lived out the Confessions over and over again. The Augustinian themes of restlessness, original sin, repentance, forgiveness, pilgrimage, predestination, the resurrection of the body, and the overarching hope of salvation born of pain—these are all present in a language that still dazzles in both poetry and prose.
Fish considers Donne a self-aggrandizing poet, one who feigns devotion to God as a pretext for abusing and lording it over others, especially women—his mother, his many lovers, his poor wife Ann. Donne is a spiritual sado-masochist, Fish thinks, in verba if not in res. Such a gendered, ultramodernist reading, however, ignores the much more subtle dialectic between religion and sex (Augustine again) that pervades Donne’s work—both his earlier “secular” love poems and his post-conversion sermons and devotional verse. David L. Edwards, in his superb study, John Donne: Man of Flesh and Spirit, gets it right: “Here is a man who is thoroughly human, and energetically masculine, as well as being highly intelligent, yet he cannot stop talking about religion when he is supposed to be talking about sex, anymore than he can stop talking about sex when we expect him to be pious.”
Born in 1572 to a recusant Catholic family, the handsome “Jack Donne,” as he styled his earlier self, was a man on the make in politics and law. He had some success and sat in the last Parliament under Queen Elizabeth. But he was also a rake and a womanizer. (So Fish’s prejudice finds some basis in fact.) Like Augustine before him, Donne “boiled over” in his fornications and found himself flogged with “the red-hot iron rods of jealousy, suspicion, fear, anger, and contention” (Conf. 3.1). When in Holy Sonnet 3 Donne wrote about “th’hydroptic drunkard, and night-scouting thief, the itchy lecher, and self-tickling proud,” he was describing himself—at least the person he once was.
Donne was converted—not swiftly, but profoundly—from such a life of dissolution to one of sincere devotion, prayer, and service to God as an Anglican priest and preacher. Clearly this transformation was a difficult and “awful rowing toward God.” Nonetheless, in Holy Sonnet 14, one of Donne’s most famous prayer-poems, he described it in terms of surrender to divine ravishment.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Donne, of course, did not invent this motif. After all, the Song of Songs is in the Bible—though it evidently had a hard time making the cut! The connection between marital intimacy and spiritual ecstasy was explored in depth by Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila before Donne and by the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter after him.
Donne would be a lot more popular today if he had been a “name it and claim it” kind of Christian. But however ecstatic his experience of God might have been, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral continued to struggle with such disagreeable realities as sin, suffering, repentance, sickness, decay, and death. We prefer a Lent with all lilies and no ashes. But Donne knew that the difficult disciplines of prayer, fasting, self-denial, and cross-bearing, together with the holy discontent of waiting for an answer that does not come—such rigors are necessary medicines for what he called the “insatiable whirlpool of the covetous mind.”
John Calvin once wrote that “we cannot imagine any certainty that is not tinged with doubt, or any assurance that is not assailed by some anxiety” (Inst. 3.2.17). Donne had lots of doubts and anxieties within—and they were matched by the cosmic angst without, in the universe where not even God’s love could move the sun around the earth anymore, as Dante had once assumed. But Donne also knew the forgiveness and freedom that flows from God’s grace and mercy. Such consolations drew him closer to God as he grew weaker in body, languishing away in the illness that would lead to his death.
At the beginning of Lent, 1630, Donne delivered his most famous sermon at Whitehall in the presence of King Charles I. Published as “Death’s Duell,” it was a meditation on death: the death of Christ and the death that comes to every person, both to paupers lying in a nameless grave and to the high and mighty in their “half-acre tombs” with elegant epitaphs chiseled in stone.
The entire life of Christ was a continual passion, Donne said, and “all our Lent may well be a continual Good Friday.” The consequences of sin, both ours and Adam’s, are momentous. Yet John Donne also knew that this world does not terminate upon itself.
Even in the depth of any spiritual night, in the shadow of death, in the midnight of afflictions and tribulations, God brings light out of darkness and gives his saints occasion of glorifying him, not only in the dark (though it be dark) but from the dark (because it is dark). . . . This is a way unconceivable by any, inexpressible to any, but those that have felt that manner of God’s proceeding in themselves, that be the night what night it will . . . they see God better in the dark.
John Donne confessed to his friend George Garrard that it was his desire to die in the pulpit. Although he did not leave this world mid-sermon, his last deliverance at St. Paul’s left a distinct impression. From his emaciated body and dying face, he peered out on his congregation. Many of them, his biographer said, “did secretly ask that question in Ezekiel: Do these bones live?” Draped in his funeral shroud, Donne still looks out on those who come to St. Paul’s to see his effigy. The last line on his epitaph is his own: “He lies here in the dust but beholds Him whose name is Rising.”
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.