Things the King Liked to Hear

Blair Worden

  • Sermons of John Donne Vol. III: Sermons Preached at the Court of Charles I edited by David Colclough
    Oxford, 521 pp, £125.00, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 956548 1
  • BuyComplete Works of John Milton Vol. VI: Vernacular Regicide and Republican Writings edited by N.H. Keeble and Nicholas McDowell
    Oxford, 811 pp, £125.00, December 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 921805 9

John Donne is a modern rediscovery. His reputation, high among his contemporaries, fell after their time, along with those of other 17th-century metaphysical poets who would wait equally long for rehabilitation. The late 17th century and the 18th, committed to orderliness of metre and feeling, disliked the ‘forced’ and ‘unnatural’ rhythms of his verse, his ‘false’ conceits, his unruly sensuality. His friend Ben Jonson, whose classical preferences would earn from subsequent generations the esteem that was denied to Donne, judged him ‘the first poet in the world in some things’, but also declared that Donne ‘for not keeping of accent deserved hanging’. Donne, Jonson predicted, ‘for not being understood would perish’.

So it proved. By the time of Coleridge, who with fellow spirits began the reassessment, Donne’s overthrow seemed complete. The few available copies of his poems, Coleridge noted, were ‘grievously misprinted. Wonderful that they are not more so, considering that not one in a thousand of his readers has any notion how his lines are to be read.’ In the wake of Coleridge’s enthusiasm Donne found a number of 19th-century admirers, but it was only in the late Victorian and Edwardian years that the taste for metaphysical difficulty began to flourish and that the modern surge of his popularity began.

His rise coincided with that of Eng. Lit., the professional study of English literature, and was achieved on its terms. Donne was judged as a literary artist; which was not how he judged himself. Reportedly he regarded the poems for which he is now best known as mere ‘recreations of his youth’. When he sent them in manuscript to friends or patrons he didn’t always trouble to keep copies. Gradually his mind was taken over by religion. By his mid-thirties he was writing religious verse which has never quite had the following of his secular poems. In 1615, aged 42, he took holy orders.

Yet he was a reluctant clergyman, a disappointed courtier who hunted office with the kind of avidity his early satires had mocked in others, and who turned to the church only as the next best thing. It seems to have been at the behest of King James I, who valued the theological learning in which Donne was proficient, that he opted for ordination. Certainly the decision was in keeping with the spirit of a royal entourage where scholarly divinity mingled easily with worldly complaisance. He landed a comfortable berth as dean of St Paul’s, and supplemented his income from rural livings which, though he preached against clerical pluralism and non-residence, he visited only in summer.

The surprise is to discover the compatibility of the courtly mores of the Jacobean ecclesiastical establishment with profound seriousness of faith and devotion. Donne’s seriousness deepened with the years. To his vocational earnestness we owe the sermons which have been the second string to his literary fame. Better known to his contemporaries than his verse, they too suffered from the revision of literary standards by ensuing generations, which mistook the wordplay that served his exhortatory purposes for mere playfulness. An early 18th-century critic complained that Donne’s kindred spirit Lancelot Andrewes, the other great preacher of the age, had ‘reduced preaching to punning’. By the end of the same century Donne’s sermons were still less well known than his poems.

Eng. Lit., which was infused from the start with a secular spirit, has struggled with religion, though a reaction in its favour, of which the new edition of Donne’s sermons is a formidable expression, has gained recent ground. The ‘literature’ of the English Renaissance has normally meant Shakespeare and his fellow poets and playwrights, not the Book of Common Prayer or – in spite of the status that the period accorded to literary translation – the King James Bible. Donne and George Herbert were only the most conspicuous clergy-poets of their time. Milton would have joined their number had he not been repelled by the ‘popish’ trend of the Caroline Church. Devotional poems of Herbert and Milton are better known to the Sunday congregations which sing them as hymns than to many students of literature. Conventional criticism allows only subsidiary places to the strenuous translation of Psalms by Sir Thomas Wyatt or Sir Philip Sidney (the ‘Sidneian Psalms’ acclaimed by a poem of Donne) or Milton. Yet Donne himself, who worried whether poetry was equal to the expression of divine truth unless a divine spirit directed it, maintained that the ‘tropes and figures’ of the scriptures – so much of which was composed in verse form – surpassed those of classical poetry. Donne declared David ‘a better poet than Virgil’ and similarly lauded Isaiah.

Donne’s sermons have been read by Eng. Lit. in the light of his poems and as guides to them. Some critics have stressed continuities of imaginative or linguistic pattern across the frontier of genre and subject matter. An occasional voice has proclaimed the sermons the literary equal of the poetry, or even superior, but more often they have been of subordinate interest. The critic Evelyn Simpson, who did so much to put Donne’s devotional prose on the map, admired it with ambivalence. Donne, she held, was ‘essentially a poet’ who became an ‘artist in prose’ only because his clerical preoccupations ‘debarred’ him from his poetic talent.

Donne’s own perspective was different. Renaissance thinking understood aesthetic accomplishment to be the servant of ethics or beliefs. The artistry of his sermons, whatever private gratification it may have given him on its own account, was a means to an end: the amendment of his hearers’ lives and the salvation of their souls. ‘The only true praise of a sermon’, Andrewes declared, is the relinquishing of ‘some evil’, or the performance of ‘some good’, ‘upon the hearing of it’, not compliments from its audience. Preachers adopted the rules and techniques of oratory and deployed them to the goal which conventional theory ascribed to oratory and poetry alike, the incitement of virtue through the moving of the affections. Sidney’s famous insistence that true poetry instructs by ‘delight’ has its counterpart in Donne’s endeavour to impart ‘holy delight’ from the pulpit. The same aspiration informed the King James Bible, which to that end sometimes placed beauty of expression above literal accuracy of translation.

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