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.
Simpson regretted that Donne’s immersion in religious controversy had occupied him in ‘outworn controversies, and lumber inherited from the Fathers and Schoolmen’. Yet in the age of the religious wars and the Gunpowder Plot the debates between Catholic and Protestant, and appeals by the participants to patristic and scholastic authority, were of urgent pertinence to the nation’s confessional identity and political security. Donne’s life turned on them. Like Jonson he converted from Catholicism, the outlawed religion. With him he found, in the ceremonialism of the Jacobean Church and its continuities with the ancient and medieval past, sufficient affinities with the religion he abandoned. With Jonson he took reverence towards rulers to be an innate requirement of Christianity and took his stand on the loyalty to a Protestant prince and country which the pope forbade.
It was not Catholicism itself against which Donne turned but its militant post-Reformation face, with its doctrinal aggression and its endorsement of the assassination of heretic kings. Here as in much else his thinking was in tune with King James’s. Donne espoused the international ecumenicalism of his monarch, who sought not only to bring the divided community of Europe’s Protestants together but to achieve, in the window of opportunity between the end of the Armada war in 1604 and the renewal of Continental religious war in 1618-20, a reconciliation between Catholic and Protestant that would reverse the shameful schism and end a century of embittered upheaval.
Historians of the 17th century balk at the term ‘Anglicanism’, as an anachronism imposed on the period by the Victorians. Yet if we avoid regimented definitions it can be useful shorthand for a broad religious movement to which Donne’s sermons belonged, and which the long historiographical emphasis on the opposing tendency of Puritanism has obscured from a general readership. Within Protestant limits it valued ritual and delighted in organs and anthems and hymns. Normally tolerant of diversity of private belief, it nonetheless saw compulsory uniformity of collective worship as indispensable to religious and civil harmony. Donne shared the king’s – and Jonson’s – aversion to Puritanism, at least in its uncompromising forms. He reacted against Puritan moral absolutism, the disposition to suppose that ‘no abuses are corrected, if all be not removed’. He disliked the prophetic strain of Puritan utterance and its identification of the pope with Antichrist. He believed in set forms of prayer and in the crafting of sermons, and thought the improvised effusions of Puritanism no way to address our maker. He opposed the Puritan readiness to view folly as sin, and disparaged the undervaluation of human worth and dignity by a theology that consigned the bulk of humanity to eternal damnation, however virtuously they might strive to meet their Christian and social obligations. Himself prone to despair, he warned his audiences against ‘irreligious sadness’ and commended the ‘joy’ and ‘cheerful conversation’ accessible to upright hearts.
The new edition of Donne’s sermons, a collaborative venture, is to have at least 16 volumes, most or all of which are likely to be as large as the first to appear, David Colclough’s gathering of the sermons Donne, a royal chaplain, gave at the court of James I’s son Charles I. The project, which in line with a profusion of recent studies offers a counterweight to Donne’s primary reputation as a poet, is ironically indebted to it, for only the market the poetry has created for his name can explain Oxford University Press’s readiness to commission this huge venture while allowing only a single volume of selections to the sermons of Andrewes, who is known only for his clerical accomplishments.
Until the 1950s Donne’s sermons could be read only in selections or anthologies. Then California University Press published the first and, until now, only full version, edited by Simpson with George Potter. It straightforwardly arranged the texts in chronological order of delivery, and supplied a modest scale of commentary that centred on the style and structure of the sermons and on Donne’s use of sources. The introduction was an essay in literary appreciation, itself written with artistry of a kind on which the present generation has turned its back. The historical background of the sermons was sketched, but only to help the reader into the mind of a writer who transcended it. The edition, produced during the waning of the New Criticism, was a monument to it.
The Oxford project, by contrast, is ‘firmly wedded’ to ‘historical contextualisation’. It is much more interventionist, not only in its provision of extensive editorial apparatus but in its arrangement of the texts. Its organising premise, which time will test, is that Donne preached differently in different venues or before different congregations. There are to be volumes or sets of volumes (each with its own chronological arrangement) of sermons in each of the settings, or kinds of setting, where Donne preached: St Paul’s Cathedral, the Inns of Court, civic pulpits and so on. Three of the volumes are to be of sermons at the early Stuart court. Of these – such are the hazards of editing by committee – Colclough’s, which has leapfrogged the other two into print, is to be the last.
The general editor of the project is Peter McCullough, to whom Colclough is deputy. McCullough has long had an agenda for court sermons, which under his leadership have become almost a self-sufficient literary category. His important book of 1998, Sermons at Court, centred not on the timeless components of Christian teaching, which preachers pass down to one another across the generations, but on the relations of the pulpit to current political authority. The book also aimed glances at colleagues who shared McCullough’s commitment to the contextualisation of literature but whose horizons stayed within Eng. Lit.’s secular tradition. Criticism of plays and poems of the period now grasps their role in the communication of political opinion. Many literary works, it has been realised, offered advice to the crown about general principles of rule or even about imminent decisions of policy. But if sermons count as literature, McCullough protested, it is to them – ‘not Shakespearean drama, and not even the Jonsonian masque’ – we should principally look for literary proffers of political counsel.
It was an astute observation. For time and again – during, say, the political crises which turned on royal marriage negotiations in 1579-81 or 1622-24, or in the pressing of advice on the newly enthroned James I – we find preachers saying the same things to monarchs as poets and playwrights, but with tactical assets those writers lacked. The licence of expression permitted to poets and playwrights was ill-defined and inconstant. Their chances of influencing or even reaching the royal mind were uncertain. The correct balance of deference and candour was hard to strike. Writers who got it wrong could suffer displeasure, even imprisonment.
So, it is true, could preachers, who faced comparable hazards of tone. Yet as a rule they could afford to be bolder, for admonition was understood to be a basic obligation of the pulpit, as was insistence on the emptiness of worldly grandeur and on God’s brisk way with offending principalities and powers. Preachers had a further advantage. What everyone at court craved, but few achieved, was the ruler’s undivided attention. Those who preached in the royal presence were given, as their expectant patrons and followers doubtless reminded them, uninterrupted scope for face-to-face advice – unless, as sometimes happened, the monarch angrily interrupted.
In Colclough’s volume the word ‘context’ has a precise meaning. He aims to situate each sermon ‘in the moment of their delivery’. In the same vein McCullough has warned against interpretations of sermons which, by overlooking ‘the time and occasion’ of delivery, may miss or misinterpret their doctrinal or political significance. His and Colclough’s approach belongs to a trend of historical and literary inquiry which has been as prominent in accounts of 17th-century religion as anywhere, and which makes the understanding of every event or statement dependent on our appreciation of the immediate and unique circumstances that produced it. The alarming implications of that claim for the cause of generalisation, and for anyone without a professional lifetime to spend on the recovery of circumstantial detail, cannot gainsay the extent of its truth. McCullough’s warning carries particular weight in settings, such as royal courts, where people could rarely say quite what they meant, where even the most daring criticism had to be veiled in ostensible praise, and where irony or subversive inflection is easily missed by interpreters who have not ventured far into the context, so that the whole drift of a text can be misconstrued for want of local political knowledge.
Normally we have sermons only in the forms in which they were printed. Although some critics think the written and spoken versions to have been broadly similar, the likelihood of differences remains an awkward problem. In any case the printed word cannot recover a preacher’s oral manner or body language, which must have conveyed emphases invisible on the page. It was to Donne’s ‘carriage’ and ‘gesture’ that one contemporary devotee of his sermons thrilled. Even so, McCullough has shown how much can be done. In an essay on a sermon by Donne in St Paul’s on the death of the financier-politician Sir William Cokayne in 1626, published in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon (2011), he brings the preacher’s words alive by relating them to what can be learned from other sources of the mourners’ preoccupations and anxieties.
The difficulty for the edition is that all contexts belong to larger ones. Local allusions in Donne’s sermons take meaning not only from their immediate setting but from a historical and biographical background which is harder for an editor, who must work in close-up, to convey. If in Colclough’s volume we sometimes feel trapped within too short a timeframe, part of the explanation doubtless lies in the merely temporary misfortune that the edition has begun with the late Donne. Colclough edits 14 sermons at Charles’s court over the seven years before Donne’s death in 1631 in his late fifties. Charles heard many more of Donne’s sermons than his father had done, but only because James, when it was Donne’s turn to preach, was often away from London on hunting expeditions. James delighted in sermons and relished the discussion of them. Charles believed religious observance to have become too sermon-centred. Though the new king seems to have liked him, Donne was at heart a Jacobean churchman, who looks less at ease amid the polarisation of religious and political conflict under Charles.
Perhaps too he gives less of himself away. Paradoxically, the more firmly his Caroline texts are pinned to immediate circumstances the more elusive he can seem. In 1627 a sermon before Charles got him into hot or anyway warm water. Yet the exactness of Colclough’s contextualisation of the offending text brings home the impossibility of identifying the offence. Was it that he alluded to the undue influence of the Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, on her husband? Or did he register dismay at the new regime’s readiness to subordinate preaching to liturgy? Or were his words, which he seems to have explained satisfactorily and did him no lasting harm, simply misunderstood? Whatever the answer he did not repeat his mistake. Unless on that single occasion he eschewed the opportunities of the pulpit to offer Charles adventurous counsel. Though he said conventional things about the moral hazards of court life, his rare allusions to immediate political issues said – again with the single exception in 1627 – the kinds of thing the king liked to hear. Donne urged submissiveness on the recalcitrant House of Commons and asserted that rulers should be advised only by men they selected and trusted. In Charles’s reign, at least, his sermons scarcely conform to the pattern of assertiveness traced by McCullough.
Had he been a bolder or more independent spirit under James? The editors of the first two volumes will not want for advice on that contested subject. Donne’s position on the doctrinal issues of the age is contested too. McCullough has called it muddled. Where did Donne fit within the broad theological spectrum between the borders of Catholicism and Puritanism? His stance on the vexed questions of free will and predestination is elusive before as well as after the death of James I. Again the contextual trend, rather than solving the problem, highlights it. An imposing swathe of recent scholarship has brought home the tendency of early Stuart theologians to choose their argumentative emphases with a mind to the defeat of their particular antagonists at particular moments and their readiness to shift them when doing battle on other fronts. So what Donne says at any one point about doctrine may not accurately or wholly disclose what he thinks. His forays into doctrinal contention anyway tended, as Colclough says, to be brief. Donne, with others whom we can loosely call Anglican, disliked dwelling on ‘unnecessary’ and ‘frivolous disputations’ over dogma, which broke charity among Christians and concealed the common ground of their faith, diverting them from the proper or prior subjects of religious guidance: the wonder of the creation, the grateful worship of the creator and the duties of Christian conduct.
Colclough himself sometimes seems uncomfortable with the premises of his volume. He acknowledges that Donne’s sermon on a fast-day called to reflect on the international crisis of 1628, a time of high political tension, contains ‘very little to link it’ to ‘any specific occasion or date’, and that when set beside other sermons on the same occasion it seems ‘strikingly detached from its context’. Colclough never supposes that contexts explain everything. The ‘local engagement’ of the sermons with doctrinal issues, he acknowledges, is combined with ‘broad eschatological concerns’. Are the distinguishing features of Donne’s various audiences, which may illuminate his handling of things temporal, the best vantage-point for his treatment of things eternal, which are the automatic framework of any sermon? Colclough acknowledges, too, that the critical pendulum ‘may have swung too far’ towards the content of the sermons and away from their formal properties, on which the California editors dwelled. Yet the marriage of formal analysis, Eng. Lit.’s preserve, with contextual exploration remains elusive. Few interpreters of 17th-century literature have joined the two. Colclough declares the interpretative division of style from content ‘invidious’, and yet in the arrangement of his own introduction finds the separation ‘pragmatically necessary’. The necessity is created only by a mental boundary which modern units of academic study have established and which has survived all the professional talk of ‘interdisciplinarity’ over the past half-century. It would have puzzled Donne.
If that challenge remains, the readiness of literary critics to engage with historical scholarship has nonetheless yielded rich rewards. Colclough’s intensively researched volume exemplifies the benefits. So does the new volume of political prose in the Oxford edition of Milton’s writings, even if in both cases the publisher works its readers hard, requiring them to struggle with tiny print and to cope with inhospitable dispositions of editorial commentary. Colclough has had the larger task, which produces the more unfamiliar findings. The previous edition of Milton’s prose, published by Yale, was launched, like the California Donne, in the 1950s, but in contrast to it was more interventionist than is its Oxford counterpart. Yet time has dated its weighty apparatus, and the Oxford volume anyway surpasses the corresponding portions of the Yale project in scholarly exactness and judgment.
Oxford has divided Milton’s prose, as it has Donne’s, into categories, in this case of subject matter. Again we see the capacity of editorial policy-making to shape the reader’s experience. Milton’s political prose is one of the categories, but, as the title of N.H. Keeble and Nicholas McDowell’s volume indicates (once one has parsed it), it has been split into two by the addition of another criterion, of language. The ‘vernacular’ or English tracts are allocated to the present volume, while the political treatises Milton wrote in Latin will appear later in another. The decision denies coherence to Keeble and McDowell’s enterprise. Milton’s first political works appeared in English in 1649, the year of Charles I’s execution and of Milton’s appointment, at the age of forty, as an assistant to the republic’s council of state. Then he turned to the Latin works which, like the English ones of 1649, applauded the regicide. The volume has to jump almost a decade from 1649 to the next vernacular writings, in which Milton, amid the disintegration of the republic, lamented the disappointment of the revolutionary hopes of that year and urged his countrymen to sustain or resume them. The English works were divided by function as well as time. Whereas the tracts of 1649 were composed mainly or wholly at the behest of the republic, those of 1659-60 were privately composed admonitions. It is in the intervening Latin writings that we can follow the transition. Anyone turning to the Oxford Milton to make sense of Milton’s politics will have to move between two volumes.
Most of Milton’s admirers, like many of Donne’s, have wished that he had kept at least mostly to poetry. Yet Milton’s priorities, like Donne’s, were different. Religious preoccupations turned Donne, as later in the century religious and political ones would turn Marvell, from the primacy of poetry to the necessity of prose. For nearly two decades of the Puritan Revolution Milton suspended, perhaps even forgot, his major poetic ambitions, and turned to prose to guide the nation in its crucial choices for the future of civil and religious liberty. In the autobiographical account he gave in 1654 he offered no indication that he had ever written poetry or ever would again. In the sonnet ‘upon his blindness’, one of his rare excursions into verse in the Interregnum, he dwelled not on any consequences of his loss of sight for his poetry but on the sacrifice of his eyes to ‘liberty’s defence’, ‘my noble task’, in the Latin prose. That prose, which to modern tastes seems scurrilously abusive propaganda against his royalist adversaries, awed contemporaries by its wit and eloquence. He wrote it to serve a republic whose survival he knew to be at stake. Half a century earlier Donne knew the survival of church and state to be at stake. Recognising, like Milton, the power of mischievous invective to discredit opposing causes, he directed it against Catholic subversion in his derisive prose tract Ignatius his Conclave, which in its Latin form, as John Carey’s book on Donne observes, ‘set … Europe laughing’. It was Milton’s boast that ‘all Europe talks from side to side’ about his own Latin prose in liberty’s defence. The union of literary and historical perceptions will be achieved only when we learn to combine with our own literary preferences a readiness to grasp why great 17th-century writers took directions which affront them.
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