(1571/2–1631), *Metaphysical poet and Dean of *St Paul’s. He was a member of a RC family, his mother being the sister of the *Jesuit missionary priest Jasper Heywood, and a granddaughter of a sister of Sir Thomas *More. He entered Hart Hall, Oxford, in 1584 and possibly studied after this at Cambridge, or perhaps abroad. He entered Thavies Inn in 1591 and transferred to Lincoln’s Inn in 1592. During this period he was much exercised over the problem of his religious allegiance and for a time, according to I. *Walton, ‘betrothed himself to no Religion that might give him any other denomination than a Christian’. By 1598 he had certainly conformed to the Church of England. In 1596 he accompanied Essex and Raleigh to Cadiz and in 1597 to the Azores; and in 1598 became private secretary to the Lord Keeper, Sir Thomas Egerton, a post from which he was dismissed four years later owing to his secret marriage to Ann More, his master’s wife’s niece, in 1601. During the next years he and his growing family lived in poverty and dependence on the charity of friends. Around this period he composed but did not publish Biathanatos, a casuistic discussion and defence of suicide. He found employment in controversial writing and in 1610 wrote the Pseudo-Martyr to persuade Catholics that they might take the Oath of Allegiance. In the next year he wrote a witty satire on the Jesuits, Ignatius his Conclave. After repeated failures to find secular employment he at last complied with the wish of the King and was ordained in 1615. The reason he himself gave for delay was scruple at accepting orders as a means of making a living. In 1621 he became Dean of St Paul’s, where he preached on all great festivals. He was also a regular preacher at court and a favourite with both James and Charles. During a serious illness in 1623 he wrote his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), and the famous ‘Hymn to God the Father’. He died in 1631 and was buried in St Paul’s. His monument, showing him standing in his shroud, survived the Great Fire. In the American BCP (1979), and CW, feast day, 31 Mar.
Donne’s secular poetry was mainly written in his youth: satires, love-elegies, and lyrics, though the date of these last is questionable. His religious poetry belongs mostly to his troubled and unhappy middle years of poverty and discouragement. After his ordination his genius found expression in preaching. His fame as a poet suffered eclipse after the Restoration but had a striking revival in the 20th century. His vigorous, dramatic style, his capacity for introspection, and the subtle blend of argument and passion in his love poems and religious poems attracted poets in revolt against the Romantic tradition, most notably T. S. *Eliot. His sermons are masterpieces of the old formal style of preaching, packed with patristic learning and adorned with brilliant images and striking rhetorical effects, but his great strength is as a moral theologian, preaching as a sinner who has found mercy to other sinners. Although the contrast between Jack Donne, the youthful rake, and Dr John Donne, the divine, has been overdrawn, there is no doubt that he was haunted by an intense consciousness of the gravity of sin as he was by the thought of physical death. His great theme as a love-poet was the bliss of union; his great theme as a preacher was God’s mercy. Both themes are given singular force coming from one who wrote so often of a love that was ‘rage’ and not ‘peace’; and knew in experience the meaning of working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling.
F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 503–504.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As 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.
… though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow Your trumpets, Angels, and arise, arise From death, you numberless infinities Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go— All whom the flood did and fire shall o’erthrow, All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies, Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes, Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space, For if, above all these, my sins abound, ‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace When we are there; here on this lowly ground, Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good As if thou hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.
Being a Christ follower requires repentance. The word means “turning away” and indeed, following Jesus means turning away from sin. His teaching singularly called his listeners back from the rebelliousness of sin to a heart of obedience. His lessons were not only motivational; they were commandments. He said that love for Him would be demonstrated by obedience (John 14:15) and He likewise told His apostles to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20).
In the parable of The Prodigal Son found in Luke’s gospel, the Bible says the young man returned to his father when “he came to himself” (Luke 15:17). We have all experienced the regret of sinful choices, but sometimes it’s just the regret of getting caught or being in bad circumstances. When the regret is one that calls our heart to long for God and His forgiveness, we are finally ready to go home.
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says:“Today, if you will hear His voice,Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,In the day of trial in the wilderness,Where your fathers tested Me, tried Me,And saw My works forty years.Therefore I was angry with that generation,And said, ‘They always go astray in their heart,And they have not known My ways.’So I swore in My wrath,‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ”Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said:“Today, if you will hear His voice,Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”For who, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
In the Gospel According to Luke (15: 11-32), Christ relates the parable of the prodigal son. A son asks his father for his inheritance and leaves the parental home, only to fritter away all his wealth. Arriving at last at sickness and poverty, he returns to his father’s house. The old man is blinded by tears as he forgives his son, just as God forgives all those who repent. This whole work is dominated by the idea of the victory of love, goodness and charity. The event is treated as the highest act of human wisdom and spiritual nobility, and it takes place in absolute silence and stillness. The drama and depth of feeling are expressed in the figures of both father and son, with all the emotional precision with which Rembrandt was endowed. The broad, sketchy brushstrokes of the artist’s late style accentuate the emotion and intensity of this masterly painting. This parable in Rembrandt’s treatment is addressed to the heart of everyone: “We should be glad: for this son was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”
Literature: HOLY SONNET VII by John Donne. The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne. Edited by C. M. Coffin. New York: Modern Library, 1952.
Donne calls on angelic trumpets to summon all of humanity, living and dead, for judgment. But then he reverses himself and says, “Wait! I need time for repentance.” At the end, he suggests, with a touch of irony, that he needs not only the divine gift of God’s own life but also the grace of a repentant heart to reassure him that God truly intends his good.