Thursday, October 4, 2012

John Hazlewood on John Donne

This is the third instalment of John Hazlewood's lecture on the Caroline Divines, given to the Institute of Spiritual Studies at St Peter's Eastern Hill in 1982. It was included in a book published by the Institute, Anglican Spirituality.  

John Hazlewood on The Caroline Divines 
Part 3: John Donne

Born a Roman Catholic with splendid Catholic relatives. His mother was the sister of Jasper Heywood, a celebrated Jesuit missionary in England, and his poetry later shows some likenesses in style and in content with the Jesuit poets Southwell and Campion. His mother was the grand daughter of Blessed Thomas More the Martyr. He was educated at Oxford and attempted to study Law but he proved himself too much of a dilettante for that. He went to Cadiz with Raleigh and married in 1601, ending up in prison afterwards. He seems to have joined the Church of England about the end of the 16th century and by 1610 was writing anti-Roman books. He entered the dizzy circle around the new King James 1 who warned him that the only way to preferment was to take Holy Orders and he did just that in 1615, then a few years as a lecturer at Lincolns Inn and Rector of Sevenoaks in Kent. During this time it seems as if he is still guilty for his lecherous life and for deserting the Catholic Church. He becomes almost obsessed with sin and its forgiveness like another passionate religious, Martin Luther. After the death of his wife he became preoccupied with death. He had his portrait painted in his shroud and after ten highly successful years as Dean of St Paul's he did die and so fulfil his desires for union with God in 1631. 

Donne had a great influence and a huge popularity. He was learned, passionate and gifted. He also did a great deal to turn the ruinous St Paul's into a worshipful, musical and beautiful place. He was known to walk for hours up and down its great aisles to hear confessions, to comfort or to counsel. 

He has left behind a number of remarkable poems very profane and also others that are very sacred and yet carry the passion of profanity. Many of his sermons are extant and are still being published. He explains his own transfiguration in a sermon preached before Queen Anne at Denmark House on December 4th, 1617: 

"As the Prophets, and other Secretaries of the Holy Ghost in penning the books of Scriptures, do for the most part retain and express in their writings some impressions, and some air of their former professions; those that had been bred in Courts and Cities, those that had been Shepherds and Herdsmen, those that had been Fishers, and so of the rest . . . so the soul, that has been transported on any worldly pleasure, when it is entirely turn'd towards God, and the contemplation of his all- sufficiency and abundance, doth find in God fit subject, and just occasion to exercise the same affection piously, and religiously, which had been so sinfully transported, and possest it. So will a voluptuous man, who is turned to God, find plenty and deliciousness enough in him, to feed his soul, as with marrow and fatness, as David expresses it,- and so an angry and passionate man, will find zeal enough in the House of God to eat him up . . ." 

Donne translates his passions and much of his early Roman training into the fire of his poetry and in his preaching for the salvation of souls. Another Caroline aspect of Donne's work is the anti-Puritan attitude that the whole of creation, though emerging from filthy slime, does yet sing and show forth the glory of God whose Son became part of it. Everything is a means of God's disclosure and we are to enjoy the world, sinners though we be. As W. S. Scott writes: 

"The lust for love, the overmastering passion of a young man of his fiercely hot blooded temperament, was identically the same in quality as the lust for completion, for fulfilment, which was his to the end of his life."

Let us look at some samples of his astonishing metaphysical verse. Two from his Litanies: 

"O Holy Ghost! whose temple I 
Am, but of mud walls and condensed dust, 
And being sacrilegiously 
Half wasted with youth's fires of pride and lust 
Must with new storms be weather-beat, 
Double in my heart thy flame, 
Which let devout sad tears intend, and let 
(Though this glass lanthorn, flesh, do suffer maim) 
Fire, sacrifice, priest, altar, be the same." 

Then he addresses our Lady in a much more certain manner than does his friend George Herbert: 

"For that fair blessed Mother-maid, 
Whose flesh redeemed us, (that she cherubim, 
Which unlocked Paradise, and made 
One claim for innocence, and disseized sin; 
Whose womb was a strange heaven, for there 
God clothed himself and grew) 
Our zealous thanks we pour. As her deeds were 
Our helps, so are her prayers; nor can she sue 
In vain who hath such titles unto you." 

Sonnet 11 where the influence of Ignatius is seen in the calling before the senses of the thing meditated and then the affections rush out at the end: 

"Spit on my face, you Jews, and pierce my side, 
Buffet and scoff, scourge and crucify me, 
For I have sinn'd, and sinn'd, and only he 
Who could do no iniquity hath dy'd, 
But my death cannot be satisfy'd. 
My sins, which pass the Jew's impiety: 
They kill'd once an inglorious man, but I 
Crucify him daily, being now glorified. 
O let me then this strange love still admire. 
Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment,- 
As Jacob came, cloth'd in vile harsh attire, 
But to supplant, and with gainful intent: 
God cloth'd himself in vile man's flesh, that so 
He might be weak enough to suffer woe." 

Finally one of his greatest poems, "The Hymn to God the Father." 

"Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begunne, 
Which is my sin, though it were done before? 
Wilt thou forgive those sinnes, through which I run, 
And do run still.- though still I do deplore? 
When thou hast done, thou hast not done, 
For I have more. 

"Wilt thou forgive that sinne by which I have wonne 
Others to sinne? and made my sinne their doore? 
Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I did shunne 
A yeare or two: but wallowed in the score? 
When thou hast done, thou hast not done, 
For I have more. 

"I have a sinne of fear, that when I have spunne 
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore,- 
Sweare by thyself, that at my death thy sonne 
Shall shine as he does now, and heretofore,- 
And having done that, Thou hast done, 
I fear no more." 

John Donne was very friendly with Lady Danvers, the mother of George Herbert who follows him both in literature and in a more restful and subdued sanctity. Donne is also credited with the first Missionary sermon for overseas concern for the heathen Indians in Virginia. Nicholas Farrer was the Director of the Virginia Company who invited the Dean to preach for them. Such circumstances will be a bridge for us to cross to get to Bemerton and Little Gidding.


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