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A poet takes to the pulpit

09 January 2015

John Donne was ordained 400 years ago this month. Mary Ann Lund  follows the poet's path to the Deanery of St Paul's

National Portrait Gallery, london

Words at work: above: the younger John Donne by an unknown English artist, 1595

Words at work: above: the younger John Donne by an unknown English artist, 1595

OHN DONNE (1572-1631) called his ordination his second birth. He was ordained deacon and priest on 23 January 1615. It was a day of momentous change. In a later sermon, he recalled that "I date my life from my ministry; for I received mercy, as I received the ministry."

He even changed the seal on his letters: his family's device was a sheaf of snakes, but now he used a picture of Christ on a cross that extended into an anchor, the symbol of hope. He sent a copy to his friend George Herbert, together with a poem:

Adopted in God's family, and so
Our old coat lost, unto new arms I go.
The Cross (my seal at baptism) spread below,
Does by that form into an anchor grow.

Donne knew that the serpent, the author of sin, still remained: "My death he is, but on the Cross my cure."

Once he was ordained, his rise was illustrious. He became chaplain to both Kings James I and Charles I; Reader in Divinity at Lincoln's Inn; Vicar of St Dunstan-in-the-West, London; and Dean of St Paul's Cathedral. Yet his path to the ministry was unusual.

It took him a long time to decide on his vocation. Friends - among them deans and bishops - had been urging him to enter the ministry for at least eight years. He said that it was James I himself who finally persuaded him, a story that he took care to repeat.

At 42 years of age, Donne was older than most new ministers. He had been born and raised a Roman Catholic when it was dangerous to be so. Even more notoriously, as a young man, he had written erotic poetry that spoke of any number of romantic and sexual scenarios. He wrote of a flea bite that suggested how two lovers' blood - and other bodily fluids - might be mingled; a waft of perfume that revealed to the girl's father that he had been secretly visiting her; a "bracelet of bright hair" worn as a love token around his arm. He imagines that one day it will be found in his grave, wrapped around his arm bone, and treated as a holy relic, so that

Thou shalt be a Mary Magdalen, and I
A something else thereby.
What else, Donne never tells us, but he teeters on the edge of blasphemy.

CHURCH career gave Donne the stability that he had missed in his earlier, failed attempts at civil employment. Money was always tight in the Donne household. He had a wife, many children, and an ageing mother to support. But, in choosing the ministry, there is no doubt that Donne was motivated by a deep spiritual commitment.

He probably wrote most of his great religious poetry in the five years leading up to his ordination. His "Holy Sonnets" reveal a devotional life as imaginative as it is intense. They take a traditional poetic form for secular romance - the sonnet - and turn it towards God. "For dearly I love you," he wrote, "But am betrothed unto your enemy."

Donne exploited the paradox that he learned his craft writing love poems. His religious verse notes the oddness of talking to God in the same way that he did to women. At one point, he even reused a chat-up line to express his faith:

. . . but as in my idolatry
I said to all my profane mistresses, . . .
so I say to thee . . .

Urgently, even breathlessly, he challenged God to work on him:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste.

The poems dramatise crisis - a present moment that may change everything.

IZAAK WALTON, Donne's first biographer and former parishioner, painted him as a second St Augustine: "For I think none was so like him before his conversion; none so like St Ambrose after it. And if his youth had the infirmities of the one, his age had the excellencies of the other."

The comparison would have pleased Donne. Augustine was his favourite authority, and he quoted frequently from the Confessions in his sermons. He liked to reinvent himself. He distinguished the "Jack Donne" of his youth, the unsteady young man-about-town, from the "Dr Donne" of the pulpit.

But the continuities are just as noticeable: the same images in love poems, and sermons; the same moments of vertiginous intensity; the same games with time and place. His God was "the God of noon, and of midnight", and, as he put it in another sermon, "God sees us at midnight; he sees us, then, when we had rather he looked off."

Walton believed that Donne had channelled his former passions into his new calling, changing "all his earthly affections . . . into divine love". It is a convincing account of the emotional energies in all his work.

Donne found his home in the pulpit. Again and again, he quoted his favourite verse: "Woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel!" (1 Corinthians 9.16). Perhaps he felt that he was making up for lost time.

At St Paul's, he was obliged to give sermons only on the main feast days, but he preached all through the year, and even expanded the sermon provision at the cathedral. He found the Psalms a particularly satisfying base text. Among his finest sermons are five on the psalms (62-66) that he was required to recite daily as Prebendary of Chiswick.

One of them begins with a meditation: "The Psalms are the manna of the Church. As manna tasted to every man like that he liked best, so do the Psalms minister instruction, and satisfaction, to every man, in every emergency and occasion."

They also had a personal resonance for him as a poet:

A man may have a particular love towards such or such a book of Scripture, and in such an affection, I acknowledge, that my spiritual appetite carries me still, upon the Psalms of David, for a first course, for the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and upon the Epistles of Saint Paul, for a second course, for the New.

IS sermons, typically an hour long, started from scriptural verse, and weighed it, clause by clause. They balanced judgement and mercy, repentance and hope, creating layers of meaning from his chosen theme.

In his Easter sermons, the resurrection is at once a historical event, a future promise of heaven, and a present experience to be felt in the hearts of his listeners. Sometimes, he worked from commentaries, and he was not afraid to draw on contemporary Roman Catholic writers (although not always admitting that he had done so).

The sermons are learned and allusive, but they are not the original, scholarly exercises produced by some other senior clerics of the day, such as the translators of the King James Bible.

They are also carefully tuned to the occasion and place. On 3 April 1625, a week after his former patron, James I, had died, he preached to the newly minted Charles I and his court on the text "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11.3).

The liturgical year and national mourning come together in Donne's sermon: "We are still in the season of mortification, in Lent," he says, "but we search no longer for texts of mortification; the almighty hand of God hath shed and spred a text of mortification over all the land."

Donne points out that James I's death has not destroyed the country's foundations, but his choice of verse captures a shared fear about what might happen next. Would Charles be like his father? Would he seek peace with the enemy, Roman Catholic Spain, or war? Would he try to drown out one set of voices in the Church for another? The sermon registers those anxieties, but also tries to calm them: "Study to be quiet" (1 Thessalonians 4.11), he advised.

ONNE's sermons were often politically charged, but he was also attuned to the state of the individual soul. As in his poems, he loved to dwell on the dramatic present, the here - and now - of salvation. He was at his most electrifying as he observed the grains of sand drain from the hour-glass next to him:

But we are now in the work of an hour, and no more. If there be a minute of sand left, (there is not), if there be a minute of patience left, hear me say: This minute that is left, is that eternity which we speak of; upon this minute dependeth that eternity: and this minute, God is in this congregation, and puts his ear to every one of your hearts, and hearkens what you will bid him say to your selves: whether he shall bless you for your acceptation, or curse you for your refusal of him this minute: for this minute makes up your century, your hundred years, your eternity, because it may be your last minute.

If this appears stark and uncompromising, his sermons are also suffused with warmth. He dwelt on grace and glory: grace in this world, glory in the next. For Donne, as he put it in a poem written to someone who had just taken orders, the ministry is:

. . . that profession
Whose joys pass speech.

He was more able than most to put joy into speech, and it comes through in the movement of his sermons, the pattern of fall and rise. They are rewarding rich reads in their entirety. And, in smaller sections, they speak to us as meditations and prayers. The end of one of them is now well-known as a prayer. If we return to the original text, we can see how his reflection on heaven was as much about the present moment - about a life on earth that keeps the future continually in mind:

And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity. Keep us Lord so awake in the duties of our callings, that we may thus sleep in thy peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility which thou affordest us here, to an actual and undeterminable possession of that Kingdom which thy Son our Saviour Christ Jesus hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible Blood.

Dr Mary Ann Lund is a lecturer in English at the University of Leicester, and editor of Volume 12 of The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.

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