John Donne and the Art of Adaptation

Article excerpt

John Donne is often depicted as one who abandoned the Roman Catholicism of his youth to conform his faith and practice to emergent Anglicanism. However, recent revisionist scholarship demonstrates that the majority of the English populace did not conform or convert to the reformed Church of England. Rather, they gradually adapted to the evolving religious environment in which they found themselves. John Donne was one of those who adapted. He was not a reformer and he did not strictly conform, but he did adapt. This essay explores Donne's adaptation by concentrating on his poetry, in particular, the "Holy Sonnets," "The Litany," and "The Cross." In Donne's poetry, one can see evidence of the process by which Donne blended old habits and new practices and brought together Catholic beliefs and practices with their Protestant expression, thus creating his own way of being an English Christian.

Two strikingly different images of John Donne emerge from his early life and his later life. A portrait of Donne at age eighteen projects him as defiantly Roman Catholic. He is fashionably dressed and clasps the handle of a sword in his right hand. From his right ear hangs an earring in the sign of a cross. At the top of the portrait is a motto in Spanish: "Antes muerto que mudado" (Sooner dead than changed).1 This is clearly the portrait of a young man who is flaunting his Catholic allegiance. Contrast this image with that of the elder Donne in his shroud, a painting which he sat for just weeks before his death. This last portrait of Donne, the beloved Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and renowned preacher of the Church of England, is the way the people of his time would remember him. This is Donne as a humble servant priest, serenely contemplating his death.

How can we make sense of these two opposing pictures of Donne: the young Donne as a rebellious Catholic and the mature Donne as a leader in the Church of England? Is one true and the other deceptive? Or, how was Donne transformed from ardent Catholic to committed Protestant?

John Donne is often described by scholars and critics as converting or conforming to the English Protestant church. However, in light of recent revisionist scholarship, it is more accurate to describe his action as adapting and his adaptation as just one of the various ways in which Elizabethans attempted to make sense of their religious situation.2 This is the revisionist view of the Elizabethan via media. Rather than there being one middle way that attempts to compromise between Catholic and Puritan elements, there are many paths by which individuals made their way through a religious environment that allowed a range of options. Meanings were in a state of flux. The religious ground on which the English populace had stood for years was no longer firm under foot. The ground continued to shift. People were forced to proceed cautiously, to "doubt wisely" as John Donne advises in line 77 of "Satire III," and to seek the truth of terra firma.3 The ways in which the people did this varied. For the first time, people were on their own in a religiously diverse world. Now there were options. There were decisions to be made. People began to question what was religious "truth." For, as Donne writes in "Satire III," "to adore, or scorn an image, or protest, may all be bad" (76-77). Religious authority came into question. "Will it then boot thee to say a Philip, or a Gregory, a Harry, or a Martin taught thee this?" (96-97). It was up to the individual to decide what is truth. "To stand inquiring right, is not to stray; to sleep, or run wrong, is" (78-79).

John Donne did not simply convert to Protestantism nor did he merely conform: he adapted. With his conscience as his guide, Donne sought truth and, through the process, created his own via media or way through the religious options of his time. He did so by blending old habits and new into his own way of being an English Christian.

Both Catholic and Protestant thought and practice are evident in Donne's "Holy Sonnets. …