Religious Poetry and Prose of John Donne / John Donne: Contemporary Critical Essays

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Religious Poetry and Prose of John Donne. Edited and mildly modernized by Henry L. Carrigan, Jr. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 1999. xiii + 97 pp. $12.95 (paper).

John Donne: Contemporary Critical Essays. Edited by Andrew Mousley. New York: St. Martin's, 1999. xi + 233 pp. $49.00 (cloth).

It has been twenty years since I picked up a volume of John Donne's works. I expected that the writings of this seventeenth-century Christian pastor would be quaintly distant, linked in my mind with the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible. I recalled some of his famous lines, made more famous by later writers' repetition of them: "Death be not proud. . ." "No man is an island. . ." "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for you. . . ." I thought I would find Donne's religious writings frequently familiar, mildly inspirational and safely archaic.

With that mindset, I found "The "Prayers" were mostly what I had expected. The language is formal, ritualized, and distanced by the baritone public voice of a preacher. In contrast to the prayers, the excerpts from the sermons speak more directly of practical matters. In a voice more like that of Brother Lawrence than Jeremy Taylor, the preacher describes to his congregation how "a piece of straw beneath his knee distracts his prayer" (p. 32). Using intimate, almost conversational language, Donne speaks plainly to the listeners/readers of his sermons.

John Donne's poetry is a different matter altogether. Throughout his poetry, Donne has the mystic's passionate desire to be overwhelmed by God; the poet seeks images to give us a glimpse of that moment when the self is absorbed into the whole, when the individual becomes an indistinguishable part of all time and creation. He wants to be burned, battered, drowned in blood, flooded, ravished. Some of these images are grotesque; some are of sexual union, even rape; certainly the imagery goes beyond the bounds of good taste. Contemporary critic Stanley Fish goes so far as to say that "Donne is sick and his poetry is sick. . ." (Mousley, p. …