Holy Ambition: Rhetoric, Courtship, and Devotion in the Sermons of John Donne

By Brent Nelson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Courtship Topos

But [man] has relations with his fellow man, closer infinitely
than with any of the things around him, and to many a man
far plainer than his relations with God. Now the nearer is
plainer that he may step on it, and rise to the higher, till then
the less plain.

— George MacDonald77

IN LITERATURE, IF NOT IN ACTUAL PRACTICE, JOHN DONNE was a master of courtship, both sexual and political. In his poetry, and especially in his sermons, Donne draws on a wide range of culturally defined desirequests, or courtships, in configuring human motives. In the Ovidian elegy “Loves Progress,” he uses the metaphor of seafaring exploration to describe the motivational power of his beloveds “Centrique part” (36), the speaker's object of desire:

Who ever loves, if he do not propose
The right true end of love, he's one that goes
To sea for nothing but to make him sick (1–3).78

Courtship is an activity that is governed by a desired end, and which has parallel expressions in all manner of human endeavour. The question is, what is the proper end? The speaker aims to avoid this deliberation by the

77 Unspoken Sermons: Third Series, new ed. (London: Longmans, 1891), 72.

78 References to Donne's poems will be to John Shawcross's edition, unless otherwise noted, and will
be referred to parenthetically in the text according to line number (New York: Doubled ay, 1967).

-27-

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