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

By Brent Nelson | Go to book overview
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The last half of this hook has addressed two central features in scholarly caricatures of Donne his ambition and his interest in death in order to demonstrate that a great deal of what seems to be of personal relevance to Donne must be regarded as rhetorically contingent upon a more public purpose. Far from being simple indications of his raging ambition, Donne's abundant references to courtship concerns are reflections of rhetorical strategies functioning deep within the structures of his sermons, strategies that are as much indicators of the needs of Donne's audience (as he conceives them) as they are of the preacher himself. In fact, Donne's courtship references point to a preacher who is fully conscious of his own propensities and those of his congregation, but who turns these inclinations to good use for their spiritual benefit.

This study thus also adds to the growing evidence of continuity in Donne's literary career from poet to preacher.572 Donne, who so thoroughly played the courtier for much of his life, finally turned his energies and skills to drawing his congregations into a courtship of the Divine. In a sermon preached at St. Paul's Cathedral, Donne describes himself as “Gods Ambassadour” who has come to reconcile his congregation to his heavenly Prince (10:5.431). And so he pleads,

Let naturall reason, let affections, let the profits or the pleasures of
the world be the Councell Table, and can they tell you, that you are
able to maintaine a warre against God, and subsist so, without
being reconciled to him? Deceive not your selves, no man hath so
much pleasure in this life, as he that is at peace with God

Throughout his sermons, Donne uses this “councell table” of worldly desires to good advantage, to tell his congregations that reconciliation is necessary to true fulfilment of “profit” and “pleasure,” for these find their final end only in God. Donne goes on to describe the purifying effect of bringing motives in line with a proper courtship:

572 Terry Sherwood in Fulfilling the Circle, for example. Lindsay Mann also demonstrates Donne's con-
sistent advocacy of mutuality in love and marriage in both the Songs and Sonnets and the sermons:
“Misogyny and Libertinism: Donne's Marriage Sermons,” JDJ 11 (1992): 111–32. Similarly, I
demonstrate that Donne's facility with courtship strategies was by no means lost when he turned
from poet to preacher.


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


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