Religious Criticism, the Verse Epistle, and Donne's Daring Discretion

By Kneidel, Gregory | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Religious Criticism, the Verse Epistle, and Donne's Daring Discretion


Kneidel, Gregory, Christianity and Literature


John Donne's verse epistle, "Honour is so sublime perfection," is his most religious poem, (1) at least in the restricted sense that the word "religion" appears in it more often than in any of his other poems. (2) This curious fact might surprise both specialist and non-specialist readers of Donne alike. The poem is never printed with or listed among his religious poems. Like Donne's other neglected verse epistles, it lacks the qualities we most readily associate with his best studied religious poetry: the witty profanity of the Songs and Sonnets, the searching skepticism of "Satyre III," and the devotional intensity of the Holy Sonnets. (3) Indeed, since it takes up Horatian themes of friendship and patronage, ethics and politics, it is unclear how "Honour is so sublime perfection" might qualify as a religious poem in the first place. This problem has been made all the more acute in the wake of the so-called "turn to religion" in early modern literary criticism. (4) This turn is now far enough advanced that its methods and motives have begun to be challenged. One objection has been that it has tended to equate religion with inwardness, so that religious criticism adopts the agenda of analytic psychology and existentialist phenomenology and searches out a lineage of spiritual self-alienation that links Saint Paul with Levinas via Augustine, Luther, and Freud. In this essay, I will propose a further turn within the "turn to religion" that will enable our conception of Renaissance religion to encompass "Honour is so sublime perfection." This further turn away from inwardness has been made in other disciplines--specifically in biblical scholarship, early church history, and post-secular critical theory--and has only just begun to register in early modern literary criticism. (5) In "Honour is so sublime perfection," Donne likewise turns to religion in order to move away from inwardness. His model for doing this is Paul, from whom Donne gleans a strategy for reconciling daring and discretion, two qualities that critics tend to polarize as the hallmarks of Donne's rakish youth and his prosperous maturity, respectively. But, by explaining how Donne reconciles daring and discretion in this poem of his middle years, I hope to interject at least one of Donne's verse epistles into our critical discussions of Donne's religious poetics and the scriptural poetics of the early modern period more generally.

"Hee must worke and frame it after the modell of that panta pasi, all things to all men"

"The Reformation fought and conquered," Albert Schweitzer once wrote, "in the name of Paul" (2). Schweitzer could have gone further and said that the Reformation fought for a specific version of Paul. It was Luther who, following Augustine, read Paul's description of the self divided between the flesh and the spirit in Romans 6-8 as autobiography and then made it the normative account of the Christian condition (see Steinmetz). For Luther and later reformers, the core of Paul's theology was the introspective analysis of the subconscious, the motives, desires, and anxieties that betray our human frailties. Their Paul had established a new Christian faith that rejected both Hebraic work-righteousness and Hellenistic rationalism in favor of absolute dependence on God's saving grace. Because of his belief in humanity's fallen epistemology and enslaved will (non posse non peccare), Paul helped Reformed theologians to enshrine what Richard Lanham has called the Christian West's "bad conscience about language" (5). On this view, Paul rejected worldly rhetoric as sinfully carnal and sinfully rational (cf. 1 Cor. 1-3), so that his own style became idealized as simple and transparent. In his study Saint Paul and Protestantism, Matthew Arnold would complain, not altogether fairly, that Calvin, the "heavy-handed Protestant Philistine," would read every verse of Paul as if it were a mere "formal scientific proposition" (70).

The Reformations version of inward-looking Paul has come under attack in recent years by biblical scholars and critical theorists alike.

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