Reconsidering Donne: From Libertine Poetry to Arminian Sermons

By Guibbory, Achsah | Studies in Philology, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Reconsidering Donne: From Libertine Poetry to Arminian Sermons


Guibbory, Achsah, Studies in Philology


Understood within the context of the early modern religious meanings of libertinism and read within the framework of John Donne's other writings, his early libertine amatory poems have religious significance and an important place in Donne's lifelong concern with religion. His libertine poems defined problems of religious freedom--the difficulty of faith, skepticism about religious institutions and dogma, the search for true religion--that would trouble Donne throughout his life, even as his situation and the English church changed. The essay changes how we read these libertine poems. It also contributes to the ongoing debate about "Donne's religion," showing Donne's consistent preference for liberty and an expansive love, and a remarkable symmetry between the early libertine poetry and his later anti-Calvinist, theologically Arminian stance which emphasized free will, liberty, and God's expansive love.

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WITH the turn to religion and history in early modern studies, John Donne's prose has been attracting a great deal of attention. The website for the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne (OESJD) proudly announces, "in recent years his religion and his prose works have arguably been the focus of the most innovative research." (1) Reassessing Donne's sermons and his preaching, this monumental sixteen-volume edition, under the general editorship of Peter McCullough, will for the first time locate the sermons in their material circumstances and historical occasions and is but the most obvious evidence of a shift in Donne studies to the prose. (2)

McCullough has remarked that at his death "Donne was popularly famous not as a poet but as a preacher ... There was little doubt in the seventeenth-century mind that eloquence used for preaching was infinitely superior to penning ephemera like poems." (3) Jeanne Shami, writing on "The Sermon" in the Oxford Handbook of John Donne (which emphasizes history, biography, and genre), praises Donne's sermons as "at their best, his finest literary creations." (4) Such comments rightly defend the importance of the sermons but have the effect of privileging Donne's religious, public prose and dividing the sermons from his poetry--in a latter-day version of the old Jack Donne/John Donne split.

It is not surprising that after so many decades during which Donne's poetry reigned supreme under the long influence of the "new criticism," scholars turned to the prose. Changes in the field, particularly the advent of a new historicism, made it harder to write on lyric poetry. Donne's poetry, mostly private and undatable, was harder to integrate into the effort to historicize texts than his prose works and sermons, whose public occasions are recoverable and which respond more directly to political and religious tensions and issues of the time. Private poems, circulated to restricted audiences, do not so obviously lend themselves to the kind of contextualization that can be done for the sermons and other prose. Yet poetry did not disappear. Scholars in the 80s and 90s taught us about the sociopolitical aspects of Donne's poetry. (5) An effort to read Donne's poetry within the context of post-Reformation religion began with M. Thomas Hester's '"this cannot be said:' A Preface to the Reader of Donne's Lyrics" (1990) and was continued by, among others, Theresa DiPasquale and Molly Murray. Recently, three books on the sacrament and early modern lyric poetry have appeared, each with excellent chapters on Donne, and others are now publishing on the religious aspects of his poetry. Though the turn to religion has given Donne's prose prominence, a new generation of scholars is expanding our understandings of what the unsettling of religion meant for Donne's poetry and how his poems work. (6)

These recent studies have concerned Donne's holy sonnets and his "sacramental" love poems, and are part of the new "historical" formalism. But the current focus on genre in early modern studies combined with the effective separation of the prose from Donne's poetry has meant that it has been rare for a book, let alone a freestanding essay, to take on the sweep of Donne's writing. …

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