John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Helen Gardner | Go to book overview

The Religious Poetry of John Donne

by Helen Gardner

With the probable exception of "The Cross," for which no precise date can be suggested, and which is more a verse-letter than a divine poem, the earliest of Donne's Divine Poems appears to be "La Corona." "La Corona" is a single poem, made up of seven linked sonnets, each of which celebrates not so much an event in the life of Christ as a mystery of faith. Those brought up in a different tradition might well wonder why Donne should devote one sonnet of his seven to the Finding in the Temple, and omit all reference to the events of the Ministry, except for a brief reference to miracles. The emphasis on the beginning and close of the life of Christ is characteristic of mediaeval art, whether we think of a series of windows like those at Fairford, or of the mediaeval dramatic cycles. It was dictated by the desire to present with simplicity the Christian scheme of man's redemption. The popular devotional equivalent of this emphasis upon the plan of salvation was the meditation on the Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary, and reference to them explains at once why Donne would find it natural to pass directly from the Finding in the Temple to the events of Holy Week.1 Habits of prayer, like other early habits, can survive modifications of a man's intellectual position. It is doubtful whether Donne felt there was anything particularly Catholic in concentrating on the Mysteries of the Faith, or in addressing his second and third sonnets to the Blessed Virgin, or in apostrophizing St. Joseph in his fourth; but it is also doubtful whether anyone who had been brought up as a Protestant would have done so.

"La Corona" has been undervalued as a poem by comparison with the

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"The Religious Poetry of John Donne." From Part I of the General Introduction to The Divine Poems of John Donne, edited by Helen Gardner ( Oxford, 1952), pp. xxi-xxxvii. Reprinted by permission of The Clarendon Press. [Some footnotes have been omitted. Ed.]

1
The Joyful Mysteries are the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Presentation, Finding in the Temple; the Sorrowful Mysteries are the Agony, Scourging, Crowning with Thorns, Bearing of the Cross, Crucifixion; the Glorious Mysteries are the Resurrection, Ascension, Coming of the Holy Ghost, Assumption, Coronation. Donne's "rectified devotion" naturally omits the last two, which have no basis in Scripture.

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