John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Helen Gardner | Go to book overview

The Literary Value of Donne's Sermons

by Evelyn M. Simpson

John Donne was essentially a poet. It is as a poet, primarily, that he holds and will continue to hold his place in English literature. But in the later years of his life his creative power had to express itself for the most part in "that other harmony of prose." To his contemporaries it would have seemed hardly fitting that a Dean of St. Paul's should spend his time in idle versemaking. Occasionally the poetic impulse was too strong for him, and he composed one of his great sonnets or hymns, but for most of his time he labored in his vocation of preaching, and in this way he produced his finest prose.

Prose was a medium of literary expression which he had already used in the Paradoxes and Problems, Biathanatos, Ignatius his Conclave, and Essays in Divinity. He became an artist in prose as well as in verse. He had the poet's feeling for the color and sound of words, and the instinct for the right word in the right place. He was able to please, or surprise, or shock, in prose as he had done in verse. His prose lacks something of the concentrated intensity of his verse, it is true. Prose by its very nature tends to be more diffuse than poetry, and less individual. Yet Donne's prose conveys to us the unmistakable flavor of the man's personality, and the study of it is an exciting experience.

In prose Donne belongs to the school of Hooker and Jeremy Taylor, of Milton and Sir Thomas Browne. Like them he had been trained to write Latin prose, and he carried into his writing of his native language that mastery of the long period, that control of subordinate clauses, which is one of the marks of a Latin stylist. His greatest effects, such as that at the close of the terrible and majestic passage on damnation, are obtained by the marshaling of clause on clause, till the climax comes like a peal of thunder.

Donne did not attain at once to this mastery of the long period. One of his early attempts in prose, the "Character of a Dunce," consists of one

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"The Literary Value of Donne's Sermons." Contributed by Evelyn M. Simpson as Section IV of the General Introduction to The Sermons of John Donne, edited by George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson ( University of California Press, 1953-1962), vol. i ( 1953), pp. 83-4, 88-103. Copyright 1953 by the Regents of the University of California. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Regents of the University of California.

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