A History of English Literature

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Essex, found office and became a Member of Parliament. But in 1602 a rash secret
marriage to the young neice of his patron ended his career – ‘John Donne, Ann
Donne, Undone’, he said once. His exclusion worsened when the Jesuits were (incor-
rectly) blamed for the Gunpowder Plot (1605), a Catholic conspiracy to blow up
King and Parliament. Donne attacked Catholic extremism in Pseudo-Martyr (1610)
and Ignatius His Conclave (1611), yet still found no office. He wrote a treatise in
defence of suicide. The King urged him to take Holy Orders, and he became a priest
in the Church of England in 1615, then a royal chaplain, and in 1621 Dean of St
Paul’s and a famous preacher.
Donne’s first prose was Paradoxes – ‘That Only Cowards Dare Die’ – and Problems

  • ‘Why hath the common Opinion afforded Women Soules?’ His valedictory poem,
    telling his wife not to fear for him when he is abroad, begins, unconsolingly, ‘As
    virtuous men pass mildly away / And whisper to their souls to go ...’. Paradox was
    a habit confirmed by exclusion. The difficulties of a Christian who is not a convinced
    Protestant are strenuously argued in Satire III, a search for the true Church. He
    strenuously adjures his audience to

Seek true religion. O where? Mirreus Scented one
Thinking her unhoused here, and fled from us,
Seeks her at Rome, there, because he doth know
That she was there a thousand years ago.

‘He loves her rags so’, he continues, ‘as we here obey / The statecloth where the
Prince sate yesterday.’ (Papists reverence the sacrament, but we English bow to a
cushion.) Donne nails reformers, conformists and free-thinkers, then turns on the
reader and on himself: ‘unmoved thou / Of force must one, and forced but one
allow. / And the right’ (‘forced’ means ‘tortured’).

Be busy to seek her, believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely, in strange way an unknown road
To stand enquiring right,is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so; steepness
Yet strive so, that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.

The need to find the true Church confronts the rule, soon to be adopted throughout
Europe, that a country adopt the religion of its ruler. Will it help at ‘the last day’

To say a Philip, or a Gregory, Philip II of Spain Pope
A Harry or a Martin taught thee this? Henry VIII Luther
Is not this excuse for mere contraries,
Equally strong; cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;
Those past, her nature, and name is changed; to be
Then humble to her is idolatry.
Donne was known to the public as a preacher. His verse was privately admired
(‘the first man in the world, in some things’, said Jonson), but published only after


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