John Donne 'Songs and Sonnets' - Secular or Sacred?

“The first thing to remember about Donne is that he was a Catholic; the second, that he betrayed his Faith” - John Donne 'Songs and Sonnets' - Secular or Sacred? introduction. 1

Carey’s argument continues with heavy emphasis on Donne’s religious tendencies and implies that the perpetual worry about fidelity, falseness and the permanence of human relationships contained in the ‘Songs and Sonnets’ is a transference of Donne’s apostatical guilt to women. However, Barbara Hardy in her essay ‘Thinking and Feeling in the Songs and Sonnets’ contradicts Carey’s emphasis on the spiritual and religious, stating that:

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“Physicality…is the rule in Donne”2

These two critical views oppose each other and take extreme standpoints on the meaning and content of Donne’s poetry. However, the common theme in Donne criticism is that there is a strong element of paradox and an overriding impression of ambiguity in his poems, and I believe that this prevents a definitive conclusion that the ‘Songs and Sonnets’ are, in a mutually exclusive sense, either secular or sacred.

Donne’s ‘Songs and Sonnets’ are complex. His use of philosophical, theological and scientific illustrations and analogies, captured in a colloquial language “such as men do use”3 make it extremely difficult to tease out the hidden depths of the poems, and can confuse the issue of whether they are secular or scared in nature. Some critics, however, have attempted to categorise the ‘Songs and Sonnets’, and Herbert Grierson, in his commentary on Donne’s poetical works, claims that there are two major groups to be identified.

The first are those poems which are “frankly ‘evaporations’ of more or less cynical wit, the poems in which he parades his own inconstancy or enlarges on the weaknesses of women”4; and the second, where “the wit in Donne, whether gaily or passionately cynical, is subordinate to the lover, pure and simple, singing, at times with amazing simplicity and intensity of feeling, the joys of love and the sorrow of parting”.

The tendency to divide Donne’s work into two categories – one pertaining to the younger, “cynical libertinism”5, days of ‘Jack Donne’ and the other to the later, more spiritually and religiously infused days of ‘Dr. Donne’ is common throughout critical theory and Grierson in his categorisation is no exception. However, although Donne’s life was certainly affected by events both of a religious and personal nature – such as his apostasy and his marriage to Ann More – he uses religious terms to sanctify love in the ‘Songs and Sonnets’. It this blend of secular and sacred, this conflict and unresolvable paradox which binds his poetry together, and spans the divide between Jack and Dr. Donne, the sexual and the religious.

All of the poems contained in the collection ‘Songs and Sonnets’ contain some kind of conflict between secular and sacred, but I believe that the most illustrative of these are ‘The Sunne Rising’, ‘Womans Constancy’ and ‘The Canonization’.

‘The Sunne Rising’ is classified by Grierson as being in the second category, that of the more spiritual, serious, religious pieces. It focuses on the recurring theme in Donne’s poetry of the encompassing self-sufficiency of two lovers and the recurring image that together they form one world. He writes of the mutual love between a man and a woman as something complete and all consuming, something that needs nothing else:

“She’is all States, and all Princes, I,

Nothing else is.”6 (lns 21-22)

When taken out of the context of the poem, the above quotation appears to be a magnificently profound statement of love, and on one level I believe that it is, especially if one believes the critics when they say it must have been written after his marriage and should therefore attributed to his wife, Ann More. However, although this idea of love is a tender and serious theme, the poem itself is quite light-hearted and this is confirmed by his impudent address to the sun in the opening as a “Busie old foole” and a “Sawcy pedantique wretch”. This is not the only evidence for a more jocular tone however, the poem is infused with hyperbole from beginning to end, and Donne’s use of the extended conceit of the sun contributes to an overall sense of self-conscious wit and fun. In particular, Donne’s outrageous claim that he could:

“…eclipse and cloud [the sun’s rays] with a winke,

But that I would not lose her sight so long:” 7 (lns 13-14)

is an obvious light-hearted joke on his part, for he exclaims that they, the lovers, are all-powerful, need nothing else and that he could eclipse the sun, just by closing his eyes. However, he realises that it is not possible to stop the sun from shining altogether, and side-steps the hyperbolic claim with the bravado that he could and would, only, he doesn’t want to lose sight of his beloved for one second, as the sun shines through her.

His argument too is very ingenious in that Donne implies that the further the sun travels, the worse he will fare:

“Looke, and to morrow late, tell mee,

Whether both the’India’s of spice and Myne

Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with mee.”8 (lns 16-18)

In this proud smug, and almost mocking tone, assisted by the alliteration on the ‘l’, ‘m’ and ‘s’ sounds, Donne tells the sun that his best option is to stay with them, for they are the entire world.

The traditionally majestic and revered sun is reduced in this poem to mere servant, whose only function is to wake men up at dawn, and even worse, to an aged busybody, whose presence is an annoying interruption to the two lovers consumed with each other. This reductive view of the sun comes at a time when a new cosmological theory had come into existence. Copernicus had put forward the view that the earth orbited around the sun, shattering the previous conception of a “man-centred universe”9. Donne’s portrayal of the lovers as a self-contained world of their own, then, contradicts and overcomes even the most up-to-date and reliable rules regarding the universe which reduce the status of man to insignificance. It is this which gives an immense importance and even greater praise to the emotion of love, and to his lady in particular.

This is a secular idea, in that it is rooted in the physical, all the lovers need is each other. However, the idea of a man-centred universe is, in itself, biblical when one regards the “order of divine creation as related in Genesis. There God forms the earth first, bestowing upon it the various forms of fruit and vegetation to satisfy man’s needs. Only then are the sun and the moon placed in the heavens as mere accessories to the earth”.10 So, in this sense, then, the deeper theme of the poem emphasises the sanctity of the isolated lovers. They challenge the sun to search for anything which can compare to, in the context of their self-contained world, the “rich experience”11 of human love and spirit, and the “preciousness of the human soul besides which all else pales into insignificance”12. In this way, their love is everything, it can transcend to become supreme and heavenly – a sacred love.

‘The Canonization’ is another example of Donne proclaiming that he and his lover are completely self-contained and have no need of anyone or anything else, only in this poem, he states this by protesting that they have no effect on the outside world:

“Alas, alas, who’s injur’d by my love?…

…Call us what you will, wee are made such by love”13 (lns 10 & 19)

The conflict in this poem is much more prominent than in ‘The Sunne Rising’, which leans more towards earthly love as he is “boldly conflating the secular and the sacred”14 – the “boldly” probably referring to the opening exclamation, and the colloquial language he uses throughout:

“For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love,”15 (ln 1)

This dialectal tone contributes to the appearance of the poem as being of a secular nature, and Donne’s frequent reference to the sexual act and employment of sexual connotations and imagery certainly provide evidence for it having the aforementioned “physicality” as a rule. In the second stanza, he refers to himself and his lover as flies, a common example of unbridled sexuality, and continues this theme with a metaphor of them as tapers, which, whilst conjuring images of self-consumation, have phallic connotations. His use of the word “die” in conjunction with the latter image leads the reader to believe he means it to be equated with sexual intercourse, and this is further reinforced by his use of the eagle and the dove, which represent masculine strength and feminine gentleness:

“Call us what you will, wee are made such by love;

Call her one, mee another flye,

We’are Tapers too, and at our owne cost die,

And wee in us finde the’Eagle and the dove,”16 (lns 19-22)

However, in the very next line, Donne employs an image of the Phoenix. “The allusions [of the birds] are secular because indubitably Petrarchan, but also sacred because the three birds jointly and severally represent the Trinity”17. This idea is supported further by the phoenix being recognised for rising again from its own ashes, which brings vividly to mind the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even in the final two stanzas which do not employ imagery directly related to religion, Donne employs words which have a religious use such as “legend”, which can mean the life of a saint, “hymnes”, “canoniz’d”, “reverend”, and “patterne”, which can be used as a technical term for ideas in the mind God.

It is in the final stanza where the lovers are asked to pray for ideas of their love from God, for the people in the “Countries, Townes, [and] Courts”18 below. This could be seen as the lovers being invoked as saints, because their prayers are requested.19 This religious undertone throughout and ending on the divine could be seen as Donne illustrating that the idealistic purity of spiritual love rises above the level of the earthly lovers who are too tied down in their bodily senses to achieve this. Donne shows us in this poem an earthly paradox to express the reality and necessity of believing in a heavenly universal harmony, achieved through love.

This unity and theme of the two lovers as one, which pervades many of the ‘Songs and Sonnets’, is apparently called into question in the poem ‘Woman’s Constancy’. Here, Donne expresses a strong sense of an unstable world of change, and evokes the mutability of time and its effects:

“Now thou hast lov’d me one whole day,

To morrow when thou leav’st what wilt thou say?”20 (lns 1-2)

Throughout the poem, Donne appears to be preoccupied with their relationship and questions his lover’s ability to be faithful to him. In this sense the poem is secular, as it is concerned with earthly love and its terrestrial nature to be subject to the changes of time, unlike his representation of the sacred love in ‘The Canonization’ which is loyal and constant.

However, John Carey professes that there is a religious theme to this poem, and although I do not agree that it is exclusively sacred in theme, knowing Donne’s crisis of apostasy would indicate that there is a religious undercurrent to it.

Donne’s apostasy was a source of unfixedness in his life, and I believe this made him acutely aware of his own changeability and the changeability of human nature in general:

“…against these scapes I could

Dispute, and conquer, if I would,

Which I abstaine to doe,

For by to morrow, I may thinke so too.”21 (lns 14-17)

Although he never lost his faith, he was inconstant regarding which church was the ‘true’ path to God, and we could see this guilt over his inconstancy as being reflected onto women in this poem. This is particularly plausible as he even uses theological language to describe the things from which she strays:

“Or, that oathes made in reverentiall feare

Of Love, and his wrath, any may forsweare?

Or, as true deaths, true maryages untie,”22 (lns 6-8)

Marriage and oaths are traditional symbols of the church, and betray the religious undertones provided by his transference of apostatical guilt to women. This conflicts however with the secular nature of the poem regarding the mutability of time and the overriding feeling of fear that reality is continually being snatched away, and that earthly love is never constant. This theme, combined with the fact that the poem comes under the category of Donne as a young man, results in it being seen that Donne felt “the only proper response to life’s destructiveness…[was] to pursue sensation and cram as many vital pulsations into our allotted time”23 as possible. It could also be said that this momentariness gave Donne a feeling of freedom and that he therefore believed that “truth to the sexual motive… is all the moral responsibility one could owe”24.

I believe that the conflicting views of whether Donne’s poems are secular or sacred can never be resolved, and whilst it is frustrating and sometimes confusing, this eternal paradox is the essential element of Donne’s poetry which makes it so appealing. He overthrows his own arguments just when they appear most convincing, uses secular imagery to celebrate the divine, and sacred imagery to reinforce the secular. It could be seen that he expresses dissatisfaction with the actuality of physical experience in order to reach beyond to a more permanent and heavenly reality, or it could be seen that he equates sensual religious experience with the deep emotion of sexual relationships.

There are many factors to consider when attempting to decide one way or the other; religion dominated life in the seventeenth century, but Donne’s expression of a sexual conscious “decisively revised the understanding which had prevailed in Europe for some four centuries”25. In particular, his marriage to Ann More favours a secular reading, and his apostasy a sacred. However, even when he was at his most sceptical, satirical and deeply involved with the secularised senses, he was overwhelmingly preoccupied by a search for religious truth. This balanced view that the poems can be both secular and sacred at the same time is the only conclusion that I believe can be drawn. It is a paradox in itself, but maybe that’s just what Donne would have wanted.

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