Donne’s religious poems have not attracted the same attention and admiration as the love poems and there may be reasons for this: apart from attracting a smaller sympathising audience in our times, some of them are less felicitous in their imagery and techniques. The first here is a major exception and must be counted as one of his best .
“Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward”
This poem, as is the case with many of Donne’s, starts with a mental tickle or trigger feeling about a situation which is then expanded and explored, in this case in rhyming couplets and iambic pentameters. Here it is his sense that he should be facing East and the Cross on this holy day when, in fact, he has to travel West. The opening line is in the third person imperative and invites a lengthy comparison between a man’s soul and a Sphere. The Spheres were a set of spherical orbits which moved the planets. Each had its attendant angel or intelligence which prevented it from going astray. His would be devotion which should move him East but he has become subject to contrary impulses and habits and is under the control of pleasure or business which sends him in the opposite direction. The first mover is the 8th sphere which is the master and he is “whirld by it.”
The intensity of religious feeling is combined with a density of reasoning in a highly particularised situation, which becomes understandable to us through the force of his persuasion. A pun on sun and son follows along with the paradox that the crucifiction (the setting of Christ’s life) was also a rising and that sin might have cast us all into eternal night without it.
With a typical sudden twist of argument and feeling, he changes the thread of thought and is now almost glad not to have to witness the event “of too much weight to me.” This phrase has an appropriate heaviness and simplicity. The conceits here are under firm control as he reasons that whoever sees God’s face, which represents life, must die (Exodux xxx iii 20) so that whoever sees God’s death suffers even more. His imagination is fired by the inner vision of the Crucifiction and the nailing of those hands which spanned the poles but intellectual activity is still vigorous when he uses the paradox that God, the zenith to us and the Antipodes (he is incapable of imprecision or loose ends) must have been brought low and his blood mingled with earth to form mud. The dust is literal and also the dust from which life is formed. The terrible accompaniments to the event are realised: earthquakes, shrinkage in Nature (Matthew xx vii 31-4), eclipse – all these are brought to life for us. The flesh of Christ is the clothing of God and it would be intolerable to see it torn just as it would be to witness the anguish of Mary.
With a further change of thought, he claims that he cannot forget these visions – which he has just proved by his descriptions.
He looks always to God as God looks to him and there is a very real sense of personal communication and intimate relationship here. He then pleads with Jesus to accept that he is turning his back only so that he can be chastised and hopes that he is worthy of anger. The final image of burning off the rust of sin is striking and the diction powerful: the direct plea reminds us of the love poetry but the tone is respectful and devotional. The twist now is that, if God will make him once more in his own image, then Donne will turn his face back in his direction. God can acknowledge him as his own if he is cleansed. Donne almost certainly exaggerated his own wild youth as he was a happily married man with many children and most of the love poems are to his wife, but for the dramatic effect, he must appear a sinner.
” A Hymne to God the Father”
In many of Donne’s religious poems he questions his own faith, either explicitly or implicitly through a faltering of the rhythm or diction. Here, on his sick bed in 1623, he is assured in his beliefs, a confidence emphasised by the quiet, controlled rhythms, the unity of rhymes and the simple, almost monosyllabic, diction.
The first two stanzas are composed of questions in their initial four lines with a direct and even intimate feel to them, as he addresses God to find out if he can be forgiven, a stance which has the sincerity of a dying man but one who cannot hope to receive an answer on earth. The sin “Which is my sin, though it were done before” is Original Sin which he has compounded in himsefl by his actions. Next he focusses on sins which he continues to commit even whilst deploring them: he is in the very human and recognisable position of being unable to reform. There is a hint on a pun between his name and the verb but this is not fully developed until the end of the poem. He says there are more sins to confess but he does not specify in detail and is probably over-emphasising, as we have seen before.
The sins in the second stanza are those involved in leading others astray and his contrition is stressed by the repetition of: “Wilt thou forgive…” It is believed that the poem was later set to music and this is credible in view of the assonance and musicality. He also wishes to be forgiven for sins which he avoided for a while and then “wallowed in” for many years, a hyperbole once more. He was the first poet to write passionately of married love and fidelity. The semi-chorus, “For I have more”, leads the reader to wonder how the line will be altered to form a conclusion.
The third stanza brings us into the present with its change of tense:
I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spun
My last thred, I shall perish on the shore.
The image is striking and intense as he accepts that his doubt is, in itself, a sin which, in turn, gives reason for the doubt. In a change of sentence structure from interrogative to the imperative mood, he orders God to swear that his son/sun will continue to shine and redeem sinners. When this has been promised, he can die in peace and the pun on his name is clinched, as the repetition is now subject to a variation:
And, having done that, Thou hast done
I have no more.
This is one of the best of the religious poems dealing with the paradoxes of sin and repentance in simple language with a strong directness of approach and feeling and a hymn-like quality.
“Holy Sonnets: Divine Meditations”
These are mixed in quality and approach, from the imagery of the stage (3) to imagining the Day of Judgement (4). The mind is never idle as we see from this latter opening: “At the round earth’s imagined corners”. In sonnet (5) essential questions are asked in the octave about the nature of sin and why man should be subject to sin when poisonous minerals, the Tree of Knowledge and animals are free from the threat of damnation. If reason and will, God-given qualities, are the cause for man’s special responsibility for sin, it could be considered deeply unjust. He also asks, if God’s mercy is so easy to bestow, why God is so angry. The sestet seems to turn around and accuse himself of impertinence but the reader is far from convinced.
The questions have been so apt and unanswerable that we do not accept that they can simply be forgotten. Sonnet (6) is a challenge to Death and its pride and has the usual Donne wit and satire;: he throws in a side knock at the fact that kings and desperate men can kill just as suddenly even though death claims a monopoly. It reads more like one of the dramatic love poems, as does the one to his dead wife: “Since she whome I lovd…” In this poem the relationship between Donne and Anne is evoked and that between Donne and God realised. The imagery is of streams, in that his love for her showed him the way to God, the source of all love. God is here characterised as concerned that he will not obtain Donne’s soul as the poet might worship saints or angels instead.
This twist reminds us of the love poems as he accuses God of fear and jealousy. The images in these sonnets is, perhaps, more sustained than in the love poems, with fewer changes of direction. In (2) the colour concept occurs throughout: the black soul, the red of blood and blushing and the white of innocence and no-one would claim that this is original. Sometimes Donne’s imagination seems fettered by religious orthodoxy even when he is denying it. Yet in (1) his thoughts are challenging and varied with new references of sun/son, a servant, a sheep, God’s image, kingship, sex and the essential paradox of sin: that Satan can choose a man yet hate him at whilst God rejects him yet loves him, thus bringing about his death rather than life. This causes despair, in itself, a sin. There is still a passionate intensity coupled with intellectual backgroud and a logical thread. Throughout, we have a sense of genuine experience: Donne’s faith is a present reality to him, even though it gives rise to irreconcilable feelings and responses. The falsity occurs when he claims to have come to terms with them when the verse has pulses which seem to prove the opposite as in the end of (4) and (5)
The one which reveals many of his characteristics is “Batter my heart…” with its abrupt and violent opening, its intellectual accuracy in the phrase “three-person’d God” and the richness of the diction in: “knocke, breathe, shine, and seek to mend”. The typical tendency to paradox occurs in the fact that God must overthrow him in order for him to stand upright. A range of verbs is employed in the image of a usurped town when Donne would admit God but cannot. He therefore needs an assault. Reason, God’s representative within him, has been captured and is no help. The imagery in the sestet is of a rape and is less successful: there is a robustness about it which seems inappropriate, although the comparison of a sexual act to that of contemplation and mystic union was a currently used metaphor. Somehow Donne evokes the physicality of the embrace and the impression this creates is not counteracted by the intellectuality of the final paradox: “Nor ever chast, except you ravish me.”
Donne’s voice is modern and speaks to us directly and urgently, particularly in the love poems, but the religious poems can suffer from a variety in their quality and a distancing caused by a difference in attitudes over the centuries.