John Donne: A Writer’s Road to Repentance

By Neil Earle

Donne (1572-1631) as a dashing young man about town.

The Greeks called it “metanoia.” Christians call it repentance.

Either way, it is a cardinal Christian virtue and its mere mention can cause mild unease even among – especially among – staunch believers.

Repentance has been defined as “a change of heart,” to “turn from one’s sins,” “change one’s ways.” And that is accurate. Better than an academic definition, though, is a concrete illustration to make the point more clear.

Enter John Donne (1572-1631), noted wit and poet and eventual Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in the time of James I. Donne was a young man of marked abilities and decent family. He moved in the same London and court circles as Shakespeare, his older contemporary. Indeed, some have described young Jack Donne as a kind of Hamlet – brilliant, mercurial, morose, magnetic, a University man hankering after order in a disjointed time. By age 26 Donne was headed towards the kind of career he coveted – one of high public repute and stature. Another Francis Bacon? Perhaps. Donne had paid his dues. He had studied law, fought overseas in England’s wars, and had been appointed secretary to the Lord Keeper of England.

He was on his way.

Sowing Wild Oats

Then a hasty and imprudent marriage led to disgrace and a short prison term. For a decade brilliant Jack Donne went nowhere, living off relatives and flattering cultivated ladies. Along the way he continued to follow a youthful passion – he wrote love poetry. Lots of it. Some of it is regarded as the most brilliant and memorable in the language. “To His Mistress Going to Bed” and “Busie old foole, unruly sun” – describing lovers awakening after a night’s tryst – were typical.

No doubt about it, John Donne had drunk of the elixir of life to the full. He had also imbibed the anxieties of the unsettled post-Elizabethan age when English Puritans were gearing up to take on the Established Church of England in the English Civil War (1640s). Then, too, the new discoveries in the heavens by Copernicus and exotic voyages overseas by Raleigh and others seemed to be calling the whole medieval worldview and the Christian faith that sustained it into question. In that way Donne’s age was very much like our own. It was a time of gnawing doubt, a conflict between religion and science and within religion itself, which Donne expressed in compressed, tightly argued lines:

The new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost and the earth, and no man’s wit,
Can well direct him where to look for it.

London in 1600 – note St. Paul's Church top left. Click photo to enlarge.

The Inner Struggle

But by 1611 Donne realized his wizardry with words was getting him nowhere. He was born an English Catholic, a party which had been disgraced by the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate the king in 1605. Donne needed an outlet for his talents but none came. His family kept growing – his good wife would bear him twelve children before her death in 1617. At midlife, Donne felt things hemming in on him. It was time for a career move. He was too old for the military, his marriage scandal came against him at court, attempts at self-promotion failed. But a Cambridge friend, Thomas Morton, Dean of Gloucester Cathedral, had seen something in Donne that most had missed. Donne possessed rare honesty and candour. The very fact that he kept rejecting the good Dean’s offer to consider the ministry because of “some irregularities of my life…so visible to some men” indicated a quality of character and a respect for ministry as a “sacred calling.” This was exceptional in an age where favoritism ruled even in the Churches.

There were other signs of a serious sober man behind the polished sensuality. Donne’s well-argued, patriotic appeal to English Catholics in Pseudo-Martyr (1610) to choose the Oath of Allegiance to the English King against the Pope had impressed many in a country who saw a Catholic conspiracy lurking everywhere. The Church of England now loomed before him as a forgiving parent if he would really convert. Donne had fought this move but after being satisfied he had made his peace with God “by penitential resolutions,” he grasped the nettle. Hugh Kenner sketches Donne’s life change:

“He was ordained in January, 1615…within a year he was one of the royal chaplains, Doctor of Divinity (Cambridge) by special royal command, at his disposal the revenues of two livings, and by way of status and responsibility the readership in Divinity at Lincoln’s Inn. He was 44, established, and dogged by the poems he had written in his twenties. As part of his solemn determination to remake his life in keeping with his new profession, he endeavored to destroy them, but they were saved for posthumous publication by the enthusiasms of men who circulated copies and in turn recopied them.”

Thus, shakily, began Donne’s change from the accomplished, worldly-wise chronicler of the art of love into the esteemed Dr. Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s, the greatest preacher of his time. Isaac Walton, a biographer, heard him preach. Walton described Donne as “a preacher in earnest, weeping sometimes for his [hearers], sometimes with them: always preaching to himself, like an angel from a cloud…and all this with a most peculiar grace.”

By the Grace of God

The best preachers, it seems, preach to themselves. Donne was one of that company. His conversion must have seemed a bit faked at first but, as often the case, many who came to scoff at his preaching stayed to pray. Ordination was certainly a good career move, but Donne had been getting some hard knocks. He had lost a child in 1613 and his wife was not well, for which Donne tended to blame himself. The Lord does move in mysterious ways sometimes. For some, repentance is a blinding flash, an intense crisis along the Damascus Road, as it was for St. Paul (Acts 9:1-19). Perhaps for most of us, though, repentance is a steadily growing conviction, a gradually settling awareness of the need to “get right” with God.

Donne was one of the latter. The apostle Paul – now one of Donne’s new literary heroes – expressed it all very well: “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 1:13-14).

G.R. Potter succinctly summarized Donne’s spiritual transformation:

“Donne lacked at first a full conviction of the positive elements in Christianity, though he was keenly alive to the negative ones, the dangers of sin, the need for divine grace to conquer sin, and so on. Then, as he continued to preach, and as his personal experience impinged on his mind, he came to feel certain things more deeply that he had accepted before intellectually.

“He became more perceptive of the nature of man’s love for God and the glory of God’s love to man. He awakened to an emotional as well as an intellectual conviction that Christ had redeemed mankind. Both of these developments appear first in sermons preached shortly after the death of his wife Ann, in 1617.”

A New Orientation

Donne’s poetry took on a new orientation. His versified wrestlings with God became literary evidence of real repentance. The learned Dr. Donne expressed his battles of faith as clearly, dramatically and dynamically as he had dissected human emotions as a love poet. Three examples make this plain.

During a serious illness in the winter of 1623, Donne pulled himself from his sickbed to compose a classically perfect verse which featured a pun on his name “Donne.” It is a searching public confession for such a high-ranking church leader to be writing. It is titled, very simply, “A Hymn to God the Father:”

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I have won
Others to sin? And made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year, or two, but wallowed in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Stark confessions are rare and powerful. Even the greatest of Christians wrestle with sin. “What a wretched man I am,” the apostle Paul wrote. “Who will rescue me from this body of death” (Romans 7:24)? The Bible says that all have sinned (Romans 3:28). Sin is defined as rebellion against God’s holy standards (1 John 3:4). Sin is also the accumulated spiritual hostility that seeps into our psyche when we run from doing good things (James 4:17). It is also an attitude, a spirit of selfishness we pick up or imbibe at an early age. Some conceal it better than others.

Too many of us rationalize our sins. But Jack Donne was too honest for that. This is one reason his words live today.

The Initiative is God’s

In an earlier poem Donne had expressed his conviction that any goodness in him would be achieved only by the conquering power of the Holy Spirit. Here is Number XIV of the well-named Holy Sonnets:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for, you
yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new.”

There is Christian boldness for you. Few churchmen are ready to serve up such strong meat to the public. But Donne’s generation passed through deadly and depressing times – he foresaw the bloody clash brewing between Anglican and Puritan, between King and parliament. A squeamish faith would not fit people of the all-or-nothing 17th century. There were many like Donne, looking for a right relationship with God in a time when Christians seemed bent on tearing the church apart. Donne’s verse brilliantly expresses what theologians call “creatureliness” – the Christian’s awareness of a vast distance between the believer and His God and yet an ultimate supreme confidence that God is always there, directing and sustaining, and willing to forgive. Submitting to “the three-person’d God’s” loving chastisements, Donne knew, was part of Christian discipline, a mark of respect before a holy God.

Once again, St. Paul’s writings prefigured Donne’s muscular Christianity: “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me…I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:21-25)!

Like Paul, Donne’s Christianity was for the tough-minded.

And such a faith is a mighty steadying influence in life’s trials. Donne’s most famous lyric is Holy Sonnet X. It opens with a most confident and almost snarling declaration against the Archfoe, Death:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

The sonnet radiates Donne’s assurance of resurrection hope. It is one of the glories of English literature. The abrupt opening reflects the willingness of a first-class mind to grapple with a tough subject. He concludes powerfully:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

A Passionate Humility

Eight days before his death Donne composed “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.” It radiates a confident and serene faith. The comparison drawn between the Christian as a musical instrument in God’s hand is given a peculiar twist that shows a high-spirited but reverent, submissive mind at work:

“Since I am coming to that Holy room.
Where, with thy Choir of Saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy Music; As I come
I tune the instrument at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.”

Donne is not always easy for 21st century readers. The language was tougher, more sinewy and less “digestible” back then and Donne’s penchant for taking readers on long, elaborate analogy to make a clever point throws today’s readers. But his best passages are unforgettable. He has the deep, wide human sympathies that marks superior writing. He can move us, as in this famous passage from Devotion Number 17:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promotory were…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

At a funeral oration Donne once summed up the whole Christian hope in a series of three verbal lightning flashes: “In the presence of God, we lay him (his friend) down; In the power of God, he shall rise; In the person of Christ, he is risen already.”

Relief in Repentance

In urging repentance on his hearers Donne was forceful yet compassionate. He himself experienced “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). If we would be cured we must know our illness. Donne diagnosed both that and the radical surprising joy that emerges from conviction and confession of sins. The sense of aloneness and alienation reflected by Prince Hamlet’s generation was met by the ministrations of the Great Physician. “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:37-38).

Donne knew this to be true. He urges us to try the waters.