Top poems 2: John Donne (1572-1631): Satire III — “Of Religion”

Donne Written in a European world wracked by religious controversy and religious war, with conflicting truth claims further complicated by late Renaissance humanism, by the beginnings of a scientific world view, and by the impact of new worlds in the Americas and elsewhere on educated people, John Donne: Satire III is part of a body of work not really valued by many until the early 20th century when its modernity captured the minds of many poets and critics. Despite the definition offered in these notes, the poem is not satire as we conceive it; rather it is a poem of mixed moods, questioning received truths in an ultimately serious manner. In this respect Donne is closer to the classical definition of satire taken from the likes of Quintilian. If you think The Chaser, then, you will be off target.

Religious choices could be life or death choices in Donne’s time. Though he became the revered, if at times abstruse, Dean of St Paul’s, Donne seems to have been on dangerous ground at times in his life. In the poem Donne further sees the choice of faith as having implications beyond the grave.

… Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?
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 chang’d; to be
Then humble to her is idolatry.
As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and do well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consum’d in going, in the sea are lost.
So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust
Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust.

In a Philip, or a Gregory,/A Harry, or a Martin are allusions to Philip of Spain, Pope Gregory the Great, Henry VIII, and Martin Luther. Calvinism does not seem to have appealed to Donne:

Seek true religion. O where? Mirreus,
Thinking her unhous’d 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, as we here obey
The statecloth where the prince sate yesterday.
Crantz to such brave loves will not be enthrall’d,
But loves her only, who at Geneva is call’d
Religion, plain, simple, sullen, young,
Contemptuous, yet unhandsome
; as among
Lecherous humours, there is one that judges
No wenches wholesome, but coarse country drudges.
Graius stays still at home here, and because
Some preachers, vile ambitious bawds, and laws,
Still new like fashions, bid him think that she
Which dwells with us is only perfect, he
Embraceth her whom his godfathers will
Tender to him, being tender, as wards still
Take such wives as their guardians offer, or
Pay values. Careless Phrygius doth abhor
All, because all cannot be good, as one
Knowing some women whores, dares marry none.
Graccus loves all as one, and thinks that so
As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion; and this blind-
ness too much light breeds; but unmoved, thou
Of force must one, and forc’d, but one allow,
And the right; ask thy father which is she,
Let him ask his; though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
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
To stand inquiring 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.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

The poem is worth attention.

Strangely enough, I first encountered it after I had started teaching, in a Year 12 English class at Illawarra Grammar in fact, and not when I was studying 17th century literature under Sam Goldberg at Sydney University in 1964.