Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 11. Andrewes and Donne compared

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XII. The English Pulpit from Fisher to Donne

§ 11. Andrewes and Donne compared

Happily, there can be no question of bishop Andrewes’s personal piety and earnestness. The witness of his contemporaries agrees with the witness of his Private Devotions. In his preaching, he gave in too much to the mannerisms of the day and the taste of his audience, but the holiness of his inner life and the sincerity of his aims were not doubted by the most frivolous, or without influence upon a corrupt court. His life forms a link between several ages. He was born in the year that Latimer was burnt, he lived to see Charles I crowned and Milton wrote a Latin elegy upon his death. Few men have owed more to their schoolmasters and few have acknowledged their debt more handsomely. Samuel Ward of Ratcliffe, to whom he afterwards gave the rectory of Waltham, discovered his merit, and prevented his parents from making a ’prentice of him. Richard Mulcaster, the first headmaster of Merchant Taylors’ school, secured him for the new school. Andrewes “ever loved and honoured his Master Mulcaster … and placed his picture over the doore of his Studie; whereas in all the rest of the house, you could scantly see a picture.” At Pembroke hall, Cambridge, he became, in succession, scholar, fellow and master. He was always “a singular lover and encourager of learning and learned men,” and his friendship with Casaubon and their enthusiastic studies at Ely form one of the most attractive pictures in the history of scholarship. His stores of erudition and his knowledge of many languages were fitly employed in the translation of the Pentateuch for the Authorised Version; they were less felicitously used in his sermons, where they sometimes cumber the ground. His knowledge of the fathers was wider than his knowledge of men, and his one intrusion into secular life, in the matter of the Essex divorce, was disastrous and bitterly repented.

His sermons were collected for publication by the command of Charles I, who was “graciously pleased to thinke a paperlife better than none,” though the editors, Laud and Buckeridge, were well aware that the printed sermons “could not live with all that elegancie which they had upon his tongue.” His preaching owed as much to his perfect delivery as Hooker’s lost by his diffidence. After-ages will always find the contemporary opinion of Andrewes’s sermons extravagant, but, in spite of the most exasperating faults of style, there is much to praise. He prefers to tread the well-worn highway of common Christianity, and will not easily be drawn either into the Roman controversy or into the insoluble “deep points” of predestination and the like, in which puritan preachers often lost themselves. The determination to extract the most possible from the sacred text leads him into over-nice distinctions, till he can only express himself with the help of brackets, and even of brackets within brackets. Yet, notwithstanding his clumsy apparatus, finicking exegesis and tortuous language, he commonly rewards the reader’s patience. The remark of the presbyterian lord to James I at Holyrood, “No doubt your Majesty’s bishop is a learned man, but he cannot preach. He rather plays with his text than preaches on it,” is not the whole truth. The texts which Andrewes took for his great series of Christmas and Good Friday sermons are permanently enriched by the musings of his devout mind.

It is unfortunately easy to trace the influence of Andrewes upon the younger preachers of his times. The Andrewes tradition lasted far on into the century, and, in the hands of lesser men, it lost the life which the genius of Andrewes had been able to infuse into it. When, at last, it was superseded by preaching of a plainer and sincerer style, bishop Burnet wrote its epitaph:

  • The impertinent way of dividing texts is laid aside; the needless setting out of the originals and the vulgar version is worn out. The trifling shews of learning, in many quotations of passages, that very few can understand, do no more flat the auditory.
  • John Donne, although eighteen years younger than Andrewes, survived him only six years. While Laud, Montagu, Ussher and Hall were destined to preach to another age, Donne preached only to the age which knew Andrewes. From the first, it must have been inevitable to compare the two most famous preachers of James I’s reign. Both are deeply read in the fathers and love to quote them in their original languages. Neither can resist the fanciful imagery and verbal conceits that their age loved. Yet, though they work with the same clay, the one achieves a success in spite of his clumsiness, the other is a finished artist. Andrewes is read with difficulty for the sake of his matter; Donne is read by many who care little for his theology. Yet Donne was not simply a man of letters caring more for his style than for his matter. He impressed his own age, as he impresses the reader of to-day, with his tremendous earnestness. Whether the reasons which brought him to enter the ministry in his forty-second year were adequate or not, he gave himself to his new calling with an evergrowing sense of his responsibility. He took the most exacting view of the preacher’s office, and would excuse “no man’s laziness, that will not employ his whole time upon his calling.” In one of his Candlemas sermons, he discusses the preacher’s business and maintains the need of preaching to the educated and the court in a different style from that which will suit the simple. It was Donne’s métier, more than that of any man then alive, to preach to “the learneder and more capable auditories” that the times had produced. The honourable society of Lincoln’s inn got the preacher they wanted, and parted from him with regrets and fervent gratitude. At St. Paul’s, he gave himself more preaching duties than had fallen to previous deans, and a sermon from him was an occasion of which fashionable London took advantage.

    It is a little surprising that a man of his literary experience published only a few occasional sermons, such as the first sermon preached to king Charles, printed by royal command, or the sermon in commemoration of George Herbert’s mother, lady Danvers. A partial explanation is that his sermons, for the most part, were not ready for the press. It was not till the plague of 1625 drove him out of London and gave him some months’s leisure, that he set to work upon them. In a letter of this year (25 November) he wrote:

  • I have revised as many of my sermons as I have kept any note of and I have written out a great many, and hope to do more. I am already come to the number of 80, of which my son, who, I hope will take the same profession, or some other in the world of understanding, may hereafter make some use.
  • Again, in 1630, he utilised a time of sickness at Abrey Hatch in “revising my short notes.” Doubtless this free revision enabled the author to write at greater length than he had preached. Nine years after his father’s death, John Donne the younger published Eighty Sermons; but they cannot be identical (as Gosse suggests) with the eighty mentioned by Donne in 1625, since many of this first folio belong to a later date. A second volume and a third appeared later, forming together a larger library of sermons than Andrewes or any other divine had yet furnished.

    “There is some degree of eloquence required in the delivery of God’s messages,” wrote Donne, and he intended to use all the literary craft he had learnt to give life to his sermons. Sometimes, his rich fancy leads him into sheer extravagance or paradox. Sometimes, his delight in assonant words will make him speak of “a comminatory or commonitory cross,” or he will end a paragraph with portentous sesquipedalians, “irreparably, irrevocably, irrecoverably, irremediably.” Coleridge disliked “a patristic leaven” in him, and Hallam said roundly that he had perverted his learning “to cull every impertinence of the fathers and schoolmen.” Yet few readers would willingly spare the penitent’s fond references to “that blessed and sober father,” St. Augustine. His wit, his learning and his poetic feeling are far more often turned to profit than used for display. The old wit has still its use when he can write, “The devil is no recusant; he will come to church, and he will lay his snares there.” And his poetic fancy can take unceasing delight in the metaphors of the Bible and marshal his rhythmical periods.

    The obscurity of Donne’s sermons has been often exaggerated. No doubt they would be difficult to follow with the ear only, but we have no means of knowing how closely the printed sermon recalls the preacher’s words. In spite of his profusion of metaphors and similes, he seldom leaves us in any doubt of his meaning, and he can be as simple as any man without being ordinary. It is less easy to say that we always know whither he is taking us. Every reader must be conscious of a certain arbitrariness in his treatment. And we must particularly notice how his sombre cast of thought, and his severe view of his own past failings, are apt to assert themselves in unexpected quarters. Andrewes and he begin a Christmas sermon on the same text, but Donne soon loses the Christmas feeling and brings us face to face with death and judgment to come. Death has been called the preacher’s great commonplace. Donne repeatedly comes back to this topic, but, with him, it is never commonplace. Never does he hold us more in thrall than when he warns in solemn, measured and impassioned tones of that which “comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.”