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

XI. John Donne

§ 11. Religious Verses

Of Donne’s religious verses other than the funeral elegies, the earliest, On the Annunciation and Passion falling in the same year, was written, according to the title given in more than one manuscript, in 1608. The Litany was composed in the same year as Pseudo-Martyr; and it is interesting to note that, though the Trinity is followed, in Catholic sequence, by the Virgin, the Angels, the patriarchs and so forth, there is no invocation of any of these, but only commemoration. The two sequences of sonnets, La Corona and Holy Sonnets, belong, apparently, to the early years of his ministry. One of the latter, first published by Gosse from the Westminster MS., refers to the recent death of his wife in 1617; and The Lamentations of Jeremy would appear to be a task which he set himself at the same juncture. The hymns To Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany, To God, my God in my Sickness and To God the Father were written in 1619, 1627 and 1631 respectively.

There is a striking difference of theme and spirit between the “love-song weeds and satiric thorns” of Donne’s brilliant and daring youth and the hymns and sonnets of his closing years; but the fundamental resemblance is closer. All that Donne wrote, whether in verse or prose, is of a piece. The same intense and subtle spirit which, in the songs and elegies, analysed the experiences of passion is at work in the latter on a different experience. To be didactic is never the first intention of Donne’s religious poems, but, rather, to express himself, to analyse and lay bare his own moods of agitation, of aspiration and of humiliation in the quest of God, and the surrender of his soul to Him. The same erudite and surprising imagery, the same passionate, reasoning strain, meets us in both.

  • Is the Pacific sea my home? Or are
  • The Eastern riches? Is Jersualem?
  • Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
  • All straits (and none but straits) are ways to them
  • Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Ham, or Shem.
  • The poet who, in the sincerities of a sick-bed confession, can spin such ingenious webs for his thought is one of those who, like Baudelaire, are “naturally artificial; for them simplicity would be affectation.” And as Donne is the first of the “metaphysical” love poets, he is, likewise, the first of the introspective, Anglican, religious poets of the seventeenth century. Elizabethan, and a good deal of Jacobean, religious poetry is didactic in tone and intention, and, when not, like Southwell’s, Romanist, is protestant and Calvinist but not distinctively Anglican. With Donne, appears for the first time in poetry a passionate attachment to those Catholic elements in Anglicanism which, repressed and neglected, had never entirely disappeared; and, from Donne, Herbert and his disciples inherited the intensely personal and introspective tone to which the didactic is subordinated, which makes a lyric in The Temple, even if it be a sermon, also, and primarily, a confession or a prayer; a tone which reached its highest lyrical level in the ecstatic outpourings of Crashaw.