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

§ 13. Sermons

But Donne’s fame as a prose writer rests not on these occasional and paradoxical pieces, but on his sermons. His reputation as a preacher was, probably, wider than as a poet, and both contributed to his most distinctive and generally admitted title to fame as the greatest wit of his age, in the fullest sense of the word. Of the many sermons he preached, at Whitehall, at St. Paul’s as prebend and as dean, at Linocln’s inn, at St. Dunstan’s church, at noblemen’s houses, on embassies and other special occasions, some five were issued in his lifetime; and, after his death, three large folios were published by his son containing eighty (1640), fifty (1649) and twenty-five (1669) sermons respectively. Some are still in manuscript.

In Donne’s sermons, all the qualities of his poems are present in a different medium; the swift and subtle reasoning, the powerful yet often quaint imagery; the intense feeling; and, lastly, the wonderful music of the style, which is inseparable from the music of the thought. The general character of the sermon in the seventeenth century was such as to evoke all Donne’s strength, and to intensify some of his weaknesses. The minute analysis of the text with a view to educing from it what the preacher believed to be the doctrine it taught or the practical lessons it inculcated, by legitimate inference, by far-fetched analogy, or by quaint metaphor, was a task for which Donne’s intellect, imagination and wide range of multifarious learning were well adapted. The fathers, the schoolmen and “our great protestant divines” (notably Calvin, to whom, in subtlety of exposition, he reckons even Augustine second) are his guides in the interpretation and application of his text; and, for purposes of illustration, his range is much wider—classical poets, history sacred and secular, saints’ legendaries, popular Spanish devotional writers, Jesuit controversialists and casuists, natural science, the discoveries of voyagers and, of course, the whole range of Scripture, canonical and apocryphal. It is strange to find, at times, a conceit or allusion which had done service in the love poems reappearing in the texture of a pious and exalted meditation. In the sermons, as in the poems (where it has led to occasional corruptions of the text), he uses words that, if not obsolete, were growing rare—“bezar,” “defaulk,” “triacle,” “lation”—but, more often, he coins or adopts already coined “inkhorn” terms—“omnisufficiency,” “nullifidians,” “longanimity,” “exinanition.”

Breadth and unity of treatment in seventeenth century oratory are apt to be sacrificed to the minute elaboration of each head, and their ingenious, rather than luminous and convincing, interconnection. But Donne’s ingenuity is inexhaustible, and, through every subtlety and bizarre interpretation, the hearer was (and, even to-day, the reader is) carried forward by the weight and force of the preacher’s fervid reasoning. Much of the Scriptural exegesis is fanciful or out of date. The controversial exposure of what were held to be Roman corruptions and separatist heresies has an interest mainly for the historian. In Donne’s scholastic, ultra-logical treatment, the rigid skeleton of seventeenth century theology is, at times, presented in all its sternness and unattractiveness. From the extremest deductions, he is saved by the moderation which was the key-note of his church, and by his own good sense and deep sympathy with human nature. But Donne is most eloquent when, escaping from dogmatic minutiae and controversial “points,” he appeals directly to the heart and conscience. A reader may care little for the details of seventeenth century theology and yet enjoy without qualification Donne’s fervid and original thinking, and the figurative richness and splendid harmonies of his prose in passages of argument, of exhortation and of exalted meditation. It is Donne the poet who transcends every disadvantage of theme and method, and an outworn fashion in wit and learning. There are sentences in the sermons which, in beauty of imagery and cadence, are not surpassed by anything he wrote in verse, or by any prose of the century from Hooker’s to Sir Thomas Browne’s:

  • The soul that is accustomed to direct herself to God upon every occasion; that, as a flower at sun-rising, conceives a sense of God in every beam of his, and spreads and dilates itself towards him in a thankfulness in every small blessing that he sheds upon her; that soul that as a flower at the sun’s declining contracts, and gathers in and shuts up herself, as though she had received a blow, whensoever she hears her Saviour wounded by an oath, or blasphemy, or execration; that soul who, whatsoever string be strucken in her, base or treble, her high or her low estate, is ever tun’d towards God, that soul prays sometimes when it does not know that it prays.
  • The passage on occasional mercies (LXXX. 2); the peroration of the sermon on “a better resurrection” (LXXX. 22); the meditations on death, as the leveller of earthly distinctions, or the portal to a better life; the description of the death “of rapture and ecstasy” (LXXX. 27) are other passages which illustrate the unique quality, the weight, fervour and wealth, of Donne’s eloquence.