John Donne (1572 – 1631) was born and raised as a Catholic but died as an Anglican – quite a notable one in fact, as he was the Dean of Saint Paul’s cathedral for the last ten years of his life. This much is a given, but the nature of Donne’s actual convictions and his idea of where the true Church subsisted is harder to establish. In fact, it is important to note at the outset here that nothing can be conclusively proved with respect to Donne’s religious affiliation, and anything I write here must similarly be taken as speculation; this is not to say that no theory can be any more convincing than another, only that nothing can be said with absolute assurance.
John Donne was born into a well-off Catholic family in London, and was educated at home until the age of twelve, when he went to study at Oxford. At the age of fourteen he transferred to Trinity College, Cambridge, and shortly after this his thought began to diverge from Catholic teaching. It must be remembered that during this entire period adherence to the ancient Faith of England was attended by heavy penalties and would lead to social exclusion, so there is an antecedent possibility that Donne would have been attracted away from the Church in order to avoid persecution and enjoy the freedom of society. Moreover, the shadow of anti-Catholicism was cast heavily over his family history, as his great-grandmother was the sister of Saint Thomas More.
On top of this more distant legacy, Donne’s brother died in prison, having been sent there for hiding a Catholic priest, and two of his uncles (on his mother’s side) were among the first English members of the Society of Jesus; Jasper, one of these uncles, who was by all accounts quite an arrogant man and therefore may have led to Donne’s bad feeling towards the Jesuits later in life, was in fact Superior of the Jesuit Mission to England. It is difficult to say what sort of legacy all this left in the mind of the young John Donne – one could argue that it fostered a life-long admiration for his relatives’ adherence to the Catholic Faith, or that it simply put him off remaining as a Catholic.
The reality is probably a mixture of the two, but the latter aspect had a more immediate influence – Donne was keen on an academic career, and not being able to take a degree at either Oxford or Cambridge because of his Catholicism must have rankled him greatly and contributed to his later decision to convert away from the Church. At any rate, by the time he was twenty he was admitted to practise law, and whilst he still identified as a Catholic, was openly espousing heterodox ideas. It is also at this time that we see in his poetry the embracing of a libertine and cynical philosophy of life, as well as the emergence of some rather salacious imagery in his love poems. So whilst Donne was being converted away from Catholicism, he was certainly not being converted to any other form of Christianity.
The times that Donne lived in were, whilst relatively quiet politically (the Thirty Years War only took place right at the end of his life and the English Civil War was to come yet later), a period of great metaphysical and theological confusion, as well as an era of growing philosophical and scientific scepticism. The old, ordered universe of the Middle Ages was thrown up in the air, and thanks to the upheavals of the Protestant Reformation, many did not quite know what to believe any more – what the nature of the Church was, where it was to be found, how to reconcile the traditions of previous generations with the novelties of the day, were questions on the minds of many.
On top of this, Donne was a deeply emotional man, and therefore often driven one way and another in his doctrinal convictions by the change of mood or circumstance. This is not to say that he had no conviction, or was not a man of conscience, but only that in his earlier years his temperament often seems to have had the better of him, and in a world of great uncertainty this did not help him to become easily settled in his beliefs. On top of this, there was the practical issue that remaining as a Catholic would preclude any chance of the public career he so desired – this pragmatism seems to have funnelled any latent doctrinal confusion away from Rome, thus leaving his only remaining option as the Church of England.
Isaak Walton attributes the beginning of Donne’s conversion to Anglicanism at around nineteen/twenty, and this is certainly the time when he was beginning to be open about his divergence from Catholicism. However, it was not until 1614, when he was forty-two, that Donne formally rejected the Church and settled on the Anglican position. At the suggestion of King James I, he then became ordained to the Anglican ministry, and when he was forty-eight became Dean of Saint Paul’s cathedral. In 1618, his wife Anne died, and this caused him to also reject the cynicism of his youth and embrace devotional themes in his poetry to a greater extent. It is his poetry to which I now turn in order to get some sense of how much, whilst he had officially pledged allegiance elsewhere, he had retained affection for the Catholic Church.
The first poem which may shed some light on this matter is Satyre III, which has been dated to 1597 at the latest, so precedes Donne’s official rejection of Catholicism. However, it does give an insight into just how concerned Donne was about the question of where Truth resided, and the difficulties he found in coming down on any one side of the argument over the other. The relevant section is as follows:
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.
Donne here describes the search for Truth as one that man must commit himself to, but (at least for Donne at that moment) admits of no firm conclusion – it is an ongoing process that we are bound to journey onward with, even if we cannot ever say with satisfaction that we have reached that point atop the ‘huge hill’ where ‘Truth stands’. In this poem Donne does not really examine the pros and cons of Canterbury, Geneva or Rome, but merely stresses the necessity of that truth-searching process. In a later poem, Holy Sonnet XVIII, though, which was written after he had been ordained to the Anglican ministry, we find the same themes and the same search still unresolved in the poet’s mind:
Show me dear Christ, Thy spouse, so bright and clear.
What! Is it She, which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which robb’d and tore
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth and errs? now, new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek and then make love?
Betray kind husband Thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court Thy mild dove,
Who is most true, and pleasing to Thee, then
When she is embrac’d and open to most men.
Apart from the startling imagery of the Church as prostitute (which has biblical precedent, at least if one considers the descriptions of Israel in the Old Testament as types of the Church), an image that Donne manages to present with a great measure of reverence – testament to his talent – here we have the poet still wrangling with the problems of where and what the Church is, even after taking up life in the Anglican ministry. Another interpretation has been suggested, namely that Donne is contrasting the Church promised in Scripture and the Church in the world, and it is possible that this theme is included as well. But the anguished nature of Donne’s questioning, and the specific raising of different options (the seven hills being Rome, the one as Jerusalem, probably representing the Eastern churches, and the none for Geneva) as candidate for the true locus of the Church’s life, seems to preclude this latter interpretation as being the dominant theme.
Moreover, Donne does not seem to allude to Anglicanism at all in this poem – there is no discernible reference to Canterbury as a possible candidate. This could be due to the growing sense within seventeenth century Anglicanism that it represented a middle way, inclusive of Catholicism and Calvinism, but given Donne’s personal history and his knowledge of the real differences that existed between Anglicanism and these other options, this does not seem likely. Might it more likely represent the continuation of a deep ambivalence about the authenticity of the Church of England as a church? Another poem, written in 1601, when Donne was twenty-nine and, at least publicly, professing Anglican beliefs, may shed some more light on this question.
The poem in question is entitled The Progress of the Soul (not to be confused with a later poem, also with the same name, but subtitled The Second Anniversary, and written in 1612) and presents the history of the soul of heresy, from the apple in Eden and through successive reincarnations in the great heretics. In this list of heretics Donne includes Muhammed, Luther, Calvin, and finally Elizabeth I, Queen of England and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Apart from the fact that Donne was now professing Anglican beliefs, his official position was secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, a man who was opposed to Catholicism both in his official capacity and in his private beliefs, and who had prosecuted Saint Edmund Campion. He would not likely have taken Donne into his employ if his beliefs were still openly Catholic.
However, in The Progress of the Soul, Donne’s objections to Queen Elizabeth are theological in character – she is presented as a great heresiarch, following men like Luther and Calvin. If he had moved away from the Catholic Church, his feelings about Anglicanism were far from positive. What this makes clear is that Donne, before taking up his position as an Anglican minister (where, as we see above, he was still unsure of where the truth lay) he was able to live as an Anglican whilst rejecting much of its theology. In 1612 he wrote The Second Anniversary, the female figure in which is widely believed to refer to Elizabeth I (at least on one level – it is a complex poem with several layers of meaning), and again his feelings are deeply ambiguous:
She, who being to herself a State, enjoy’d
All royalties which any State employ’d;
For she made wars, and triumph’d; reason still
Did not o’erthrow, but rectify her will:
And she made peace, for no peace is like this,
That beauty, and chastity together kiss:
She did high justice, for she crucified
Every first motion of rebellious pride
There is a deeply ironic tone to Donne’s praises of Elizabeth’s achievements here, and the crucifixions of ‘rebellious pride’ mentioned are more than likely a reference to her severe treatment of Catholic recusants, something Donne well knew about due to his family history. Furthermore, the ‘high justice’ of the Queen could just as easily mean high-handed or overbearing rather than exalted and majestic. It is hard to say from the poem alone, but given what else we know of Donne’s attitudes, it is not completely without warrant to see this as a sly rebuke of the Queen’s actions. Another poem, written the year before and entitled The First Anniversary seems to compare the new Church of England to the old Catholic Church in England, and favours the latter:
For there’s a kind of world remaining still,
Though she which did inanimate and fill
The world, be gone, yet in this last long night,
Her ghost doth walk; that is, a glimmering light,
A faint weak love of virtue, and of good,
Reflects from her, on them which understood
Her worth; and though she have shut in all day,
The twilight of her memory doth stay;
Which, from the carcass of the old world, free,
Creates a new world, and new creatures be
Produc’d; the matter and the stuff of this,
Her virtue, and the form our practice is.
This passage has a deeply nostalgic tone, and Donne seems to be reconciling himself to the fact that the Catholic Church of his youth, which he still seems to love, is gone from England, but that her ‘ghost doth walk’ in the Church of England. I.e.; there has been, within the new church, some preservation of the old ways, and the poet finds some measure of solace in that, but ‘she which did inanimate and fill the world’ is gone – the fullness of the Faith has disappeared from England, and Donne, having long ago decided to abandon that Faith for the new ways (for whatever reason) is trying to make the best of it. It is not the most reassuring picture, tinged as it is with sadness for the old ways, but Donne at least gives himself the hope that there is some kind of continuity.
The ambiguous nature of all that is presented in Donne’s poetry with respect to his true religious beliefs is to be expected, as, if he held on to the Catholic beliefs of his youth, it would have been impossible for him to espouse them plainly and keep his position in society. Indeed, to do so may even have been to raise the possibility of martyrdom, and there are few of us who, if we are really honest, would welcome such a fate. Praise be to those who do walk that path, but it would, I think, be unfair to label John Donne a coward for concealing his true beliefs. Nevertheless, he could have concealed those beliefs by choosing a less illustrious path for himself and rejecting a career in public life – again, one cannot know, let alone judge, the motivations of another, but this does seem to have been, at least in part, a motivation for his leaving the Church.
As to what John Donne’s beliefs were during that last period of his life, as he continued in the Anglican ministry, noone can ever really know. But it is known that he exercised a very ‘high’ churchmanship, leaving behind only a few of the actual teachings of the Catholic Church (albeit highly significant ones, like the papal primacy) and it was no doubt the ambiguity of Anglicanism itself on a lot of matters that suited Donne and helped him to settle there. Whether his doubts about it as an authentic ‘branch’ of the Faith were ever resolved must also remain mysterious. But, strangely, it is when he tries to communicate his uncertainty on such matters in his poetry that he seems most sincere – ambiguity and doubt were, paradoxically, the themes he communicated most clearly, and so in that respect it is perhaps best to end on a note of uncertainty here as well.