Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Off My Shelf: John Donne's Religious Imagination



John Donne's Religious Imagination: Essays in Honor of John T. Shawcross. Edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain. UCA Press, 1995.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a decade. I selected it as a gift from my in-laws because John Donne is one of my favourite poets, but somehow I never got around to reading it. Every time I had a clear out of my collection, I'd think, "I should throw this out, I've never read it", but it stayed put. Finally, this year, I rolled up my reading sleeves, decided I'd tackle it and then pass it on.  (Plus, with Lent coming up, it could double as spiritual study.)

As is obvious from the title, this is an academic book. It was published in the mid nineties, when interest in seventeenth century religious history and literature was gaining new momentum, in particular after Neil Keeble's groundbreaking work on English nonconformity. This was also the time when I went through college accumulating too many degrees in English, so it was a trip down academic memory lane for me.

Some of the essays are hard to approach if you aren't familiar with the style and genre of certain types of literary criticism. An example: "That the originary decree should escape the optics of presentation is consistent with orthodox neoplatonic convention" (p. 187). I had to read that whole paragraph several times before I understood it (and realized I disagreed!). Other essays, however, are accessible to the average educated person. Despite the fact that the book is out of print and academic trends have moved on, it isn't outdated as the central questions remain unanswered. Was Donne's conversion from Catholicism to the Church of England wholly sincere? Was he at least in part always a recusant (a Catholic who remained loyal to his faith after England broke from Rome)? How much did his views change over the years as he settled into a life as an Anglican preacher? Is the line people draw between the erotic poems of his youth and the religious poems of his older years really indelible? This gathering of opinions makes for a lively debate from the comfort of your armchair.


As a long time and repeated reader of Donne, the essays gave me new insights into poems that are old friends, and encouraged me to tackle others. For example, I've always thought that the end rhymes of "The Flea" (such as "this" and "is") were merely convention, but a contributor suggests that they refer to the Eucharist ("This is my body"). I've now finally put Donne's sermons on my to-read list. Making me want to read further is a mark of a good book, but unfortunately it keeps my list never-ending.

And, of course, reading it gave my husband several opportunities to ask, "Are you done with Donne?" Ha ha, thank you dear, John Donne made that joke four hundred years ago.

Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begunne,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne, through which I runne,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For, I have more.

(from "A Hymne to God the Father")




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