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La poésie métaphysique de John Donne

Claudine Raynaud

III. Ethics, Doubt and Wit

Credo Ergo Sum: John Donne and Belief

Thomas Healy

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1For a writer who shows such interest in what has come be to called the ‘new science’ of the Renaissance, John Donne is strikingly sceptical about its benefits.

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’ s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the planets, and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.
The First Anniversary: An Anatomy of the World, ll. 205-218.

2For Donne writing these lines about 1611, the new knowledge appears to be of that kind which humanity first imbibed when tasting of the tree of knowledge: an understanding that takes us further away from the divine. With his theme centred on the decay of the world in the First Anniversary, the demise of traditional orders for understanding as a result of new observations and explorations become a means through which ‘the sun’ is lost. We enter a world of literal as well as spiritual darkness.

3Of course, because Donne is a master of rhetorical effect and of eloquent argument, he is only too aware that poetic language often has its own momentum, and we would be unwise to argue that Donne’s apparent scepticism about the ‘new philosophy’ here is some form of authentic argument the poet would always support. Nevertheless, what is notable in these lines is the way Donne proposes that one of the consequences of new thinking is that it nurtures the ‘ego’, the ‘I’as a distinct, self-creating and self-supporting entity:

For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

4Why this is striking is that Donne’s castigation of a thinking that emphasises the ‘I’ appears in vivid contrast to the greatest spokesman of the new philosophy, René Descartes. Writing some twenty-five years later, Descartes places the ego as the foundation of a method that seeks to re-examine what we can know and what is true. In his Discours de la Méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, Des cartes iterates his dissatisfaction with existing forms of knowledge. He resolves to seek no other knowledge ‘than that which I might find within myself’. The self becomes the vehicle to approach the whole question of existence:

Je ne sais si je dois vous entretenir des premières méditations que j’y ai faites ; car elles sont si métaphysiques et si peu communes, qu’elles ne seront peut-être pas au goût de tout le monde : et toutefois, afin qu’on puisse juger si les fondements que j’ai pris sont assez fermes, je me trouve en quelque façon contraint d’en parler. J’avois dès longtemps remarqué que pour les moeurs il est besoin quelquefois de suivre des opinions qu’on sait être fort incertaines, tout de même que si elles étoient indubitables, ainsi qu’il a été dit ci-dessus : mais pour ce qu’alors je désirois vaquer seulement à la recherche de la vérité, je pensai qu’il falloit que je fisse tout le contraire, et que je rejetasse comme absolument faux tout ce en quoi je pourrais imaginer le moindre doute, afin de voir s’il ne resterait point après cela quelque chose en ma créance qui fut entièrement indubitable. Ainsi, à cause que nos sens nous trompent quelquefois, je voulus supposer qu’il n’y avoit aucune chose qui fût telle qu’ils nous la font imaginer ; et parce qu’il y a des hommes qui se méprennent en raisonnant, même touchant les plus simples matières de géométrie, et y font des paralogismes, jugeant que j’étois sujet a faillir autant qu’aucun autre, je rejetai comme fausses toutes les raisons que j’avois prises auparavant pour démonstrations ; et enfin, considérant que toutes les mêmes pensées que nous avons étant éveillés nous peuvent aussi venir quand nous donnons, sans qu’il y en ait aucune pour lors qui soit vraie, je me résolus de feindre que toutes les choses qui m’étoient jamais entrées en l’esprit n’étoient non plus vraies que les illusions de mes songes. Mais aussitôt après je pris garde que, pendant que je voulois ainsi penser que tout étoit faux, il falloit nécessairement que moi qui le pensois fusse quelque chose ; et remarquant que cette vérité, je pense, donc je suis étoit si ferme et si assurée, que toutes les plus extravagantes suppositions des sceptiques n’étoient pas capables de l’ébranler, je jugeai que je pouvais la recevoir sans scrupule pour le premier principe de la philosophie que je cherchois. Puis, examinant avec attention ce que j’étois, et voyant que je pouvois feindre que je n’avois aucun corps, et qu’il n’y avoit aucun monde ni aucun lieu où je fusse ; mais que je ne pouvois pas feindre pour cela que je n’étois point ; et qu’au contraire de cela même que je pensois à douter de la vérité des autres choses, il suivoit très évidemment et très certainement que j’étois.

5In contrast, Donne reveals an unease about the self, a fear that he lacks any proper reassurance about identity:

For who is sure he hath a soul , unless
It see, and judge and follow worthiness,
And by deeds praise it? He who doth not this,
May lodge an inmate soul, but’tis not his
The First Anniversary: An Anatomy of the World, ll. 3-6.
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay ?
Repair me now, for my end doth haste,
Divine Meditation 1, ll. 1-2

We think that Paradise and Calvary
Christ’s cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look Lord and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surround my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapped receive me Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other crown.
‘Hymn to God, my God, in my Sickness’, ll. 21-27.

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements and an angelic sprite,
But black sin has betrayed to endless night
My world’s both parts, and, oh, both parts must die.
Divine Meditation 5, ll. 1-4.

6In each of these instances Donne reveals that his identity, his ‘I’ appears controlled by a power external to him, that even his most fundamental part, his soul, may not actually belong to ‘him’: ‘For who is sure he hath a soul, unless/It see, and judge and follow worthiness,/... He who doth not this,/ May lodge an inmate soul, but’tis not his’. The soul, then, can be another’s that is merely housed within him. What the ‘I’ is becomes contused: is it the bodily part, or even what might be called the poetic part formed in verse? Since the soul housed in a person may apparently be the soul of something else if the person does not ‘see, and judge and follow worthiness’, does an illusionary identity reside not with some actual self but in a false one created in language? Does Donne’s poetry generate an apparently vigorous, judging and reasoning ‘I’ as a mask, covering for its actual absence, a self that is decayed to the point where it has no distinct identity? One of the solutions Donne offers to this is to forge his identity within pre-existing patterns: to try to make himself both the sinful Adam forced to sweat and labour in the fields as a result of sin, and the second Adam, Christ, whose suffering point towards salvation. ‘Repair me now, for my end doth haste’: Donne cleverly exploits the implications of ‘repair’ as both heal or fix and as re-joining. In an extreme sense, Donne perceives his identity, his ‘I’, dependent on being identified with God. Independence of the ‘I’ as the foundation or first principal through which God may then be discovered as Descartes argued is misplaced for Donne. He discovers identity only when wrapped up in another. For Donne, the paradox is that he believes in his being or existence only when the ‘I’as a unique and distinct thing has disappeared, when it is re-paired with his creator.

7Arguments about the need to be reunited with another who is actually part of a ‘true’ self, a search for and discovery of identity through locating a missing part of oneself were familiar, drawn from Renaissance neo-Platonism. Donne skilfully exploits these in his Song and Sonnets as a means to try to secure sex: think of ‘The Ecstasy’ or ‘The Good Morrow’. But in these poems, too, is Donne’s familiar anxiety about death and how to avoid it:

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts doe in the faces rest,
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west ?
What ever dies, was not mixt equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
‘The Good Morrow’, ll.15-21.

8In this last stanza of ‘The Good Morrow’, Donne plays with a number of commonplace ideas of his time. First, the belief that the circle was the perfect unified form. Thus, having imagined the lovers projected as hemispheric maps, he concludes they are in reality one ‘globe’ or whole, only displayed as the world would be in a book with one hemisphere ‘facing’ the other on the opposite page. Second, Donne employs the dominant Renaissance medical belief that humans are composed of different elements or humours and that bodily conditions can be fathomed by understanding how these humours combine. An uncorrupted body would be balanced in all its ‘parts’, a harmonious whole. Such a body, though, was considered impossible for humanity removed from divine grace at Adam’s fall and subsequently corrupted.

9In another respect, however, the poem is painfully aware that death cannot be conquered. This last verse sets up conditions to achieve a perfect equilibrium through love only to alert the reader to its impossibility-thus enforcing the realisation that it is death that dominates the future (it is the good morrow). Indeed, it is worthwhile comparing this poem with Donne’s Divine Meditation 10, ‘Death be not Proud’, where the constant repetition of death only serves to reinforce its actuality while the poet is rhetorically trying to ‘prove’ how death can die.

10That Donne recalls his lovers’ bodies present corruption in this stanza is most notable in his witty use of ‘die’. This was of course the poetically much exploited reference for sexual orgasms or ‘little deaths’: based on the idea that the body spent some of its finite supply of energy in orgasms. Thus, if the lovers reach orgasm, the expected result of their wholeness and oneness, they will ironically be proving their lack of perfect mutuality. They will ‘slacken’: the visible sign of the penis’s ‘death’ after orgasm. In effect, Donne has created a dilemma with his assertions about wholeness. To be perfect the lovers should be either in a permanent orgiastic relation or, perhaps, they should not be sexually involved since sex is a recollection of human appetite and, thus, corruption. The problem, though, is that to mix equally the lovers require orgasms to blend their fluids together. What this dilemma reinforces, as Donne is well aware, is that sex is about change; it indicates our mortality (and thus our death), not our permanence.

11For all their involvement with sober issues, however, poems such as ‘The Good Morrow’, also celebrate the poet’s cleverness in creating the condition where he can extract himself from the relations he promotes. The death in orgasm is a confirmation that the poet’s celebration of the perfect mutuality of the love has been misplaced. He must, reluctantly, admit that this relationship is not what he thought it was, this lover is not the ideal. The quest for the perfect love, his lost self, continues.

12Such a playful exploitation is absent from the devotional poems. Here, of course, the ideal lover is not in question. It is Christ. What has become a more prominent issue for the poet is whether his argument, his imagery, his pleas are only linguistically clever, that they lack truthfulness. For all his fervent attempts to prompt poetically the conditions where his identity in Christ will be confirmed, Donne is conscious that a linguistic passion or even an extreme reasonableness employed to decipher his position may expose a deficiency, a fundamentally decayed self. In A Litany, Donne prays to the prophets:

Those heavenly Poets which did see
Thy will, and it express
In rhythmic feet, in common pray for me
That I by them excuse not my excess
In seeking secrets, or poeticness. (ll. 68-72)

13In Donne’s secular poetry, the narrator is the active controller of events. He is cajoling, self-ironic, assertive, insistent, plaintive and so forth, but there is rarely a doubt about his mastery of the discourse, even if he deliberately reveals himself as ridiculous (as in, for instance, ‘The Flea’). In contrast, in his devotional poetry Donne usually reveals attempts to gain narrative mastery as dubious. He largely shows himself as passive: he needs his lover Christ to do something towards him, he is unable to act for himself. For example, in Divine Meditation 14 Donne presents himself in the role of the impotent victim. He adopts various guises: as prisoner, as a social inferior having been abandoned by his betters, as being effeminate. The poem is striking for its insistence that violence needs to be enacted on him so as to free him – to be saved he must be violated. Gone is the urbane cleverness through which the poet attempts to persuade the lover to willing or unwilling union. The violence reinforces the urgency of the narrator’s need, but it also reinforces the denial of self-will. The confusion about identity becomes even more notable when we recall that this is a psychomachia, an internal conflict within the personality. Donne presents as foreign and hostile aspects of his own self. His desire to single out an aspect of himself as his ‘true identity’, one that can be released from self-captivity only emphasises what a strikingly disunited self the narrator is.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Divine Meditation 14, ll. 6-14.

14In ‘Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’, Donne attempts to employ a reasonable argument to explain why, on the day when Christ is being crucified in the east, the narrator is riding west. The poem’s opening is in the form of a logical proposition that suggests a self-sufficiency is available to the soul because it is a perfect form, a circular sphere, and that it moves by means of its own energy. But the poem rapidly acknowledges that the narrator’s own spherical soul is ‘subject to foreign motions’.

Let man’s soul be a sphere, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other spheres, by being grown
Subject to foreign motions, lose their own,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a year their natural form obey
Pleasure or business, so, our souls admit
For their first mover, and are whirled by it. (ll.1-8)

15The poem’s ingenious argument rests with the narrator’s recognition that he is corrupted and tarnished and, thus, unworthy to face Christ directly. He asks, therefore, to be made decorous, to have his deformity amended by Christ’s image being restored in him again. Since this is the day that liturgically commemorates the occasion when Christ’s sacrifice enabled man to be divinely reconciled, it appears a particularly fitting request. Once again Donne employs a language of violence to stress the strength of the desire. In one sense, this strenuously acknowledging his need for restoration emphasises the narrator’s awareness of Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday and, thus, his being in sympathy or harmony with the day. Thus, despite the appearance of contrary motion, the narrator is able to conceive himself as subject to Christ. But for all the poem’s attempt to employ a passionate reasoning to justify its wayward direction, the actuality of the narrator travelling away from Christ is reinforced. Even on this most significant day, a day when above others one might expect the soul its ‘natural form obey’, the narrator finds he is controlled by other spheres. Rather than a means of discovering an identity in Christ, the poem reveals the implication that the intelligence that moves the narrator’s soul is not devotion to the divine but to the world. The poem resists its maker’s reasoning and, thus, raises a large question about his identity. It becomes less a means of fathoming the self, more a vehicle for avoiding recognising its actual nature. ‘For who is sure he hath a soul, unless/It see, and judge and follow worthiness,/... He who doth not this,/May lodge an inmate soul, but ‘tis not his’: a horrible conclusion to ‘Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward’ is that its logic actually suggests Donne’s soul is not ‘his’.

16In ‘Litany’ Donne prays: ‘Let not the mind be blinder by more light/Nor faith by reason added, lose her sight.’ (ll. 62-63). Reason, the property that underpins Descartes’ cogito and that leads to his discovery of identity, is a dangerous thing for Donne. Like Descartes, Donne continuously questions what he can know. His conclusion is that to know he must believe. A credo must confirm his identity, because identity rests with its ultimate creator God.

17Does Donne believe? Without belief he realises he confronts an identity that is wholly self-generated, a ‘little world made cunningly’ but ‘betrayed to endless night’. Without belief he faces extinction, he is... well, he is done/Donne. And here is the terrible dilemma for Donne. His arguing, reasoning, exclaiming and doubting in his poems may be the performance of belief rather than the possession of belief. They may create a character called Donne who is acting a series of roles to cover what is absent, namely himself. There is an astonishing irony here that the poet is only too well aware of. As many of his contemporaries celebrated (see Thomas Carew’s elegy for example) Donne’s is a poetry where a distinctive sense of a powerful, individual personality is present. Yet, as we also witness, this is a personality that can adopt numerous guises: it is fundamentally a rhetorical, theatrical one. The narrator is an actor performing roles, and this sense of a dramatic inflation of self is what helps make this personality so intense and convincing, just as a well performed part in the theatre or on the screen provides a sense of a heightened reality, an illusion of conviction. What happens when the performance ends? For Donne, unlike Descartes, there is always a doubt that reason fails to extinguish; there lingers a fear of an identity that is finished, done.

18Copying, translating, writing, editing: as many of the essays in this collection demonstrate there is a many-fold process in trying to read Donne’s poems. There is the realisation that the Renaissance poet sees himself as a reader, a copyist from the book of letters or nature. There is our realisation, too, that Donne’s poetry has been chosen, punctuated, and organised from large number of variant copies that circulated in both Donne’s lifetime and after, none of which have authorial approval. One of the most obvious editorial fabrications in this respect is assembling groups of poems in an order that hints at some form of biographical chronology – a secular rakish younger figure (Jack Donne) and a mature sober devotional figure (Dr Donne) – despite the fact that it is more or less editorial fantasy to try to date the majority of Donne’s poetry. The editorial ordering of the texts in Donne’s collected poems actually becomes the basis for biographical speculation: an excellent illustration of Foucault’s author function.

  • 1 Unfortunately, A. J. Smith’s edition of Donne’s poems does not print these poems as two separate o (...)

19One of these editorial constructs rests in the placing of the ‘Hymn to God the Father’ and ‘To Christ’ at the end of Donne’s collected verse’1. These two poems seem to offer a type of conclusion to the anxieties that surround Donne’s fears, the endless doubts that a cogito, a reasoning process, brings. Donne finally appears to believe and to find reassurance that he has an existence in God. These two poems, nearly identical but for slight yet significant changes in their final stanzas, possess a near liturgical quality in their repetitions, with the narrator rehearsing the range of his doubts and fears. The refrain, ‘thou hast not done/thou hast done’ contains a most notable instance of the poet playing with his name. The poems seem extraordinarily personal as a result. The change of a vowel in the final stanza from ‘son’ to ‘sun’ has striking implications. These final stanzas read:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine, as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more. (ll. 13-18)

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy sun
Shall shine, as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done,
I have no more.

20Donne, thus, seems to affirm the twin sources of revelation that underpin belief: the promise of Christ, the son of God, in Scripture and the unfolding of the divine order in the book of nature. In effect, God has already sworn Christ’s new dispensation shall continue, natural reason tells us that the sun shall persist in rising and shining daily.

  • 2 Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne proposes that the ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ was written during Donne (...)
  • 3 Conversely, since More was the maiden name of Donne’s wife Ann, these lines might also be read wit (...)

21Yet, nothing is quite as the narrator would wish. Change is difference, and the poems show changes, slight but meaningful. Nothing is ever copied exactly the same. Things alter; beliefs alter. The certainty of one moment, of one reading, becomes the doubts of the next. Further, these poems are open to editorial amendment and re-arrangement. There is no conclusive extra-poetic evidence to suggest that these are late or last works by Donne.2 The unsettling suspicions of the Divine Meditations (‘those are my best days, when I shake with fear’, Divine Meditation 19, 14) might as well follow, as precede these in a collected poems. And within the poems we might hear a different rhetorical emphasis being struck than the one we may voice on a first reading. These last lines might not contain the sense of ending the narrator appears to wish. God may have done, but does he really have Donne? For the final lines, in their very last word, contain the inference that this is no conclusion, that there is yet more.3 So that we might read them:

And, having done that, thou hast done.
I fear-No, more!

And, having done that, thou hast done.
I have-No, more!


Works cited

Grierson, J. C. 1912. Ed. The Poems of John Donne, two volumes, Oxford: Oxford UP.


1 Unfortunately, A. J. Smith’s edition of Donne’s poems does not print these poems as two separate ones, but confines ‘To Christ’ as a variant of ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ in his notes. J. C. Grierson’s standard scholarly edition (1912) prints the poems as separate. There is no clear editorial consensus over this, though, as my reading makes clear, I think they are two paired poems.

2 Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne proposes that the ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ was written during Donne’s sickness of 1623, but this may be merely an early instance of a biography inferred from reading a poem’s tone in a particular way.

3 Conversely, since More was the maiden name of Donne’s wife Ann, these lines might also be read with a note of despair, a realisation of the loss of his wife that prevents resignation of his life to God. There is no real sense of conclusion here.


Birkbeck, University of London

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2002

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