Donne's Religious Writing: A Discourse of Feigned Devotion.
P. M. Oliver's reading of Donne is distinguished in three ways: it challenges autobiographical interpretations which, in contrast to his secular work, dog Donne's religious writings; it deals with underexamined material, poems which are sidelined in the hot quest for conceits, and prose works that are often cited solely for the bearing they have on the poetry; and it sites Donne's thinking in specific contemporary debates about doctrine and discipline. Oliver's lucid style and brisk argument are helpful in explaining the complexities of seventeenth-century soteriology.
Oliver argues - as others have done - that Walton's representation of Donne's life as an Augustinian move from libertine to divine was a strategy initiated by its self-publicizing subject. He goes on, however, to criticize later commentators who have maintained this distinction between the secular verse, where Donne is rarely conflated with his narratorial persona, and the religious writing, examined for evidence of his beliefs. Oliver demonstrates how Donne's verse and prose tracts took up heterogeneous - and heterodox - positions on passionate debates of the period. His reasons for doing so were mixed: a pleasure in 'intellectual freewheeling' of the sort which gets an approving nod today ('ahead of its time in its stress on the need to find the truth for oneself'), but also the same impulse which made Cambridge pause before awarding him a doctorate (he was deemed a career cleric, who sought 'to come in at the window when there was a fair gate open'). A few examples will show Oliver's stance. Pseudo-Martyr's defence of the oath of allegiance is also an attempt to catch the eye of the king when the 'official' reporter of the Hampton Court conference, William Barlow, failed to distinguish himself. 'Satire III' is a radical, politicized attack on claims by the monarch to control religious discussion as much as it is a meditation on the relative truths of the churches of Rome, Geneva, and England, on the demerits of indifference and undifferentiating tolerance. 'The Cross' takes up, in detail, the arguments of the Millenary Petition which criticized the use of the cross in baptism. 'A Litany' tries to imagine what a reconciliation between the doctrinal positions of Rome and England could look like, say, on reprobation and election.
After an initial crisp summary of the Reformation in England, from More's rise to Donne's death, Oliver deals with La Corona's 'functional paradoxes', and the poems above. There follows the heart of his book: two chapters which discuss the Holy Sonnets as casuistry rather than meditation. He criticizes first Martz and Gardner, then Lewalski, for reading the sonnets as the result of the 'deliberate stimulation of the emotions' (by the Spiritual Exercises, or Protestant books of self-analysis), pointing out that similar strains of theatricality can be found in the Songs and Sonnets. Again, Oliver encourages the reader to look at contemporary debates. 'What if this present', for instance, can be read in conjunction with the Lambeth Article VI, which deals with how a 'full assurance' of faith can be determined. The comic element of the sonnets is compared with Donne's Courtier's Library, which satirizes religious figures such as Luther and Erasmus - the latter recommends deciding between competing doctrines by writing 'yes' and 'no' on two slips of paper and weighing them.... Donne's sonnets are not original in depicting a soul suffering over apostacy or under Calvinist doctrines of salvation (Oliver takes Tyack's view of the doctrinal position of the Church of England); Henry Lok, William Alabaster, William Hunnis, for instance, writhe under similar problems. His originality lies in the experiments he makes in the different rhetorical positions he takes up: what is it like to be a mortalist, to be elect, to be Christ? We are back to Alvarez's 'poems on a question', this time in the area of Protestantism's own divided tenets and nature.
The book ends more quietly - there are fewer critics to quarrel with - in readings of Donne's post-ordination poems, the prose tracts mentioned above, Devotions on Emergent Occasions, Ignatius his Conclave, some of the sermons, and Essays in Divinity (the latter as the first text where Oliver thinks Donne sees religion as a 'philosophical and moral system'). True to his argument, however, Oliver continues to warn against linking the 'I' so frequently referred to, by the sermons and poems such as 'To Mr Tilman', with the preacher himself.
CERI SULLIVAN University of Wales, Bangor
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|Publication:||Notes and Queries|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1998|
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