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PSEUDO-MARTYR stands in almost inverse popularity to that of its author's lyric poetry. Despite being the first work that Donne actually prepared for publication (1610), it has been almost entirely neglected: no part of the text appears in Neil Rhodes's selection of Donne's prose for Penguin, Frank Kermode praised an earlier collection for leaving out `a lot of the more boring books like Pseudo-Martyr'. Yet, as Anthony Raspa points out in his informative and judicious introduction, Donne was attempting to intervene in a current affairs debate which affected everyone in England, Catholic an non-Catholic alike, and so was as relevant t comtemporaries as late twentieth-century discussions of apartheid, student revolt, or the Nuremberg trials (xiii). In doing so, Donne rescued himself from obscurity (he was an undistinguished would-be courtier of thirty-eight `who had made no mark whatsoever in politics, religion, literature, the law or the military'(xxxviii)) and was forced to deal with the worst aspects of his own private life, his defection from Catholicism. As such, the work serves as a glorified position paper, a work of both journalism and philosophy, and a personal testament reconciling two religious worlds. The two most celebrated English Catholic martyrs of recent memory, Edund Campion and Robert Southwell, hardly rate a mention: Donne's ire is turned on the spiritual orders of the Catholic Church which required most unquestioning obedience, principally the Franciscans and the Jesuits, and it is most likely that such authoritarianism caused Donne's rift with his first religion.

Donne's work is an attempt to persuade English Catholics that there was no point in refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance and opposing the will of the secular state for their religious faith. To die in the defence of such a cause, as many had, was to become a pseudo - not a real - martyr, as, according to Donne, Catholics could quite happily combine their commitment to the divine laws of the Pope with `a loyalty to James as a temporal ruler' (xxii). Donne clearly hoped to be able to complete the not inconsiderable task of effecting a rapprochement between the two. To this end his arguments are wide and various and reflect intense learning and easy familiarity with his massive range of sources. He mocks the mistranscription of Gratian's Decretum issued at the Council of Carthage in 525, which threatened excommunication for a thousand years for clerics who chose to wear beards, when what the decree actually said was that clerics could have beards if they wanted them (197-8); he claims at monarchy is the natural form of government decreed by God (132-4); he argues that territorial supremacy predates an international religious one which cannot, therefore, overturn the former (252-3); he argues that magistrates are ordained by God just as priests are, Adam being the first of these (79). Pseudo-Martyr is not, however, a work of toleration: in the preface Donne addresses the priests and Jesuits about the merits of the reformed religion, in order to persuade them to lay down arms against it. He professes the purity of protestantism which is not `deformed with the leprosies and ulcers of admitting Jewes and Stews' (21). Donne's Christianity demands an `other' in the same way that earlier protestants caricatured the Church of Rome as diabolic.

Anthony Raspa's edition of Pseudo-Martyr is both scholarly and lively: his notes are excellent and there seems to be no aspect of the text which he has not considered. He probably will not convince most readers that the book is a delight, but there can be no excuse for ignoring it and reading the Divine Meditations, the third satire, or Donne's other religious poems as if it did not exist.
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Author:Hadfield, Andrew
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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