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Religious criticism, the verse epistle, and Donne's daring discretion.

John Donne's verse epistle, "Honour is so sublime perfection," is his most religious poem, (1) at least in the restricted sense that the word "religion" appears in it more often than in any of his other poems. (2) This curious fact might surprise both specialist and non-specialist readers of Donne alike. The poem is never printed with or listed among his religious poems. Like Donne's other neglected verse epistles, it lacks the qualities we most readily associate with his best studied religious poetry: the witty profanity of the Songs and Sonnets, the searching skepticism of "Satyre III," and the devotional intensity of the Holy Sonnets. (3) Indeed, since it takes up Horatian themes of friendship and patronage, ethics and politics, it is unclear how "Honour is so sublime perfection" might qualify as a religious poem in the first place. This problem has been made all the more acute in the wake of the so-called "turn to religion" in early modern literary criticism. (4) This turn is now far enough advanced that its methods and motives have begun to be challenged. One objection has been that it has tended to equate religion with inwardness, so that religious criticism adopts the agenda of analytic psychology and existentialist phenomenology and searches out a lineage of spiritual self-alienation that links Saint Paul with Levinas via Augustine, Luther, and Freud. In this essay, I will propose a further turn within the "turn to religion" that will enable our conception of Renaissance religion to encompass "Honour is so sublime perfection." This further turn away from inwardness has been made in other disciplines--specifically in biblical scholarship, early church history, and post-secular critical theory--and has only just begun to register in early modern literary criticism. (5) In "Honour is so sublime perfection," Donne likewise turns to religion in order to move away from inwardness. His model for doing this is Paul, from whom Donne gleans a strategy for reconciling daring and discretion, two qualities that critics tend to polarize as the hallmarks of Donne's rakish youth and his prosperous maturity, respectively. But, by explaining how Donne reconciles daring and discretion in this poem of his middle years, I hope to interject at least one of Donne's verse epistles into our critical discussions of Donne's religious poetics and the scriptural poetics of the early modern period more generally.

"Hee must worke and frame it after the modell of that panta pasi, all things to all men"

"The Reformation fought and conquered," Albert Schweitzer once wrote, "in the name of Paul" (2). Schweitzer could have gone further and said that the Reformation fought for a specific version of Paul. It was Luther who, following Augustine, read Paul's description of the self divided between the flesh and the spirit in Romans 6-8 as autobiography and then made it the normative account of the Christian condition (see Steinmetz). For Luther and later reformers, the core of Paul's theology was the introspective analysis of the subconscious, the motives, desires, and anxieties that betray our human frailties. Their Paul had established a new Christian faith that rejected both Hebraic work-righteousness and Hellenistic rationalism in favor of absolute dependence on God's saving grace. Because of his belief in humanity's fallen epistemology and enslaved will (non posse non peccare), Paul helped Reformed theologians to enshrine what Richard Lanham has called the Christian West's "bad conscience about language" (5). On this view, Paul rejected worldly rhetoric as sinfully carnal and sinfully rational (cf. 1 Cor. 1-3), so that his own style became idealized as simple and transparent. In his study Saint Paul and Protestantism, Matthew Arnold would complain, not altogether fairly, that Calvin, the "heavy-handed Protestant Philistine," would read every verse of Paul as if it were a mere "formal scientific proposition" (70).

The Reformations version of inward-looking Paul has come under attack in recent years by biblical scholars and critical theorists alike. Among biblical scholars, what is sometimes called the "new perspective" in Pauline studies grew out of Krister Stendahl's important 1963 essay, "The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West." A Lutheran bishop himself, Stendahl argued that Paul was not introspective and was not interested in defining a uniquely Christian psychology. Paul was not a divided self but a beleaguered mediator who had to talk Gentiles and Jews into coexistence within contentious, heterogeneous communities consisting of men and women, rich and poor, servants and masters, Judaizing and gnostic factions. (6) These public, even political disputes, and not the inner battle between the flesh and the spirit in each Christian's soul, are rightly thought of as the focus of Paul's ministry. Similarly treating Paul as a man of his times, postsecular critical theorists over the last decade have come to see the greatest of all Christian theologians as a radical Jew of the Diaspora, a Roman citizen who wrote in inelegant Greek, spoke Hebrew, was mistaken for a pagan god, and quoted from classical tragedians. He became the Apostle to the Gentiles as well as the putative author of the Epistle to the Hebrews and preached charity and unity and claimed divine inspiration while fighting bitterly for authority in nascent church communities against a whole array of detractors and enemies, including the redoubtable Peter, whom Paul defied "to his face" (Gal. 2:11). (7) These kinds of tensions and multiplicities in Paul's identity could be easily multiplied. (8) But it is important to notice that they supercede Paul's talk of the inward conflict between the flesh and the spirit and that they are by no means incidental given Paul's constant concern with defining his religion, which would only later be known as Christianity, not so much against but within his world's dominant Jewish and pagan cultures. Given the complexity of Paul's identity politics, it is easy to see why postsecular critical theorists--Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Zizek, for example--have analyzed Paul not to critique the vacuity of liberal individualism to the paradoxes of liberal multiculturalism.

Paul's recent fate among biblical scholars and critical theorists closely parallels Donne's among new historicist literary critics. Donne's old biography, as first formulated in Izaak Walton's Lives (1658), reads a lot like Paul's traditional biography: as the Jewish zealot was converted spectacularly into an authoritative Christian saint, so too was the rakish Catholic skeptic transformed into the dignified Anglican preacher (Augustine again is a mediating figure: his lust replaces Paul's zeal in Donne's biography). But such easy dualisms no longer work for either Paul or Donne. Here, with regard to Donne's "Honour is so sublime perfection" we might notice the parallel between the new perspective Pauline scholars who have recovered the socio-political milieux of Paul's various church congregations throughout the ancient Mediterranean and the new historicist literary critics who have sketched out the life story of the poems recipient, Lucy Russell, and insisted on her "real presence" in Donne's verse epistles to her. (9) We now know much more about Bedford, though the exact reason for Donne's attention to her still remains elusive. Was she, as Ben Jonson had it, a "manly soul," Donne's intellectual peer and spiritual soulmate? Or were Jonson, Donne, and other male poets merely flattering a vain, teasing, uncomprehending, mildly debauched, and fiscally insecure potential patroness who after a period of illness briefly found religion? It is clear that the Bedford we find is as much the product of our assumptions--specifically about the kind of principled thinking a female Jacobean courtier, one who may or may not have danced in Jonson's Masque of Blackness with her breasts exposed, is capable of--as it is of the letters, estate accounts, and one surviving poem that we have turned up in the archive. But for my purposes, it is enough to point out that Donne was not the first to talk theology to social betters with whom he had to ingratiate himself and compete for status. Paul did it too.

But could Donne have known about or identified with this anti-Augustinian Paul whom Julia Reinhard Lupton has recently invoked not as a model of religious inwardness, but of political citizenship? (19-48). In her masterful study of Renaissance biblical criticism, Debora Kuller Shuger implies that he could not. She argues that medieval allegorical criticism was supplanted by materialist criticism and not by rhetorical criticism that focuses on a scriptural author's local circumstances and immediate motives, the very kind of criticism practiced by new perspective Pauline scholars. "Renaissance biblical scholarship" she says, "evinces almost no interest in the intentions, motives, or inner life of either the biblical writers or the texts' sacred personae" (45). This may be true of the gospel writers who are Shuger's primary concern, but it is not true of Paul. There were, of course, no monographs on Paul's use of Greco-Roman epistolary rhetoric or on the social coding of his theological terminology. But as will become evident in my close reading of "Honour is so sublime perfection" marginal glosses, textual annotations, and more discursive commentaries on Paul's writings frequently mention his intentions and motives (less so his inner life), if only because Paul, unlike the evangelists, writes frequently about himself, his previous writings, and his opponents. Donne recognized this. Late in his career, he preached four sermons on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, sermons in which he assiduously, even polemically, avoids treating Paul's conversion as a psycho-spiritual event illustrative of any specific theology of grace or works. The texts for these sermons are from Acts, not Romans or Galatians. (10) Elsewhere, Donne includes Paul with Seneca, Pliny, Cicero, and the Jesuits in his list of exemplary letter-writers and observes that "The Evangiles and Acts, teach us what to beleeve, but the Epistles of the Apostles what to do" (Letters 107). There are two striking things about this collocation of epistolary models. First, Donne places Paul among pagan and even contemporary letter-writers, implying that his letters were as occasional, artistic, and practical as theirs were. (11) Second, Donne reverses what modern readers would assume to be the respective biblical sources of Christian theology and ethics: we do not ask "What would Paul do?" but we still refer to a systematic Calvinist theology built on a scaffolding of Paul's theological terminology. Paul's epistles teach Donne "what to do" not because they posit an ethical system in the manner of Aristotle's Ethics, but because, I think, Donne recognized that his church makes the same kinds of mistakes, is seduced by the same kinds of pseudo-apostles, and lapses into the same kinds of heresies as Paul's early church communities. Paul's writings do not obliterate historical circumstances and rhetorical motives with a sweep of inspired timelessness. Instead, they promise that circumstance and motive will always be relevant.

Thus, Paul stands out from other biblical writers in Renaissance religious writing as a denizen of the ancient Mediterranean world and as a self-fashioning author. Jeffrey Knapp has recently shown that Erasmus's appreciation of Paul's "cunning" had great currency among a large and largely moderate group of English dramatists-cum-prelates. As Paul's example influenced English drama, so too did it influence English rhetorical theory. A certain D. T., writing on the arts of "conversation" and "negotiation" in a work titled The dove and the serpent (1614), imagines the ideal diplomat as a "Dove-like-Serpent." This decorous, chimerical creature
 must take heede that this appropriation and fitting of himself to
 such diversitie of Forms, bee so limited and circumscribed according
 to the rules and precepts of Divinitie, that the extent thereof may
 no way over-peere the bounds of Christian purenesse and integritie.
 Hee must worke and flame it after the modell of that panta pasi, all
 things to all men [1 Cor. 9:22], of S. Paules, and then he shalbe
 sure continually to walke aright. (36)

A logician might object that once Paul's "all things to all men" is taken as a model, it is hard to see what "rules" "precepts" and "bounds" could restrict the pure and integral self. But the point is that Paul was not a logician or a systematic theologian. Consequently, we need to abandon the tepid notion that, in David Daniell's words, during the English Reformation "the effect of Paul's writing is to create a plain and simple presence" (252). Certainly Paul is sometimes plain, and he sometimes claims to be simple (in fact, he claims to be idiotes--untrained). But he claims and does much more. The very first sentence of the French Protestant Sebastian Castellio's preface to Galatians asserts that Paul can be found "teaching," "swearing" "vituperating" "condemning" "anathematizing" "recalling," "praising" "commending," "persuading" and "insinuating" Indeed, one of the things Paul praises is his own person (Pauli personam ... orans; Pearson, 7:3287).

Further evidences of this variable, cunning, citizen Paul's presence in post-Reformation England will be given below. But the main point is that during Donne's lifetime Paul could be thought of as an apostolic homo rhetoricus, even though, like other rhetorical men, he assumed the role of homo seriousus. According to Lanham, homo rhetoricus had to sacrifice "religious sublimity, and its reassuring, if breathtaking, unities" for a sense of creating worlds through words (5). As we will see, Donne's "Honour is so sublime perfection" readily sacrifices sublimity and unity for something like, to use Arnold's phrase, Pauline "elasticity" But, pace Lanham, it does this by turning to, not from, religion.

"as an amber drop enwraps a bee"

Like the six other verse epistles Donne addressed to Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford, "Honour is so sublime perfection" mixes offerings of friendly advice with elaborate metaphysical conceits (many recycled elsewhere in Donne's corpus) and courtly compliment, all in the hope of securing her patronage. The poem consists of eighteen rhymed tercets in rough iambic pentameter and does not reveal the exact occasion of its composition, although it is thought to have been composed between 1609 and 1614, in the second half of Donne's middle period between his professionally disastrous marriage in 1602 and his decision to take holy orders in 1615. The best critical reading of the poem remains Margaret Mauer's 1980 essay, "The Real Presence of Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford, and the Terms of John Donne's 'Honour is so Sublime Prefection.'" Mauer sets out to recover the "grossly hyperbolical" and "conspicuous impropriety" created by Donne's mingling of courtly and religious vocabularies. Mauer reads the poem as a letter of instruction in which Donne sets up his own daring poetic indiscretion as a model for Bedford to adopt in her courtly affairs (205-206; see also Marotti, 227-29). The curious effect of Mauer's perceptive reading is to suggest that the poem is just about court conduct and not about religion, rather as if Andres Serrano's inflammatory "Piss Christ" (1989) were said to be just about public funding for the arts and not about Christianity. In Mauer's reading, the religious imagery merely adds shock value to the poems lesson about courtly conduct--Donne's religion is Serrano's piss. Mauer had a good reason for downplaying religion: she wanted to recover Bedford's life and her importance as recipient of the epistle. But with that work done, I hope to restore religion to the "place" (line 38) that Donne's poem itself claims for it.

Donne's poem begins with four stanzas about honor that, while not shocking or blasphemous, are usually enough to disconcert readers who find distasteful Donne's mingled rhetorics of piety and patronage:

Honour is so sublime perfection, And so refined; that when God was alone And creatureless at first, himself had none. (lines 1-3)

The alchemical imagery here is often noted, but the opening situation is essentially psalmic, in that it depicts the duty of lowly creatures to offer up their praise to their lofty Creator: "So from low persons doth all honour flow" (1. 7; cf. Ps. 8). But by contemplating God's dishonorable loneliness, Donne introduces a hint of irony. The idea of God, creatureless and without honor, for example, evokes the predicament of Ovid's ranting, impetuous Zeus who reverses his decision to wipe out humanity--promising instead to spare only Deucalion and Pyrrha--when the other gods remind him that without creatures, there will be no one to honor him with sacrifices (Metamorphoses, 1.248-49). Donne next descends from this lonely heaven to an earthly court, claiming that "Kings, whom they would have honoured, to us show, / And but direct honour, not bestow" (11. 8-9). Even as Donne affirms social distinctions between the low and the high, his concept of "honor" paradoxically underscores the dependency of the high on the low. In another verse epistle to Bedford ("You have refin'd mee"), Donne makes a similarly risky conceit by linking alchemical change to competing conceptions of value. As David Aers and Gunther Kress argue in the most important critical essay on the verse epistles, this conceit "implies that she [Bedford] is not inherently valuable, that her worthiness is a product of social circumstances" (25). In "Honour is so sublime perfection," "honor" replaces "worth" as the poem's key term. As a result, instead of imagining the court as what Aers and Kress call "a 'market-society,'" Donne gives us something more like the court as the Pauline church-as-body:
 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable,
 upon these we bestow [or put on] more abundant honour, and our
 uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts
 have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given
 more abundant honour to that part which lacked. (1 Cor. 12:23-24;
 KJV) (12)

Aquinas gave this passage cosmological importance similar to Donne's when he cites it to answer "Whether corporeal things were made on account of God's goodness" (Summa Theologica, I.Q65.a2; the answer is yes). And as John S. Coolidge brilliantly demonstrates in The Pauline Renaissance in England (1970), these verses exemplify Paul's complex unification of Christian liberty and social order as it was rediscovered by Elizabethan puritans. According to Coolidge, Paul is concerned with the conduct of the strong or perfect in the world, especially as they encounter "weak and beggarly elements" (Gal. 4:9):
 A person living in faith may move about confidently in the world of
 such things [viz., the weak, lowly, less honorable members], using
 them for the various purposes of life, or leaving them alone if they
 serve no purpose.... Thus Christian liberty is not simply a release;
 rather, it is an active engagement in a struggle like that of
 organic life to resist dissolution. (40)

Organic life and dissolution are, of course, Donne's great themes, as well-and really the only place for the poem to go, since it started out with "sublime perfection" (1).

Line 9 has the last mention of "honour" in the poem. (13) Although honor is "sublime perfection" it is fairly quickly refined out of the poem. Refined, or perhaps distilled, another key term that Donne introduces in the next stanza:

For when from herbs the pure parts must be won From gross, by stilling, this is better done By despised dung, than by the fire or sun. (10-12)

In Renaissance alchemy, sublimation and distillation were twin processes in which "the body is made spiritual [sublimation] and the spirit made corporeal [distillation]" (Abraham, sv "distillation and sublimation"). The earthy, monosyllabic diction here stands in contrast to the abstract, Latinate terms of the poems first two lines. If honor flows from low to high, the progression of Donne's diction has flowed in the opposite direction, from the high to the low, as the refined achievements of honor and alchemy have been reduced to the humble means of achieving them. "Despised dung" is here imagined to be superior to "fire or surf' for effectuating alchemical transformation because it is a slow-burning, material-based, but longlasting source of heat. It also affords Donne the chance to pun on his own name, as "done" becomes "despised dung" in an alliterative string that moves from past tense to (almost) present participle. Donne uses the alchemical imagery to subvert hierarchies of value and of efficiency, but what is now absent is decisive and discreet human action, since the other way to get something from dung is prudently to pluck it out. Erasmus, for example, praises Jerome's ability to use his pagan learning to aid the Christian church, for Jerome "knew, prudent man that he was, how to gather gold from a dung-pit [aurem ex stercore]" In his adage Herculei labores, Erasmus uses the same phrase to describe the philological toil involved in compiling scholarly editions from scores of fragmentary manuscripts (33). (14) And in the psalmic context close to Donne's poem, God "raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap" (Ps. 113:7; e stercore erigit pauperern [Vulgate]). At this point in the poem, slow, steady alchemical transformation effectively replaces the humanistic and divine ideal of discreetly plucking out, gathering, and raising up the valuable from the dung heap.

If this is what Donne wants Bedford to do to him, he may well be accused of distasteful bowing and scraping, but I don't think the value of the conceit is in its shocking impropriety. In the next line, Donne addresses Bedford directly and draws the lesson out of the previous stanzas' brief for lowliness:

Care not then, Madam, how low your praisers lie; In labourers' ballad, oft more piety God finds, than in Te Deurn's melody. (13-15)

Given our critical preoccupation with Donne's sincerity and ambition, it is hard not to see a pun in "how low your praisers lie," as the lowly material status of the previous four stanzas is now given an ethical disposition and a truth value. The production and "flow" of honor, which had been described as a largely impersonal process, are now cast in more human terms that can be found and cared for. The prospect of duplicity arises when humans ("Madam" and "praisers") and art ("labourers' ballad" and "Te Deum's melody"), and not just creatures and elements, become involved. The simple adverb "oft" raises the question, why not always? Apparently because "praisers lie" or at least because they can. Donne implies that there are times when they will.

When Donne finally introduces himself into the poem, he does so in terms that specifically raise the possibility of dissembling: "Should I say I lived darker than were true" (19). The subtle shift from material and social markers, "low" and "high" to cognitive and ethical markers, "dark" and "light" (21), allows Donne to introduce the idea of moral and linguistic transparency via his familiar pun on Bedford's first name, Lucy. Her "radiation can all clouds subdue" (1. 20), implying that any obscurity that Donne may use to exaggerate or falsify his condition will be exposed in her presence. The next stanzas reverse the materialist flow of the first four stanzas, now moving metaphysically from body to soul:

You, for whose body God made better clay, Or took soul's stuff such as shall late decay, Or such as needs small change at the last day. (22-24)

The phrase "better clay" seems to come from Juvenal's Satire 14, a tirade against immoral parents whose vices are imitated by their children. The only people able to break this familial cycle of immorality are those few rare humans formed by Prometheus "ex meliori luti" (1.35). Whether Bedford's body is this "better clay," or angelic "soul's stuff" or "such" saintly substance as the soon-to-be resurrected, it is made materially different from Donne's despised dung. One consequence is that Lucy is translucent:

This, as an amber drop enwraps a bee, Covering discovers your quick soul; that we May in your through-shine front your heart's thoughts see. (25-27)

The empty deictic "This" implies both a clear antecedent and something to look at. The next two lines provide it after the fact by drawing an analogy from Martial's Epigrams 4.32, which begins: "In an amber-drop the bee lies hid and lightens, / so that it seems to be shut in its native sweets" (4.32.1-2). Donne turns Martial's opening phrase, "Et lacet et lucet," into the paradiastole and oxymoron, "Covering discovers". Martial humorously presents his short, lapidary epigram as a "worthy reward" (Dignum ... pretium; 3) for the bee's brief but frenetic labors (tantorum ... laborum; 3), even though he suspects that the bee itself "would have wished to die" (1. 4) rather than be so epigrammatically immortalized. Martial thus ironically invokes the immortality-through-poetry topos, but when Donne draws his analogies between the body as amber and soul as bee, he creates a potent image of Christian life between this world and the next: spiritual quickness slowed to the point of absolute stillness, but not yet dead, not yet granted eternal rest.

This "bee in amber" conceit presents Bedford in terms that contradict the one used to describe her in "You have refin'd me." There Bedford is a "darke text" that needs notes or, as Aers and Kress explain, needs Donne to be her exegete and employee. In "Honour is so sublime perfection" the problem is not Bedford's obscurity but her stillness and her absence from the active world. Whereas Donne had earlier praised Bedford's "radiation" and presented it as an active force that "all clouds subdues" (1. 20), Donne now stresses Lucy's translucence, making it almost an inactive object of curiosity. He jams the densely periphrastic "in your through-shine front your heart's thoughts" between the sentence's simple but extenuated grammatical core, "we may ... see." Lucy's translucence seems both less forceful and less graceful than her "radiation" The phrase "through-shine" is an awkward Englishing of translucid- (another play on Lucy's name), and it may have been suggested to Donne by John Florio's 1603 translation of Montaigne's essay "Of the Institution and education of children". In this famous essay, Montaigne writes that the "mind which haroureth Philosophie ... ought to make her contentment to through-shine in all exterior parts: it ought to shapen and modell all outward demeanours to the modell of it" (1:169). (15) For Montaigne, the sound philosophical mind radiates outward, permeating and modeling the body. At this point in the poem, though, Bedford's soul is merely being seen, even exposed--"all things within without" "are shown" (1. 30). Donne's task is to explain how this enwrapped soul can, in Mauer's words, attain "involvement in the ways of the world" (224). Surprisingly, "religion" and "discretion" are the terms that allow him to do this.

"her yea, is not her no"

Having praised Bedford's "use" of transparency, one might expect Donne to advocate sincerity, moral transparency, or parrhesia, the virtue of frank plainness (see Graham). What Donne actually recommends is quite different:

Of such were temples; so and of such you are; Being and seeming is your equal care, And virtue's whole sum is but know and dare. (31-33)

Line 33 exercised the young Ralph Waldo Emerson considerably. He cites it several times in his notebooks and journals ("Bardic sentences how few!" he exclaims) and, in a 1837 entry, identifies the daring that Donne commends with unmannered sincerity and emotional honesty:
 The way to avoid mannerism, the way to write what shall not go out
 of fashion is to write sincerely to transcribe your doubt or regret
 or whatever state of mind, without the airs of a fine gentleman or
 great philosopher, without timidity or display, just as they lie in
 your consciousness, casting on God the responsibility of the facts.
 This is to dare. (Smith, 304-5)

This seems to be exactly the opposite of what Donne means. The double injunction "know and dare" ultimately derives from Plato's distinction between doing and knowing (to prattein kai gnonai [Timeaus, 72a]), the conjunction of which is the mark of wisdom. (16) A more immediate analog to Donne's poem, however, is Horace's verse epistle to Lollius Maximus, in which Horace exhorts his young friend, "Dare to be wise!" (sapere aude [Epistles I.ii.40])--an imperative cited by Montaigne and later taken up as a motto of the Enlightenment by Kant. But the bulk of Horace's epistle is given over to praising Odysseus as a useful exemplar of moral virtue, not because of his skeptical doubt or enlightened rationality, but because of his endurance, flexibility, and prudence (Rude, 78). The Greek word associated with Odysseus's daring is notparrhesia, blunt plainness, but something more suited to his many-sided character, tolma, a word that embraces meanings that range from passive suffering to virtuous action to hubristic recklessness (it is even used by Hellenistic rhetoricians to describe daring expressions) (Pucci, 47 and 78). With this Homeric and Horatian context in mind, it seems very unlikely that Donne's "dare" means "sincerely to transcribe" anything. He has just told Bedford that "Being and seeming is your equal care," thereby giving equal weight to being and seeming and refusing to subordinate the latter to the former. And despite Emerson's pretensions to timelessness, Donne's "being" brings into the active present the comically immortalized "bee" of line 25 (and "seeming" recalls "see" at the end of line 27). Bedford had been told earlier to "care not ... how low your praisers lie" (13), but we now learn that the security this implies does not mean she is without care. Her care should be to care equally about being and seeming.

A further indication that Donne's "dare" has little to do with either plainness or sincerity is that the next stanza begins with "But" (l. 34). The four stanzas that follow (34-42) introduce two new concepts--discretion and religion--that assume the moral significance vacated by the now absent terms "alchemy" and "honor" Donne introduces these key terms with a corresponding shift in syntax. These four stanzas affirm Josephine Miles's claim that Donne's poetry is uniquely dependent on logical connectives and that his poetry often falls into a characteristic "pattern of exuberant superlative questions and imperatives compellingly tempered by conditionals, adversatives, and straight denials" (291). If we just look at the tissue of connectives and adverbs in these stanzas, we get:

Lines 34-36 But ... and ... yet ... not ... nor 37-39 so ... not ... nor yet ... not ... nor 40-42 and so ... and ... how ... not 43-45 Nor ... and ... nor ... but.

If it is possible to be daringly concessive, I suppose that is what Donne is here. Lines 34-36 invoke the Aristotelian tripartite soul to claim that "growth" and "sense" "fly not" from "nor seek precedence" over "our reasons soul" interestingly granting syntactic agency to the two lower souls. The next stanza defines the obligations of discretion almost completely negatively: it must not "grudge a place" to zeal nor "keep none" nor "banish itself/nor religion" (38-39). This is inclusion by way of not excluding. It is only with the next stanza that Donne offers a positive assertion of the relationship between "Discretion" and "Religion": "these are one" The violence of this typical Donnean copulative is underscored by the etymology of his terms: "Discretion" derives from the Latin discernere, "to separate out" and "Religion" (in one etymology hazarded by Cicero [De dorno, 105]) from the Latin religare, "to bind or fasten together." But this stanza breaks the pattern slightly, using only one negative adverb in its concluding litotes: "her yea, is not her no" (42). It is unclear if each "her" has the same referent, but that is the point: discretion and religion "are one" (see Shami, "Donne on Discretion" and Lunderberg). The concluding "not her no" (42) signals a return to the strategy of the previous stanzas, and indeed the next stanza builds up to yet carefully qualifies the assertion, "wit must be it [i.e., religion]" We should not "solder still and knit" (l. 43) wit and religion; nor should we "dare to break them" (l. 44); nor should one be "colleague" (l. 45) to the other. Here we find two important words from earlier in the poem: "still" here emphasizing artificial rigidity and thus exactly opposing the transformative power of the earlier "stilling" (l. 11); and "dare to break," again adding a negative connotation, savoring almost of iconoclasm, to the earlier exhortation, "know and dare" (l. 33). It is almost as if Donne resorts to the simple copulative because other metaphors of cooperation--soldering, knitting, gathering together--are too fraught with connotations of rigidity or casualness.

The allusions I have noted so far have been classical or secular, ostensibly suggesting that "religion" here is a front for a different ethical system that Donne wants Bedford to adopt. But there are also two specific Pauline contexts for Donne's argument about discretion and religion--especially his claim that "her yea, is not her no" The first is the competing approaches to scriptural authority that emerged through late Elizabethan controversies on ecclesiastical polity. As Coolidge shows, conformists such as Richard Hooker arrived at a "double negative" position about the continued use of "things indifferent": any aspect of church polity "not contrary to" scripture may be retained for reasons of discretion. Puritans such as Thomas Cartwright, by contrast, struggled to articulate a positive sense of obedience "according to" scripture while being constantly reminded by their conformist adversaries that "not against" and "according to" are logically equivalent. In other words, when checking church polity against scripture, conformists were content with "not her no" while puritans sought "her yea" but then struggled to explain how the formulations were different (Coolidge, 1-22). Like Hooker and other conformists, Donne flouts this logical equivalence. But by the end of the poem we will see him groping to express the same kind of positive imperative of expectation and obligation that Cartwright and other puritans stressed.

The other Pauline context returns to the subject of Paul's subtle management of his apostolic ethos. Line 42 recalls most specifically 2 Cor. 1:17-19:
 When I therefore was thus minded, did I use lightness? Or the
 things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that
 with me there should be yea yea, and nay nay? But as God is true,
 our word toward you was not yea and nay. For the Son of God, Jesus
 Christ, who was preached among you by us ... was not yea and nay,
 but in him it was yea. (KJV; emphasis added)

The specific occasion for Paul's statement of honesty and integrity is quite clear: he has lost credibility because the Corinthians expected him to visit during his recent trip through Macedonia and he did not. So they accused him of "lightness" and of opportunism (of "purpose according to the flesh"). This passage, which seems to say simply, "when I say yes, I mean yes," occasioned a good deal of commentary in the Renaissance aimed at explaining why Paul failed to return to the Corinthians if he had indeed promised to. Surely he did not lie to or deceive the Corinthians. The most common solution was to surmise that Paul had very carefully worded his promise to return to include an escape clause such as "God willing" (Pearson, ad lot). Thus, Paul's yes is yes and his no is no, but he is very discreet about making promises that he would have to answer for. To complicate matters, it is unclear what Paul means when he says "our word" (logos). Is he talking about the promise that caused this apparent misunderstanding or about the gospel he preached, an ambiguity noted in the margin of the King James Version? Is he switching the subject, or perhaps arguing from major to minor (i.e., I revealed the true gospel to you, so why would I lie about the small matter of coming to visit)? Renaissance commentators, of course, did not flatly accuse Paul of being willfully duplicitous here. Nor did they parse out Paul's discreet management of his ethos from his unwavering affirmation of religious faith. But they knew that the two were being conjoined. His discretion and religion were one.

"Go thither still, go the same way you went"

At the end of his verse epistles, Donne often mentions the supposed reality of distance that occasioned the epistle in the first place. (17) There is no indication in "Honour is so sublime perfection" that writer and recipient are geographically separated (at least enough for Donne to develop the separation as a theme), but the poem is concerned, more abstractly, with uniting religion and discretion in the world against those who would keep them separate. Donne's final approach to this theme returns to the alchemical imagery of the poems opening stanzas:
 In those poor types of God (round circles) so
 Religions' types, the pieceless centres flow,
 And are in all the lines which all ways go. (46-48)

Earlier in the poem, the "flow" (7) of honor was unidirectional--it was from low to high and could be directed but not bestowed from above. Now, through the symbol of the "pieceless centres" or indivisible centerpoints from which all radii proceed, the flow of religion is omni-directional. (18) The textual crux in line 48 offers a choice between "all ways" (spatial) and "always" (temporal). But the line can bear both senses, for just as the earlier stanzas tease out temporal distinctions between past perfection and present usefulness (e.g., "better done / By despised dung" [ll. 11-12]), Donne now gestures beyond them toward an enduring present.

This image can be contrasted to one used by Christopher Lever in his Heaven and Earth (1608), a discourse on natural religion and political discretion occasioned by the controversy surrounding the 1605 Oath of Allegiance, which Donne himself later defended in Pseudo-Martyr (1610). Despite their shared allegiance to lames, Lever's text reads almost as a countertext to Donne's poem. Lever argues for the strict separation of religion and policy for everyone except the king, and he attacks those preachers who mingle religion and discretion in order to curry "popular favor":
 All these (and every one of these) in their kinde faile in the
 maine execution of their Religious office, whose precise rules
 lead men to God-ward by direct lines, and not by circular. Thus we
 see that the waies from God are many, but the way to God is but
 one; happy are they who tread that path: for though the world
 busie it selfe about many things, there is but one thing
 necessary: that is Religion. (47) (19)

For Lever, circularity and multiplicity are symbols of godlessness and anti-monarchal resentment. But for Donne, religion is not a set of "precise rules" that "lead men to God-ward by direct lines"; it is rather lines flowing from God in all ways always. Donne makes a subtle shift: he valorizes discretion and multiplicity by turning Lever's scornful "many" into Paul's unifying "all,' rather in the manner of Paul's "all things to all men." That is, while Lever favors the one over the many; Donne favors the all over the one.

But even as Donne expands and unifies religion's "ends" with discretions "ways" (51), his concluding exhortation, "Go thither still, go the same way you went" adapts a Horatian epistolary topos to capture the paradoxes of his Pauline rhetoric. This phrase recalls most specifically Horace's verse epistle to Numicius, which begins with Horace advising his young recipient to marvel at nothing (the first words are Nil admirari) and to seek nothing in excess. But he also exhorts Numicius to involve himself in the world:
 Go now [I nunc], gaze with rapture on silver plate, antique marble,
 bronzes and works of art; "marvel" at gems and Tyrian dyes; rejoice
 that a thousand eyes survey you as you speak; in your diligence get
 you to the Forum early, to your home late ... (Ep.

There is a double-consciousness implied here that is very similar to the one Donne gives to Bedford earlier in the "bee in amber" section (cf. ll. 24-33): Numicius should marvel at nothing but still "gaze with rapture" and "marvel" at the finery of the rich, and be happy to be marveled at as he eagerly participates in the less refined business of the Forum. But the difference between Horace's "Go now" and Donne's "Go thither still" is considerable. Donne's exhortation reminds us that Paul's adverb eti (still, yet, more) can reveal poignant ambiguities in Christian doctrine and discipline. It signals the fuzziness of clear distinctions, the incompleteness of claimed perfection, or the continuity of expected change. It shows that, to paraphrase the title of Agamben's commentary on Romans, time remains. Thus, it occurs, for example, when Paul explains that, even though God has predestined the elect and the reprobate, we are still moral agents (Rom. 7:19); when Paul is explaining how he can be dead to sin and yet still sin (Rom. 6:2); and when Paul tells the worldly Corinthians to "desire the best gifts, and I will yet shew you a more excellent way;' thereby teaching them "a certaine holy ambition and envy" (1 Cor. 12:31; Geneva gloss).

Donne's "still" has a similar force, especially when contrasted with his earlier two uses of the word, "stilling" (l. 11) and "still" (l. 43), which connote, respectively, gradual change and absolute fixity. (20) Donne's final "still" suggests temporal continuity ("you still have to go") but there is also a suggestion of ethical constancy ("don't be changed"), especially when the same imperative is, fittingly, rephrased and repeated in the line's second half.. "go the same way you went" (l. 52). Presumably, Donne is telling Bedford to return to what Lever would call the earthly realm of policy, but since Donne has just valorized discretion's "ways" in both of the previous two stanzas (ll. 48, 51), his choice of the singular and emphatically self-identical "same way" is jarring. In fact, "way" itself is ambiguous: is it the path she had used--to go where?--or is it the manner in which she went? Donne's phrase recalls the stoic idea that travel and, more broadly, engagement with the world invariably perturb one's ethical composure. Here is what Seneca says about travelling abroad and amid crowds: "I dare not trust my self in the Hands of much Company: I never go Abroad, that I come Home again the same Man I went Out. Some thing or other that I had put in Order, is discompos'd: Some Passion that I had subdu'd, gets head again" (227). As if to convey something of this discomposure, the simple, repeated, but yet ambiguous exhortations of line 52 devolve into the poem's strangely elliptical final lines: "Who so would change, do covet or repent; / Neither can reach you, great and innocent" (ll. 53-54). It is difficult to parse the indefinite plural subject, "Who so" required by "do" with the singular collective subject "Neither" that follows. Here change is synonymous with sinfulness, either present (covetousness) or past (hence the need to repent). Presumably it is because she is unchanged that Bedford is "great and innocent:' But the most interesting word in these lines is "reach;' which contrasts with the repeated impersonal "wrought" of the penultimate stanza (ll. 49, 51). These contrasting verbs reestablish the distinction in the first four stanzas between verbs connoting passive change ("refined;' "flow;' "stilling," "done by despised dung") and verbs connoting willed action ("direct," "care," "finds"). Aers and Kress have studied in some detail how verbal agency reveals the various versions of the self--from the stable central self to the variable social self--that people Donne's verse epistles. "Honour is so sublime perfection" ends with a highly ambiguous assertion of the active, stable self: Donne identifies those who cannot "reach" Bedford, but he does not positively identify those who can.

Donne turns to religion in his epistle to Bedford not to shock her into daringly indiscreet behavior on his behalf (the poem never approaches blasphemy) but rather to reconcile discretion and daring with a view of religion that requires involvement with the world. That is, religion is not merely a foil for court ethics but an ethic that demands worldly conduct in the expectation of spiritual perfection. In fact, more than any verbal parallel, what makes this epistle Pauline is this concluding but ambiguous sense of expectation. (21) This is the rhetorical context of Paul's earliest writings: he believed that the Second Coming would occur during his lifetime so that his advice about worldly customs, mores, and laws is often provisional and even implies a distinctive sort of double-consciousness. (22) For example, 1 Cor. 7 includes the following concession:
 I mean, breathren, the appointed time has grown very short; from
 now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none....
 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings
 with it. For the form of this world is passing away. I want you to
 be free from anxieties. (1 Cor. 7: 29-32; New Oxford Annotated

The only thing separating a life of marriage and active involvement in the world from a life of celibacy and retirement from business affairs is a simple "as though" (os). In The Serpent and the Dove, D. T. notes Paul's cunning use of os in this context.
 [Paul] gave not the Corinthians to understand that hee was anomos
 simply without law, but os anomos, that he did onely make shewe to
 he so; as thinking this commanded carriage, and forced resemblance
 of those, which were the originals of what himself was but a
 copie. (37)

Paul "did onely make shewe" of "being without law." He commanded a "carriage," forced a "resemblance," and copied "originals." In short, he fashioned himself. But as new perspective Pauline scholars would argue, he does this not because the early church communities rejected his gospel out of hand, but because they accepted it and then had to figure out how to live with it as time continued and as problems and opponents emerged. Paul's daring and discretion emerged because he proclaimed perfection then found perfection prolonged. (Thus in First Thessalonians, the very first writing to be composed in what is now the New Testament, Paul is already allaying the Thessalonians' doubts that the anticipated Second Coming will not come.) The classical authors to whom Donne alludes confront the same sort of predicament: in Martial, the bee in amber has its short but busy life comically prolonged; in Horace, Numicius has achieved moderation and must return to the immoderate world; in Seneca, the becalmed stoic is invariably discomposed by crowds. But for these classical authors, the main distinction is between the private self and the public world. For Paul, it is between the daring anticipation of the next life and the discreet contentment with this one. Donne's epistle endorses Horace's stoic ethics, but he turns to religion in order to harness Paul's emphasis on urgent worldly involvement and eagerly anticipated reward--despite the apparent and flattering achievement of "so sublime perfection"

When he wrote his verse epistles to Bedford, Donne was what Aers and Kress call an "alienated intellectual" though it remains debatable how dimly modern intellectuals should view the primary symptoms of Donne's alienation, viz., his ambition, his willingness to flatter his social superiors, and the metaphysics he affects to do it (25). All these symptoms are in evidence here: Donne is asking Bedford for money or its equivalent in employment (as Mauer astutely notes, the center with a dot is the alchemical symbol of both God and gold; amber is also a symbol of gold [see Abraham, svv "amber" and "circle"]). But I hope to have shown that Donne found in Paul a biblical model for managing this disaffection, just as courtiers of a previous generation found one in the figure of David and as dissidents of the next found one in the prophets. If the new perspective Paul was available in early modern England and if he can be taken as model for at least some of Donne's rhetoric, then we need not see Donne's turn to religion in this poem as further evidence of Donne's alienation from his social surroundings or as a mere ploy to goad Bedford into action on his behalf. At the very least, the "conspicuous impropriety" that "Honour is so sublime perfection" calls to our attention is not that the rhetorics of religion and politics can be mingled, but the very assumption that they should not be.

University of Connecticut--Greater Hartford


(1) All Donne poems mentioned in this article are cited from The Complete English Poems, edited by A.J. Smith.

(2) "Honour is so sublime perfection" uses the word "religion" five times. Donne's "Satyre III" uses it four times; another verse epistle to Bedford, "T'have written then ..." and his much longer Second Anniversary use it three times each. None of the dozen or so other instances of the term in his poetry occur in the so-called Holy Sonnets, see Combs and Sullens. For a concise, suggestive account of how the meaning of the word "religion" changed between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, see Cavanaugh.

(3) For the disproportionate neglect of the verse epistles, see Rogers.

(4) In the "turn to religion" see Jackson and Marotti and the forthcoming special issue of English Language Notes (44:1 [March 2006]) on "Literary History and the Religious Turn:' For the rise of religion in Donne studies, see Shami, "Trying to Walk...."

(5) For this kind of criticism, see Lupton, whose work prompted Jackson and Marotti to call for a turn away from what they call "alterity criticism" of Renaissance religious literature (Jackson and Marotti, 178-79).

(6) For a concise introduction to the "new perspective" on scholarship on Paul, see Gager. It should also be noted that new perspective scholars often support their arguments with readings from early church fathers whose works were readily available to Donne.

(7) Or was it, more deceptively, "with his face"? On the puzzle of this verse in Reformation commentaries, see Hagen.

(8) For an attempt to reconcile Paul's multiple memberships under the rubric of citizenship, see Lupton, 21-48.

(9) See Thomson; Mauer; and Lewalski, 95-124. For a more ambiguous portrait of Bedford, see Goldberg, 16-41.

(10) On Donne's non-introspective treatment of Paul's conversion in these sermons, see my essay, "John Donne's Via Pauli." For a reading of Paul in Acts that closely parallels these sermons, see Lupton, 23-30.

(11) By comparison, in his contemporaneous treatise on letter-writing, Lipsius adds the "religious letter" to other secular types of the genre, but he lists only later patristic sources as examples.

(12) Biblical quotations from the King James Version and earlier translations are taken from The English Hexapla.

(13) This opening section closely reworks lines from Donne's Second Anniversary (ll. 401-409), which was published in January 1612.

(14) Compare Cassiodorus, Institutiones 1.1.8; and Erasmus, Adages, 172.

(15) Florio's volume was dedicated to Bedford. Interestingly, Montaigne's text does not include any word suggesting translucence: "Elle dolt faire luire jusques au dehors son repos et son ayse; dolt former a son moule le port exterieur, et l'armer par consequent d'une gratieuse fierte, d'un maintien actif et allegre, et d'une contenance contente et debonnaire" (Oeuvres cornplets, 1.2.30).

(16) Compare Andrew Marvell's (apparent) praise of Oliver Cromwell for having "tamed" the Irish in one year: "So much one man can do / That does both act and know" ("An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" ll. 75-76; emphasis added).

(17) E.g. "To Mr. Roland Woodward;' ll. 28-36; "To Sir Henry Goodyer;' ll. 45-48; "To the Countess of Bedford" ("Reason is our soul's left hand"), ll. 33-38.

(18) Citing this line, the OED lists "pieceless" as a nonce-word. Compare these lines to Second Anniversary, ll. 436-39.

(19) Line 20 of Donne's epistle ("Your radiation can all clouds subdue") can be compared with Lever's title page, which presents an emblem of the sun (which for Lever is religion) obscured by clouds (policy) with the reassuring motto, Etiam et sol ("And yet the sun [still shines]).

(20) For a study of "still" in Spenser's Mutabilitie Cantos, see Anderson, 133-34.

(21) For other verbal parallels, one might compare the last stanza with 2 Cor. 10, in which Paul explains that his gospel is the same whether he is present or absent and that he was the first apostle among many to "reach" the Corinthians. Consider also Paul's polemical use of tolma (daring) and Gal. 3:28 ("There is neither Jew nor Greek") as a grammatical model for the poems stanzas on religion and discretion.

(22) For the impact of Paul's eschatology on his ethics, see, e.g., Martyn, 85-156.


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Title Annotation:John Donne's poems
Author:Kneidel, Gregory
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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