John Donne.

Donne's sermons; selected passages, with an essay by Logan Pearsall Smith online

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Oxford University Press

London Edinburgh Glasgow New York

Toronto Melbourne Cafe Town Bombay

Humphrey Milford Publisher to the University

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Selected 'Passages



Logan Pearsall Smith



At the Clarendon Press





I. The Preacher .....


2. When I consider . . . .


3. I am Not all Here ....


4. Imperfect Prayers ....


5. Powers and Principalities


6. Infecting God .....


7. Forgiveness of Sins ....


8. Forgive my Sins. ....


9. Let Me Wither .....


10. Donne and the Worm ....


II. Preaching Consolation .


12. The Beauty of the Soul

• *3

13. Spiritual Liberality ....

• H

14. Eagle's Wings .....

. 15

15. The Hour-Glass ....

. 17

16. Preaching ......


17. Applause ......

. 19

18. The Bellman .....


19. Favourite Scriptures ....


20. The Psalms .....

- 23

21. Sanctified Passions ....

. 24

22. Style and Language ....

. 26

23. Style of, the Holy Ghost .

. 28

24. Compliments ......

. 28

25. Lying at Aix ......

• 30

26. Farewell on Going to Germany .

. 3i

27. The Vicar of St. Dunstan's .

. 34

28. Funeral Sermon on Magdalen Herbert, Lady


vers, 1627 ......

• 35

29. Death of Elizabeth and Accession of James I

• 47




The Gunpowder Plot .


Preached to the Honourable

Virginian Plantation, 1622


The Mission of England


James I


Death of James I


The Plague, 1625


Difficult Times .


Polemical Preaching .


The World Decays






Afflictions ....




The World a House .


Mundus Mare .


The Indifference of Nature .


Wealth ....


A London Merchant .


Sickness ....


Public Opinion .




Women ....


Cosmetics ....


The Skin ....


Mud Walls


Ignorance ....


The Imperfection of Knowledg


Change of Mind


Reasons and Faith


True Knowledge


Terrible Things


The Fate of the Heathen


The Church a Company


God Proceeds Legally

6 4<

The Church


Reverence in Church .


. Going to Church

Company of the







7 1
7 1


7 6

















67. Prayer . . . . . . . .121

68. Prayer ......


69. The Time of Prayer ....


70. At Table and Bed ....


71. Unconscious Prayer ....


72. Sermons ......


73. New Doctrines .....


74. Papist and Puritan ....


75. Theological Dissensions


76. Despair .......


77. The Sociableness of God


78. God a Circle .....


79. God's Mirror .....


80. God's Names .....


81. God's Mercies


82. God not Cruel .....


83. The Voice of God ....


84. God's Language .....


85. God's Anger


86. God's Faults ....


87. God's Judgements

• H7

88. Terrible Things

. 148

89. God's Malediction

■ H9

90. God's Power ....

. 150

91. Access to God ....

. 152

92. The Image of God in Man .

• 153

93. Man God's Enemy

• 154

94. The Atheist ....

• 155

95. The Angels ....

• 157

96. The Devil. ....

• 157

97. The Creation ....

• 159

98. The Heavens and Earth

. 161

99. The Creation of a Harmonious World

. 162

100. God and Adam and Eve

• 163

101. The World since the Fall

. 164

102. Silkworms .....

• 165

103. Original Sin ....

. 166

104. Original Sin ....

. 168

viii Contents.


105. The Heart of the Sinner ..... 168

106. Light Sins .....


107. The Sin of Reason ....


108. Delight in Evil


109. Excuses ......


no. Rebuke of Sin .....


III. Names of Sins .....


112. Pride ......


113. Covetousness .....


114. Blasphemy .....


115. The Burden of Sin ....


n6. The Sinner .....


117. The Sorrows of the Wicked .


118. The Sins of Memory ....


119. The Eye of God ....


120. The World Drowned in Sin .


121. The Hand of God ....


122. The Sick Soul .....


123. Sleep ......


124. The Gate of Death ....


125. Our Prison .....


126. All must Die .....


127. Death Inevitable


128. The Expectation of Death .

. 201

129. The Death-bed .....


130. The Death of Ecstasy ....


131. The Dead with Us ....


132. Mourning ......


133. A Quiet Grave .....


134. Eternal Damnation ....


135. Death of the Good and the Bad Man


136. The Northern Passage


137. The Resurrection


138. The Awakening ....


139. The Resurrection of the Body

• 2I 4

140. The Last Day ....


141. The Day of Judgement


h 2 - J°y





143. The Joy of Heaven ...... 219

144. Little Stars


145. Heirs of Heaven .


146. Seeing God

147. The Sight of God

148. The State of Glory


149. Justice

150. Knowledge in Heaven



151. Eternity .

152. Eternity .

153. Eternity .

154. Joy in Heaven

155. Donne's Last Sermon .





• 235

• 236
. 238


Portrait of the Author in his Shroud :
the frontispiece to Death 1 's Duel 1632


I REFER in my notes to the three folios of Donne's
Sermons as I, II, and III respectively. I is the first
folio, LXXX Sermons, 1640 ; II is Fifty Sermons, 1649 ;
III is XXVI Sermons, 1660. The text of each passage
is taken from the first appearance of the sermon which
contains it in print, whether in the folios, or in the earlier
published quartos of separate sermons printed in Donne's
lifetime, or shortly after his death. The original
punctuation has been preserved ; and also the original
spelling, except in the use of ' i ' for ' j ', of * u ' for ' v '
and vice versa, and of contractions for ' m ' or ' n '.
I refer to Professor Grierson's edition of Donne's Poems
(The Poems of John Donne, edited by Herbert J. C.
Grierson, M.A., Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, 191 2)
as Poems ; to The Life and Letters of John Donne,
by Edmund Gosse (London, William Heinemann, 1899),
as Gosse ; to John Donne, by Augustus Jessopp, D.D.
(Methuen and Co., 1897), as Jessopp. Spearing refers
to Miss Spearing's 'A Chronological Arrangement of
Donne's Sermons ' (Modern Languages Review, vol. viii,
191 3) ; Coleridge, to Coleridge's ' Notes on Donne ', pub-
lished in The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
collected and arranged by Henry Nelson Coleridge, 1838,
vol. iii. C. and T. J as. I, and C. and T. Charles I, refer

xii Note.

to The Court and Times of James the First (1848), and
The Court and Times of Charles the First (1848). The
references to Donne's Devotions are to the first edition
of 1624. Ramsay refers to Miss Ramsay's Les Doctrines
medievales chez Donne, le Poete metaphysicien de VAngle-
terre (Oxford University Press, 19 17). I must express
my special thanks to Mr. Edmund Gosse, C.B., for his
kindness in lending me a number of very rare first editions
of Donne's sermons from his collection of Donne's works.


THE remarkable and somewhat enigmatic figure of
John Donne is one that has attracted a good deal of
attention in recent years ; his life has been studied, his
poems and letters carefully edited, his character analysed,
and his position as a poet acutely debated. His harshness,
his crabbed and often frigid way of writing, his forced
conceits, his cynicism and sensuality, are extremely
repellent to some readers ; while to others his sublety,
his realism, and a certain modern and intimate quality
in his poems, illuminated as they are with splendid
flashes of imaginative fire, possess an extraordinary
interest and fascination. There are people who hate
Donne ; there are others who love him, but there are
very few who have read his poems and remain quite
indifferent to him. His character is still a puzzle, his
reputation as a poet, eclipsed for a long time and only
revived in our own day, is by no means yet the subject of
final agreement.

In spite of this modern interest in Donne, and the
study which has been devoted to his works, there is one
aspect of them which, until recently, has received no very
adequate attention. In addition to his poems, his letters,
and a few minor prose pieces, Donne left behind him
an immense body of theological writings. By birth and

xiv Introduction.

by the tradition of his family a Roman Catholic, and
for that reason shut out in his youth from the paths of
secular ambition which had so great an attraction for
him, he was of necessity much preoccupied with theo-
logical considerations ; and it was not till after much
study of controversial divinity that he succeeded in
convincing himself of the truth of the Anglican position,
which he finally made his own, and which, even in his
secular days, he emphatically defended. When at the
age of forty-two, after long experience of poverty and
many worldly disappointments, he found all other paths
of preferment closed to him, and at last, after much
hesitation, took religious orders, he then began that
career as a great divine and preacher which, until the
revival of interest in his poetry, remained his principal
claim to remembrance. But his fame as a preacher has
been this long time fame at second hand ; it is due to
Izaak Walton's descriptions of his sermons, rather than to
any reading of the sermons themselves. The very
quantity, indeed, of his sermons — and no Anglican
divine of the period has left behind him such a number —
has discouraged students from thorough study of them ;
and, indeed, to read these great folio volumes is a task
not lightly to be undertaken. But it is not only the
mere bulk and body of these folios, the great number and
length of Donne's sermons, which daunts the reader ;
there is much in the writing itself which renders it diffi-
cult and distasteful to the modern mind. In the first
place sermons themselves, and especially old sermons,
have fallen somewhat out of fashion ; they are not
often read now, and the collected and republished editions

Introduction. xv

of the great seventeenth century divines rest for the
most part unopened on our shelves. People read novels,
biographies, books of travel, social and political treatises
instead of the sermons in which their grandfathers and
grandmothers delighted : Hooker, Barrow, South, Tillotson
are names indeed, but little more than names to most
of us ; and even so great a writer of English prose, so
exquisite an artist as Jeremy Taylor, is familiar to us
only in extracts and selected passages. For modern
theologians this old divinity, with its obsolete learning
and forgotten controversies, has little more than an
archaeological interest ; while to the more secular-
minded, the old divines, whose severe brows and square
faces meet our eyes when we open their great folios, seem,
with their imposed dogmas, their heavy and obsolete
methods of exposition and controversy, almost as if they
belonged to some remote geological era of human
thought. We are reminded of Taine's image of them as
giant mastodons or megatheria, slowly winding their
scaly backs through the primeval slime, and meeting
each other, armed with syllogisms and bristling with
texts, in theological battle, to tear the flesh from one
another's flanks with their great talons, and cover their
opponents with filth in their efforts to destroy them.

And yet these old divines were great men and great
writers, their voices enthralled the best and wisest of
their own generation, and it is a misfortune for their
fame, and a misfortune for our literature, that they put
their wisdom and observation and deep feeling, their
great gifts of imagination, and their often exquisite
mastery of the art of expression into the hortatory

xvi Introduction.

and controversial form of the sermon which time has
rendered obsolete.

It must be admitted that all the reasons, good or bad,
which keep us from reading writers like Jeremy Taylor
and South, face us at once, and seem even more valid,
when we open a volume of Donne's sermons. All that
has ceased to interest, all that actually repels us in the
old theology, the* scholastic divinity, the patristic learn-
ing, the torturing of texts, the interpretation of old
prophesies, the obsolete controversies and refutation of
forgotten heresies, the insistence on moral commonplaces,
the intolerance of human frailty, and the menaces of
fearful judgement on it — with all these stock subjects,
Donne, like his contemporaries, filled his sermons. But
his case is even worse than theirs ; not only as a theolo-
gian was he of an older breed, more remote and medieval
than Jeremy Taylor or South, he had also, personal to
himself, the unhappy faculty of developing to their
utmost the faults of any form of literary expression he
adopted ; and when he abandoned verse for sermon-
writing, every defect of this kind of composition, every-
thing that most offends us in the old preachers and sound
expositors, was carried by him to a pitch which gives
him a bad eminence over the most unreadable of them all.

That sermons like Donne's should have held great
congregations spellbound seems astonishing, not only
to the secular mind, but to theologians themselves. One
of Donne's most distinguished successors at the Deanery
of St. Paul's, Dean Milman, has written of them :

' It is difficult for a Dean of our rapid and restless days
to imagine, when he surveys the massy folios of Donne's

Introduction. xvii

sermons — each sermon spreads out over many pages —
a vast congregation in the Cathedral or at Paul's Cross,
listening not only with patience but with absorbed
interest, with unflagging attention, even with delight
and rapture, to these interminable disquisitions, to us
teeming with laboured obscurity, false and misplaced wit,
fatiguing antitheses. However set off, as by all accounts
they were, by a most graceful and impressive delivery,
it is astonishing to us that he should hold a London
congregation enthralled, unwearied, unsatiated. Yet
there can be no doubt that this was the case. And this
congregation consisted, both of the people down to the
lowest, and of the most noble, wise, accomplished of that
highly intellectual age. They sat, even stood, undisturbed,
except by their own murmurs of admiration, sometimes
by hardly suppressed tears.' 1

It is only necessary to open a volume of Donne's sermons
to find a justification for his successor's criticism. For
instance, in preaching to Charles I at Whitehall on the
text ' In my Father's house are many mansions, if it were
not so, I would have told you ', he begins :

' There are occasions of Controversies of all kinds in this
one Verse ; And one is, whether this be one Verse or
no ; For as there are Doctrinall Controversies, out of
the sense and interpretation of the words, so are there
Grammaticall differences about the Distinction, and
Interpunction of them : some Translations differing
thereinn from the Originall (as the Originall Copies are
distinguished, and interpuncted now) and some differing
from one another. The first Translation that was, that
into Syriaque, as it is expressed by Tremellius, renders
these words absolutely, precisely as our two Translations
doe ; And, as our two Translations doe, applies the

1 Annals of S. Paul's Cathedral, Henry Hart Milman, D.D., 2nd ed.,
1869, p. 328.

2025-3 b

xviii Introduction.

second clause and proposition, Si quo minus, if it were not
so, I would have told you, as in affirmation, and confirma-
tion of the former, In domo Patris, In my Fathers house
there are many Mansions, For, if it were not so I would
have told you. But then, as both our Translations doe,
the Syriaque also admits into this Verse a third clause
and proposition, Fade parare, I goe to prepare you a place.
Now Beza doth not so ; Piscator doth not so ; They
determine this Verse in those two propositions which
constitute our Text, In my Fathers house, etc. And then
they let fall the third proposition, as an inducement,
and inchoation of the next Verse.' x

So the sermon goes inexorably on, immense paragraph
after paragraph filled with quotations from the Fathers
and quibbling controversies with Roman Catholic
theologians,till suddenly the page lights up with a descrip-
tion of the unending day of eternity unsurpassed in our
literature, how ' all the foure Monarchies, with all their
thousands of yeares, And all the powerfull Kings, and all
the beautifull Queenes of this world, were but as a bed
of flowers, some gathered at six, some at seaven, some at
eight, All in one Morning, in respect of this Day ', and
how, during all the time that had passed since the Creation,
in this timeless mansion of Eternity, ' there was never
heard quarter clock to strike, never seen minute glasse
to turne '. 2

Contrasts almost as surprising as this meet us in the
sermons of other seventeenth century preachers, and
here and there we come on passages of poignant expression
and lyrical or sombre beauty clothed in the noblest
language. For while the sermon, regarded merely as

1 I, p. 737- l See No. 153.

Introduction. xix

a form of literary expression, has undoubted disadvantages
which render the sermons of one age difficult for the next
age to appreciate, yet on the other hand this form of
expression is one — since its subject matter is nothing
less than the whole of life — which gives the widest
possible scope to a great preacher. He can pour his whole
soul into his sermon, his hopes, fears, and self-accusations,
the furthest flights of his imagination, the ripest results
of his philosophic meditations, all the wisdom of mellow
experience, and even the most amusing details of satiric
observation. The very circumstances of his delivery, the
ceremonious solemnity of the church and pulpit, the great
responsibility of the occasion, give a nobility to his
utterance ; and the presence of the congregation, the
need to speak directly to the hearts and minds of men and
women, lends a certain dramatic intensity to all he says.
Such circumstances, while they are full of danger for
an insincere and rhetorical preacher, provide the most
splendid opportunities for one endowed with earnest
purpose and a sincere imagination. The exhortations
of such a preacher can hardly help being noble in expres-
sion ; and it is in the sermon therefore that we find
some of the highest achievements of English prose —
in the sermon, or in prophetic or didactic or even political
eloquence written with the same high impulse and inspira-
tion. For great prose needs a great subject matter,
needs great themes and a high spectacular point of
vision, and solemn and clear and steadfast conception of
life and its meaning. It must handle with deep earnest-
ness the most profound themes, Good and Evil, Desire
and Disillusion, the briefness of Life and the mystery of


xx Introduction.

Death — the universal material and the great common-
places of human thought in all ages. Such a mood is the
mood of religion, in whatever dogmas it may be clothed ;
and it is the religious writer who can most impressively
touch those great organ stops of grave emotion which
move us in the highest achievements of prose literature.

The seventeenth century divines, moreover, with all
the lumber which they inherited from the past, inherited
much also that gives an enduring splendour to their
works. In the doctrines of their faith they found a com-
plete conception of existence, a scheme elaborated in all
its details, and rich in memories and associations accumu-
lated from the dawn of history. The Creation of the
world, the Fall of Man, all the vicissitudes of the Chosen
People, the sins and punishments of their Kings, the
vehemence of their Prophets and their supernatural fore-
sight, and the great central tragedy and hope of the
Redemption — these were themes that came to their
hands elaborated by the Fathers of the Church and
by a whole succession of medieval writers ; and now, just
at this time, the Sacred Books which were the original
sources of this deposit of Christian history and doctrine
had been re-translated and clothed afresh in an unsur-
passable beauty of language.

This noble diction, this intensity, and what we might
almost call inspiration of language, which gives so poetic
a colouring to the English version of the Scriptures, was
not the achievement of one man, but almost the universal
birthright of the time : with the Elizabethan dramatists
and translators, the preachers and theological writers
had their share in this great utterance, which, whether

Introduction. xxi

due to linguistic causes which ceased to operate, or to
an intensity of poetic vision which afterwards vanished,
certainly grows fainter and thinner and gradually dies
away as the seventeenth century advances, and the age
of theology is superseded by the age of Reason and
common sense.

If Donne's sermons are full, as we have said, of all that
in the old divinity which has become distasteful to us,
if he surpasses the preachers of that period in their faults
and drawbacks, he shares also in their achievements,
and indeed in many ways he overtops them all. Lost
in the great crabbed, unread, unreadable folios of his
sermons, these ' volumes of religion and mountains of
piety ', there are pages and passages of great and surprising
beauty, which are nevertheless entirely unknown to
English readers. It is indeed somewhat curious that with
the growing recognition of Donne's merits as a poet,
so little attention has been paid to the excellence of his
prose. Equal in power and beauty to that of Sir Thomas
Browne or Jeremy Taylor, and in passionate intensity
surpassing even these great writers, it is almost un-
represented in our prose anthologies ; and indeed, the
best of these, Basil Montagu's Selections, includes no
specimen of his writing. But the explanation of this is
after all a simple one ; unlike Jeremy Taylor or Sir Thomas
Browne, Donne was famous first of all as a poet, and save
for his little-known Devotions, he wrote no small book,
no Holy Dying or Urn Burial in which he gave evidence
of his powers as a prose writer. His shorter prose pieces,
his Paradoxes and Biathanatos, and his elaborate letters
do not represent him at his best ; it is only here and there

xxii Introduction.

in isolated passages of his sermons that he put forth his
full strength ; and his best prose, not being therefore
easily accessible, has almost entirely escaped notice, and
few even of the most enthusiastic readers of Donne's
verse are aware that however highly they estimate his
merits as a poet, he is equally worthy of fame as a prose
writer — that, indeed, his mastery of the means of expres-
sion was perhaps even greater in prose than in poetry ;
was less impeded by those defects of technique and tem-
perament which kept him from reaching the highest
level of poetic achievement.

The object of this volume is to remedy if possible'this
neglect. After reading Donne's sermons more than
once, I have chosen for reprinting those passages which
especially impressed me, and which I think will be of
interest to modern and secular-minded readers like
myself. Any volume of selections from a voluminous
author must be always unsatisfactory, for there are
many canons of choice, many sieves for the sifting, by

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Online LibraryJohn DonneDonne's sermons; selected passages, with an essay by Logan Pearsall Smith → online text (page 1 of 22)