John donne (1572-1631) was the third of six children born of Roman Catholic parents when anti-Catholicism was rife in England. Catholics were then even subject to harassement by 'Elizabethan secret police'.
His Catholicism was a handicap he had to contend with, even though he was admitted to both Oxford and Cambridge universities- and Lincoln's Inn. He never applied for any academic degrees however, nor did he ever practice law.
He turned from Catholicism during the 1590s but was ill at ease with the idea of becoming an Anglican.
He pushed in gaining favour through charm and wit rising even to the queen's court (1598-1600) and later on was persuaded by King James to adopt Anglicism. The king was confident that Donne had all the makings of becoming a fine Anglican preacher which turned out to be perfectly true. The king made it a condition however that Donne would have no other preferment or employment from the Crown unless he accepted this function, which in 1615 he did.
Donne's poetry contrasts sharply with much of the sweet and decorous Elizabethan poetry. Inspired by continental poets, his was bold, sensuous, dramatic and philosophical.
John Donne was engrossed with the theme of religion, of how a seeker of truth can find the right path when there then seemed so many choices. As an ex-Catholic, this was one of his passions.
Of his five Satires, here's the last part of his third which shows his powerful imagery. In spite of whatever religious doubts he may have been tormented with, these lines seem to express timeless, earthly truth.
Graccus loves all as one, and thinks that so
As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is religion; and this blind-
ness too much light breeds; but unmoved thou
Of force must one, and forced but one allow;
And the right; ° ask thy father which is she,
Let him ask his; though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is; ¹
Be busy to seek her, believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best. ²
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so;
Yet strive so, that before age, death's twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will ³ implies delay, therefore now do.
Hard deeds, the body's pains; hard knowledge too
The mind's endeavors reach,° and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case here, that God hath with his hand
Signed Kings' blank charters to kill whom they hate,
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate. ¹
Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man's laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? O, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin taught thee this? ²
Is not this excuse for mere ³ contraries
Equally strong? Cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;
Those passed, her nature and name is changed; to be
The humble to her is idolatry.
As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough stream's calm head, thrive and prove well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream's tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consumed in going, in the sea are lost:
So perish souls, which more choose men's unjust
Power from God claimed, than God himself to trust.
°Blind to the differences between religions. There is too much light for Graccus to see anything. The quest for the truth.
¹The true church is most similar to the original.
² The person who seeks the truth is not an unbeliever.
³ To intend to do something.
° The mind's efforts will obtain firm knowledge.
¹ Man's authority doesn't represent divine justice (neither the Crown's nor the Pope's).
² 'Philip'- Philip II of Spain, 'Gregory'- any one of the Pope Gregorys (VII, XIII, XIV) 'Harry'- Henry VIII, and 'Martin'- Martin Luther.
³ Absolute, total.
If Donne had ever felt 'religiously uprooted', could it not also have been due to feelings of having abandoned the family faith through necessity or personal ambition?
Despite the pressure of Henry VIII, Thomas More never revoked his own faith, yet he seemed to have an even more philosophical and wider view of religion, going so far as to suggest in his 'Utopia' that God would approve of diversity.
Indeed, if one is convinced that all religions stem from one root, one essential truth, then diversity would be like culture and language, branches of civilisation. Each branch wends its own way in its quest to reach the heavens, making the tree, like the world itself, intrinsically beautiful.
Text © Mirino. Source- The Norton Anthology English Literature. Top image by French born English miniature portrait painter- Isaac Oliver 1565-1617. Lower image- John Donne's house, Pyrford. Photo (modified by M) SuzanneKn. Both images Wikipedia Commons, with grateful thanks. February, 2011.