Retrieving John Donne: Poetic Companion for Conflicted Protestants

This essay originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of Ad Fontes.

An expanded version is available in our Davenant Press book A Protestant Christendom? The World the Reformation Made.

I. Introduction

Many Protestants today are conflicted Protestants. Here we stand, we can do no other—yet we feel adrift of the church’s historical doctrine and worship. We are dogged by the feeling that at least some of the theological and liturgical family silver got left behind in Rome and Constantinople.

However, in spite of an alleged exodus from our ranks into Catholicism and Orthodoxy, we remain convinced of Protestantism—even if, at times, we struggle to make the case for it to ourselves. To invert G.K. Chesterton, the difficulty of explaining why we are Protestants is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Protestantism is true.[1]

This is why the current wave of Protestant retrieval and renewed emphasis on Reformed catholicity is so vital.[2] Those recovering Protestantism’s own riches, and demonstrating its continuity with the medieval and ancient church, are providing key resources for us conflicted worshipers. A revived intellectual defence is being built, refuting afresh the accusation that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.

Yet being intellectually convinced of Protestantism is one thing. Being emotionally convinced is another.

Protestant retrieval must ensure it is recovering works of literature to counsel the soul as well as works of theology to strengthen the mind. Of course, some say that to be deep in literature is to cease to be Protestant as well. Peter Leithart has claimed (in a self-confessed “gleeful fit of reductionism) that Protestants can’t write, and Zwingli is to blame; a few modern exceptions aside, those who can were able do so because they had Prayer Books, or because (in the case of the Elizabethans) they weren’t quite Protestant.[3]

Yet the current retrieval movement makes even Leithart’s tongue-in-cheek proposal hard to sustain. If we agree that there is nothing un-Protestant about Prayer Books, and that deciding “who is a Protestant?” isn’t up to modern evangelicals, then a host of literary figures disqualified by Leithart’s criteria are opened up to us.

John Donne is one of them.

II. Retrieving John Donne

John Donne (1572-1631) hardly seems like a figure who needs to be “retrieved” from obscurity. He is an unavoidable poet in English literary history, with a bust outside St. Paul’s Cathedral and an effigy within. He coined the phrase “no man is an island” and taught us not to ask “for whom the bell tolls.” He remains a staple on university syllabi, ranking Britain’s second favourite poet in a 2009 BBC poll.[4] But his reputation as a literary figure and sometime-national-treasure ellides the fact that Donne deserves recognition from Protestants as a Protestant.

“Donne’s reputation as a literary figure and sometimes-national-treasure elides the fact that Donne deserves recognition from Protestants as a Protestant.”

Donne was a pastor as well as a poet. His gifts for the ministry were so evident that James I & VI repeatedly pressured him to take up holy orders, and he eventually became Dean of St. Paul’s.[5]  His sermons are as robust an account of the Reformed faith as one could hope to find from an Anglican at the time.[6]

Before making the case for Donne as a companion for conflicted Protestants, we should consider why he has been overlooked by them. Two reasons can be briefly suggested: his early eroticism, and his Catholic background.

Regarding the first: Donne is famed for the erotic poetry of his youth. His philandering has long invited comparisons with Augustine, but the latter had the decency not to versify his exploits.[7] Even more scandalously, scholars have also alleged erotic undertones in Donne’s later religious verse.[8]

Regarding the second reason: Donne was born into Catholic aristocracy—great-great-nephew of Thomas More no less (a tooth rescued from More’s severed head allegedly became a miraculous family relic).[9] He is therefore often regarded as a reluctant Anglican, even a closet Papist. He was certainly no Puritan.

This combination of Donne’s eroticism and Catholicism, and the belief that he covertly indulged both in his religious verse, have pushed Donne closer to the academy and British popular culture than the Reformed Protestants who share his religious heritage.

However, unsurprisingly, Donne has fallen victim to a cynicism unable to reckon with the idea that a man may experience a sincere religious conversion.[10] This is not to say that Donne’s doesn’t remain in constant dialogue with his eroticism and Catholicism, but critical commentary on this often amounts to little more than literary conspiracy theories.

If we lay conspiracy aside, and assume sincerity in Donne’s eventual Protestantism, we will find new treasures to add to our contemporary trove of retrieval.

Donnne’s suitability to address the emotional needs of today’s conflicted Protestants can be demonstrated by tracing the theological development of his writing. His early verse reveals a crisis over the nature of true religion and the church; his Holy Sonnets (long assumed to have been written post-ordination, but now dated several years prior) demonstrate a lively piety still dogged with doubts on such questions; his preaching and later verse evidence an eventual embrace of Reformed Anglicanism as continuous with the catholic faith, although not without marks of his Roman upbringing.[11]

The remainder of this essay will be a close reading of Donne’s “Satire III.” Although not classified as a “divine poem,” the work was written during Donne’s spiritual crisis, detailing problems instantly recognisable to conflicted evangelicals. Such a vivid account can comfort and nourish our souls, and prompt us to follow Donne beyond this poem as he journeyed toward Reformed Protestantism. Specifically, we will focus on two areas of mutual struggle: disappointing our fathers in the faith, and the difficult necessity of embracing a denominational identity.

III. “Easie Wayes and Neare”: Disappointing Our Fathers

Composed in Donne’s early twenties (c.1593),[12] “Satire III” is described by literary critic John Carey as “the great, crucial poem of [his] early manhood,evidence of his “searching for God among the wrangling theologians.”[1]Preceding Donne’s “apostasy” from Catholicism, and more than twenty years before his ordination, it does not represent his final word on religion. However, powerful currents drive the poem, currents which would later be refined.

Donne begins not knowing whether to laugh or cry, calming himself from “railing” in search of “our Mistresse faire Religion.”He then tortures himself with the anxiety that his late Catholic father (who died when Donne was four) will be in heaven, whilst Donne ends up in hell for renouncing the faith. Addressing himself, he wonders:

and shall thy fathers spirit
Meete blinde Philosophers in heaven, whose merit
Of strict life may be imputed faith, and heare
Thee, whom hee taught so easie wayes and neare
To follow, damn’d?[14]

Laying aside Donne’s speculation as to whether his father would meet classical philosophers in heaven,[15] it is immediately evident that his torment over “faire Religion” was not simply an intellectual matter but deeply personal, fraught with family ties and tradition. His fear is not of God’s judgement, but his father’s.

His torment over ‘faire Religion’ was not simply an intellectual matter but deeply personal, fraught with family ties and tradition. His fear is not of God’s judgement, but his father’s.

If we consider Donne’s family, this is understandable—their status and survival were hard-won. His father was a successful ironmonger, balancing Catholic fidelity with providing for his family; Donne’s mother, Elizabeth, came from the aristocratic Catholic Heywood family.[2] By the time of Donne’s conversion (possibly by 1594, but definitely by 1597, when he would likely have sworn the Oath of Supremacy as secretary to Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton)[3] the Elizabethan Religious Settlement had been in place nearly forty years, and English Catholic aristocrats had settled into some form of survival.[18]

Yet the Heywoods’ survival was not without cost. We have already mentioned maternal great-great-uncle Thomas More. Elizabeth Donne’s brother, Jasper Heywood, was an exiled Jesuit priest. Her father John conspired to assassinate Thomas Cranmer in 1542; he was kindly reprieved by Henry VIII, but still underwent humiliating public penance.[19] Most significantly, Donne’s brother Henry died of plague in 1593 whilst in prison for harbouring a Jesuit priest.[20]

Many speculate that these family tragedies contributed to a frustration of Donne’s with the recusants’ apparent gluttony for punishment, and that his brother’s death in particular served to catalyse Donne’s conversion.[21] Doubtless they played their role, but “Satire III” makes evident that his family heritage was also one of conversion’s chief hurdles. Who was he to forsake the “easie wayes and neare” for which his family had sacrificed so much?

Although coming from the tradition opposite to Donne, many conflicted evangelicals pursuing Reformed catholicity today do so by working through similar familial problems. We have inherited “easie wayes and neare”from our fathers in the faith—forms of worship, devotion, and teaching which were imparted with sincerity, love, and self-sacrifice. Yet we find these harder to reconcile with the great Christian tradition. When we begin to step outside our denominational (or anti-denominational!) upbringing, we soon find we share Donne’s anxiety that we may suffer the eternal disapproval of our parents or Sunday school teachers.

As a Catholic, Donne doubtless wrestled with apparently abandoning the “ancient” for the novel in conversion to Protestantism; yet it is not their antiquity which gives his religious traditions weight, but their familial associations. Evangelicals fear abandoning a “contemporary” faith for something dead and ancient. And yet, similarly, it is not this fear itself which makes embracing a more historic faith difficult; rather, it is how our traditions (though we may have been loathe to call them that) are bound up with family and upbringing. 

Donne and today’s conflicted evangelicals share the same dilemma: our immediate traditions seem to conflict with the Tradition. In a recent piece for Mere Orthodoxy, Cameron Shaffer summed up the problem well: “We are told to honor our father and mother, but what happens when what we want to retrieve is their own inheritance, which they first dishonored? What are we to do when honoring our forefathers in the faith requires rejecting the faith and practice of our fathers?”[22]

Donne fears his pilgrimage will become a failed Aeneid, ending not with tearful reunion in Elysium, but with separation and damnation. And yet, Donne embraces this fear as a form of courage: “…O if thou dar’st, feare this;/This fear great courage, and high valour is. He then considers fighting for the Dutch, exotic travels, and duelling for mistresses, but declares them “courage of straw!” compared to pursuing true religion whilst fearing eternal familial reprisal.

Donne’s “easie wayes and neare”would have differed greatly from those of contemporary evangelical Protestants. And, it must be said, no one has recently been martyred by fellow-Christians for his worship practices. Yet, whether Roman relics or megachurch light shows, the religious rituals of our upbringing are hard to shake. In a later letter, Donne described a man who changes religion as like a coin filed down in order to receive a new print—even if the later print is superior, the coin remains “awry and squint.”[23]

Yet, whether Roman relics or megachurch light shows, the religious rituals of our upbringing are hard to shake.

Yet, in “Satire III,” Donne finds the courage to contemplate such a change. He is ready to leave his father and mother and cleave to “Mistresse faire religion.”This is a courage which should hearten conflicted Protestants wrestling with the same issue today.

IV. “Doubt Wisely”: Embracing Ecclesial Identity

Having established the costly nature of his quest in the poem’s opening, Donne uses the central section to introduce five characters satirising those who claim to have found “faire Religion,” but have simply made her in their own image.

First is Mirreus, who “Seekes her at Rome, there, because hee doth know/That she was there a thousand yeares agoe.” Next comes Crantz, who “loves her onely, who at Geneva is call’d/Religion, plain, simple, sullen, young”. Third is Graius, who “stayes still at home here [i.e. Canterbury]” believing “that shee/Which dwels with us, is onely perfect.” We then meet “Carelesse Phrygus,” and he “doth abhorre/All, because all cannot be good, as one/Knowing some women whores, dares marry none.” Finally, we have Graccus, who “loves all as one” because all “are still one kinde.”

These five are obviously satirical extremes of Catholics, Calvinists, Anglicans, Anabaptists, and liberal relativists. They are criticisms not of their respective churches (or lack thereof), but of those churches’ most uncritical and vociferous adherents, “fools who choose their religious positions for the same irrational reasons that others choose (or refuse to choose) wives.”[24]

Anyone who has begun to ask serious questions about his denominational upbringing (or lack thereof) can empathise with Donne’s assessment of the ecclesial landscape. Whilst he earnestly seeks true religion at great cost, others seem content with shallow imitations which merely mask prejudice and preference.

Donne tired of Mirreus’ thin appeal to Rome’s history. Readers from different Protestant backgrounds will likely feel similar frustration when they see their own traditions represented: Crantz’s Presbyterianism, appealing to Genevan austerity; Graius’ Anglicanism, appealing to state endorsement; Phrygus’ anabaptism, appealing to distrust of establishment; Graccus’ liberalism, appealing to a whitewashing ecumenism.

Many evangelical Protestants today have grown tired of the blinkered worst of our traditions, which seem intent on strawmanning themselves and others. We long for an identity based on something more substantial: more than a shallow namecheck of Geneva for Presbyterians; more than state religion for Anglicans; more than suspicion for Baptists; more than thin ecumenism for mainliners. And it is sadly not as easy as changing denominations. Donne makes clear that every group in Christendom has its tribalists.

Yet Donne does not give up on finding true religion. He resolves to seek her, but only after thoughtful inquiry, abjuring both factionalism and indifference:

Be busie to seek her, believe mee this,
Hee’s not of none, nor worst, that seekes the best.
To adore, or scorne an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or runne wrong, is.

Donne’s phrase “doubt wisely”is worth the whole poem. He is not urging doubt for doubt’s sake about the nature of true religion, but doubt of the superficial justifications which so often pass for it.

Donne perceives that, beyond such factionalism, there is true religion to be found, but the route to her is circuitous and exhausting:

…On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe…

These lines summarize the experience of many evangelicals pursuing Reformed catholicity. It is a dizzying uphill struggle; we are pulled hither and yon between the merits of different traditions, and between our familiar upbringing and the riches of the wider church.

Yet “Satire III” does not denounce denominationalism, or despair of finding a settled ecclesial identity in this life. Quite the opposite:

Yet strive so, that before age, deaths twilight,
Thy soule rest, for none can work in that night.
To will, implyes delay, therefore now doe:
Hard deeds, the bodies paines; hard knowledge too
The minds indeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the Sunne, dazling, yet plaine to all eyes

Donne urges rest in a church identity in this life. Continual “willing” for true religion means perennial delay; the Christian must act in the hard business of embracing a church. If the reader has earnestly sought true religion, prepared to incur personal cost, rejected shallow factionalism, doubted wisely, and finally settled in a church identity, then Donne urges him to hold fast there: “Keepe the truth which thou hast found.”

Donne had not yet made good on his own exhortation at this stage, and John Carey summarizes “Satire III” as being “not an account of a crisis, but an operative part one”—yet it is striking to see that, in the midst of that crisis, Donne grasped how it must ultimately be resolved.[25]

Such articulation of a crisis, and how to end it, should be both a devotional challenge and comfort to conflicted evangelicals. We are aware that even doubting wisely cannot go on indefinitely; “hard deeds, the bodies paines, and hard knowledge too”lie ahead, and must be faced. Yet it can strengthen us to read the account of one wracked by the same struggles, but who eventually found that there was indeed a historic, biblical faith in which his soul could rest before night fell.

Even doubting wisely cannot go on indefinitely; ‘hard deeds, the bodies paines, and hard knowledge too’ lie ahead, and must be faced.

V. Conclusion

In Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, a tender scene finds the lonely, eccentric English teacher, Hector, bonding with his equally forlorn student, Posner, over a poem. Hector remarks:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”[26]

For the wearied evangelical, unsettled as Reformed catholicity expands his horizons, John Donne may be just such a hand—perhaps an unexpected hand, reaching out as it does from the opposite side of Christendom. But reach out it does.

For many, the pursuit of Reformed catholicity is a lonely ordeal. A habit of reading widely, or some taste of a different church tradition, can expose individuals to the riches of the Christian past, yet leave them feeling isolated in a home church unconcerned with—or even hostile toward—what has gone before them. Even when we are theologically convinced of Protestantism, with our intellectual needs met, ecclesial loneliness is an emotional affair, requiring counsel and companionship. It is in that context that we might find Donne’s hand most worth taking.

We can of course find Donne’s companionship in any of his religious writings. But if we meet him first in the struggles explored in “Satire III” (or similarly in Holy Sonnets XIII and XVIII, or “The Crosse”) we will see in his wider work one who has shared our griefs, and doubted wisely, before settling into his Reformed convictions.

This is not to say we cannot find emotional companionship in more familiar Reformers—we must not mischaracterize them as unfeeling, or forget that plenty wrestled with Catholicism as Donne did. Yet the intimate nature of Donne’s poetry, and its spread across his entire life, makes him a singularly vivid and appropriate fellow pilgrim.

Donne has traditionally been likened to Augustine on account of his dissolute youth; yet we should see the greater similarity in their eloquent articulations of the inner life. Those struggling with a divided soul have long found a devotional companion in the Bishop of Hippo. It may be time for those struggling with a divided church to find a devotional companion in the Dean of St. Paul’s.


1 Carey, Donne, 26.
2 Stubbs, Reformed Soul, xvi-xvii.
3 Carey, Donne, 30-31.


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