Bryan Herek

If interpretation were the slow exposure of the meaning hidden in an origin, then only metaphysics could interpret the development of humanity. But if interpretation is the violent surreptitious appropriation of a system of rules, which itself has no essential meaning, in order to impose a direction, to bend it to a new will, to force its participation in a different game, and subject to secondary rules, then the development of humanity is a series of interpretations.

--Foucault, Nietzche, Genealogy, History


This paper examines the role of Donne’s third Satire as a response to the religious and political debate during the seventeenth century regarding authority and interpretation. The primary assertion of this paper is that the various legal and epist emological principles being debated among Donne’s contemporaries affords the satirist an opportunity to play with language in such a way as to demonstrate its failure to adequately represent Truth. I am not claiming that Donne is professing a complete la ck of faith in language to represent Truth within Satyre III. Rather, I am claiming that Donne places the impetus toward the right understanding of Truth squarely upon the shoulders of the individual interpreter. Understanding, for Donne, does not resul t simply from engaging with the spoken word or written text but comes through a highly evolved process of internalizing these texts and the culturally coded world around him or her. Without the necessary tool of reason informed by knowledge (theological or otherwise), any statement regarding Truth can be bastardized. A misinterpretations which lead to false beliefs and incorrect actions could jeopardize an individual’s secular well-being in the turbulent times of the seventeenth century, but also and pr imarily the spiritual well-being or salvation of an individual.

Of Donne’s third Satire, Thomas V. Moore writes, "Any attempt to reach a fuller understanding of John Donne’s Satyre III must also be an attempt to understand Donne’s religious beliefs at the time he wrote the poem" (41). What Moo re is referring to is an outright equation of the historical Donne and Donne the satirist. Indeed, many critics engage with the satire along these same lines. Such an examination, however, is fraught with difficulties. A biographical approach to the th ird Satire that deals with Donne’s religious mindset must date the satire either before or after Donne’s conversion to the Anglican Church in order to effectively support a given position. Once a Catholic or Anglican slant is assumed, the critic is then able to read the satire from a pre- or post-conversion position. In effect, the critic is able to find what he or she wants to find.

Locating the day, month or even year of Donne’s firm choice of the Anglican faith is difficult at best. For the sake of argument, though, let us assume that Donne had all but completely abandoned his Catholic sympathies when he agreed to join Comm ander Essex’s Cadiz and Islands Expeditions of Spain in 1596. Having come to this commonly assumed but arbitrary date, it would seen that the third Satire could be more effectively read, under Moore’s assertions, as sympathetic toward his Catholic herit age if the poem was composed previous to his military exploits under Essex. On the other hand, the satire could be read as sympathetic to his new found faith if it could be shown that it was composed after his military service.

However, the two generally cited dates of Satyre III’s composition (see: Strier, Scodel, Hester, Slights, Moore) are Milgate’s 1594-5 (140) dating and Bald’s 1596 (72) dating. The interesting aspect of Milgate’s and Bald’s attempt to date the poem is that both use interpretations of historical allusions or apparent Catholic or Anglican theology presented in the poem to support their positions. Milgate cites "references to ‘fires of Spain,’" not as proof that Donne had already co mpleted these missions under Essex (and thus, had made his choice to convert to Anglicanism according to the hypothetical established above) but "due to anticipatory excitement that led Donne to join the Cadiz and Islands Expeditions in 1596-7" (139-40).

Bald, on the other hand, points to Donne’s seemingly apparent

immersion in controversial divinity [which] resulted in a period of unsettlement during which neither Catholicism nor Protestantism could wholly satisfy him. His natural inclination toward skepticism was for a time reinforced by a mood of cynicism in which he flaunted his sense of insecurity. The third Satire, probably written about 1596, marks the beginning of his emergence from this attitude, but he found no immediate solution of his problems, and for a time he sought distraction in activity of other kinds.



While Bald’s analysis leaves open the possibility that Donne was re-evaluating his choice to convert, his 1596 dating suggests that the commitment to convert had been made (according to our hypothetical) and the third Satire represented a sort of poet ical re-assurance as to the appropriateness of his actions. This sort of methodological circularity that Milgate and Bald employ in dating this particular satire is more a scholastic estimation and self service than a grounding in bibliographic research. Although I have the greatest admiration for Milgate and Bald, the methods both used in dating the third Satire must be called into question.

Paul Sellin also uses both a historical allusion method and conversion methodology in dating the third Satire but pushes his estimated date of composition much further into the future -- about 1620. He argues that the dating proposed by Milgate an d Bald, among others, does not accurately reflect the historical allusions presented in the poem (275-7). The misinterpretation he cites is of the historical allusion of "frozen North discoveries" found in lines 21-26, according to Sellin, push the date of composition as far as 1602 (281). He argues that Donne must be speaking of the Barents expeditions which set out in Mat of 1596 and returned to the Netherlands late in 1597. Sellin believes that Donne would not have heard news of the expidi tion until as late as 1602.

He further claims that the inspiration for the hill of Truth that Donne employs in the Satire does not relate to any of the classical examples Milgate had proposed (see Appendix C, The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters), but rather is bas ed upon the Dort medallion which Dr. Donne had been presented with during his visit to the Netherlands in 1619 (282). This medallion holds an engraving of "a high mountain surrounded with clouds and assaulted by four diagonal winds, blowing strongly . Up its steep slope, pilgrims climbed along a narrow path winding tortuously among rocky crags toward a round temple at the summit. Hidden in his effulgence Jehovah surmounted the scene and irradiated it with the light of heaven" (283-4). Sellin likens this medallion’s engraving to the imagery used in lines 79-88 of the satire. These lines refer to Truth standing upon a huge hill, "and he that will/ Reach her, about must, and about must go."

While Sellin presents a compelling argument, he is still falling into the trap of attempting to understand the third Satire in terms of Donne’s religious state of mind. In this case, Sellin would lead us to believe that the satire represents Donne ’s musings regarding the theological goings on at the Synod of Dort -- a gathering of various Protestant leaders who discussed, among others issues, the Reformed orthodoxy versus the Remonstrant position previous to Donne’s visit (287-9). Although it is unnecessary for the purposes of this paper to detail Sellin’s interpretations as to Donne’s religious leanings, it is important to note that Sellin falls into the same circular biographical methodology of dating the satire as did Milgate and Bald.

With the composition date of the third Satire called into question, barring a newly unearthed seventeenth century manuscript, it would appear that locating a pre- or post-conversion date for the poem is not only impossible but counter-productive. As we have seen through the examination of Milgate, Bald and Sellin, dating the poem requires the interpretation of the poem and interpretation of the poem requires dating the poem-- especially if the critic is to ground his or her discussion in the conte xt of the satire revealing the linear progression of Donne’s religious beliefs. Such a basis for inspection does not serve to further our understanding of either the historical Donne or the poem itself.

Another common problem with interpreting Donne’s third Satire as an attempt to understand his religious beliefs is the possibility for the critic to impose on Donne a totalizing linear progression of thought. According to our hypothetical, 1596 ma rked the date that Donne had made his firm choice to convert to Anglicanism. However, it is not difficult to imagine a post-conversion Donne reticent about his decision. Neither is it difficult to imagine a young Catholic man in seventeenth century Engl and writing a poem with strong Anglican undertones. As such, the biographical method of examining the third Satire detailed above is not only circular but also limited in its explanatory power.

A question then arises in interpreting the third Satire as to the necessity of understanding Donne’s religious beliefs at the time he wrote the poem. As Camille Slights notes, the third Satire "shows us very little about its author’s religio us beliefs and nothing at all about his allegiance to any institutionalized church..." (91). Indeed, the satirist makes great pains to conceal his personal religious beliefs save for three: that there is a Truth, that the Truth is attainable, and th at Truth is rooted in the Christian faith. Because the satire does not explicitly detail Donne’s thought in a linear, biographical fashion, I argue that it is not imperative for its interpretation to concretely date its composition. The satire may well have been written before or after Donne’s Cadiz and Islands Expeditions with Essex and thus, according to our hypothetical, was composed by a pre- or post-conversion Donne. The goal of the speaker, commonly assumed to be Donne himself, in the third Sati re is not to reflect his own religious progress, but rather to inform the reader as to the dire need to make such progress.

Still, a critic does need to base his or her discussion of the third Satire on some grounds. If a biographical approach is not viable, then what is? M. Thomas Hester proposes that the third Satire can be examined in terms of its relationship with the other four framing satires. In his approach, Hester views the satires as a unified whole with interrelating themes. He claims that the satires "disclose the satirist’s growing awareness of the nature and uses of Christian zeal. Sequentially, the Satyres portray the speakers moral character (I), aesthetic development (II), spiritual awareness (III), and efforts to implement the lessons of that self-knowledge (IV and V)" (12).

Unfortunately, grounding his discussion of the third Satire in terms of its thematic relationships with and placement among the four framing satires runs into some difficulties. In a brief essay entitled "Satyre III No Satire: Postulat es for Group Discussion," Paul Sellin notes that the third Satire "is not always present in manuscript collections of the satires, and when it appears, it does not always bear the number three. Neither does it invariably occur in the third posi tion, but its place can vary from manuscript to manuscript. In other words, we cannot be absolutely sure from printed or manuscript evidence that ‘Satyre III’ was the third in order or that it was composed of a suite of satires with which we connect it&q; uot; (87). Thus, it is clear that grounding a discussion on the third Satire in the manner that Hester proposes lacks in explanatory power. This is not to imply that Donne’s other writings are not relevant to a discussion of the third Satire, but rather to loosen any strict ties that bind the satire to other pieces of his work.

Having thus shown that the biographical, linear, and relational approaches to the third Satire are inadequate, it is my position that the proper approach to examining the poem lies in allowing it to exist independently from the historical John Donn e and independently from any stringent ties to his other works, specifically the four framing satires. I propose that the third Satire should be examined as a poem that comments upon the broad ranging ideological conflicts which constitute seventeenth ce ntury religious and political thought. The poem does not reveal any but the most basic of Donne’s own beliefs. Instead, it primarily reflects the ideological landscape that surrounded him and offers a way to navigate through often times complicated and conflicting positions.

Johann Sommerville’s book Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640 surveys this ideological landscape that surrounded Donne and provides an excellent grounding for a discussion of the third Satire. Sommerville’s main focus is to "in vestigate the ways in which early-seventeenth-century Englishmen perceived their own political world, and how these perceptions affected their actions. In other words, this a book about political ideas, or ideologies, and their relationship to practical politics" (2). At stake in his examination is the role competing ideologies had to bear on the outbreak of English civil war. Although I do not believe that Donne was predicting the outbreak of civil war should conflicting ideologies come to a head, I do believe that he took great care to understand this conflict and its potential for political, but especially spiritual, disaster.

A detailed examination of Sommerville’s book is not necessary for an inspection of the third Satire. I am not claiming that Donne the satirist is wholly representing all of the positions and their resultant reasoning in the satire. Sommerville’s insights only serve to heighten our awareness as to the philosophically complicated world Donne lived in. As such, I will simply highlight Sommerville’s outlines of both political and religious ideology.

On the political side of the coin, Sommerville saw the seventeenth century as being ideological divided into three camps: absolutists, civic humanists and common law-ists. Sommerville notes, "according to absolutist theory the king was the so vereign ruler with a moral obligation to abide by established laws" (41). Civic humanists believed in a republican form of government "and of the active participation of citizens in political life" (57). The final group, those who held t ight to English common law, believed that the king derived his power from natural law and should be obeyed but was subservient to the natural law from which he derived his power (107). All three of these political philosophies contained varying discrepan cies within themselves. However, what all three have in common is the belief that natural law supported their position.

Sommerville notes that, "from Aquinas to Locke philosophers turned to the idea of natural law in order to delineate the contours of political society" (105). He continues to define natural law, stating that

...the rights and duties of princes and subjects... were deducible from certain fundamental principles which God had made self-evident to human reason. Using reason, all men could understand how and for what purpose society and govern ment had come into being. Once a general account of the philosophical origins of all government had been established, it was possible to speak with confidence of the extent and limitations of the powers of particular governments (105)


I believe that natural law and the human reason used to divine it is what Donne is discussing in the third Satire.

On the religious side of the coin, Sommerville splits religious ideology in England along two lines. The papalists believed "that the pope was the supreme and temporal ruler of the world or Christendom" (195). This implies that kings an d princes are subject to the whims of the pope. One can well imagine that monarchs were wary of any claims that usurped their authority. Indeed, part of the reason behind England’s break with the Catholic church lies in the resistance to papalist theory .

Anti-papalist clericalism, on the other hand, claimed that "the relationship between the prince and churchmen... was one of ‘mutual subordination’. Civil and ecclesiastical authority were ‘two parallel supreme powers on earth’" (Sommerv ille 199). Generally speaking, the anti-papalists held that church and state should stay out of each other’s affairs, but that the role of the monarch was to ensure that "‘the lawes of God touching his worship and touching all matters and orders of the church be executed and duly observed’" (Sommerville 199). In the final analysis, according to the anti-papalists, the monarch made and upheld civil law while the churchmen made and upheld church law.

Once again, both of these positions claim legitimacy based on adherence to natural law. The papalists argued that the law of nature deemed that monarchs had supreme temporal authority over their subjects. Christ’s establishment of a church " added a new power, namely the spiritual power of the pope, which by God’s mercy ensured that Christian Princes and their subjects would not depart from the narrow road which lead to godliness" (Sommerville 196). Under papalist theory, the pope was o bligated to actively participate in the governing of countries so that monarchs would not stray from a righteous path. Indeed, because the pope was God’s representative on earth, monarchs were obligated to follow his commands. Anti-papalists, however, l ooked to natural law to validate their beliefs as well. They argued that "nature instituted magistracy. Magistracy included power in ecclesiasticals" (Sommerville 203). Thus, the monarch was the supreme authority in both temporal and spiritua l realms.

Although Sommerville concentrates on papalist and anti-papalist ideology in a seaparate section of his book from political ideology, one must bear in mind that the religious and the political were closely tied during Donne’s lifetime. Camille Slig hts contends that "Donne saw religious faith as unavoidably involved in the social, the political, and the economic as well as the narrowly spiritual..." (92). Although the title of the third Satire is "Of Religion" in one manuscript and "upon Religion" in another, one does not need to examine its contents purely on theological grounds. Sommerville’s political and religious ideological distinctions discussed above offer the excellent tools for a balanced examination.

Another important tool in examining the third Satire correctly is an understanding of Donne’s relationship to casuistry or case divinity. Meg Lota Brown observes that "casuistry is a method of adjucating the conflicting claims of self and law . Its purposes are to address the tensions that arise from legal or ethical antinomies, and to respond to those who are uncertain about ‘acceptable conduct’" (1-2). Brown notes further that Donne was well versed in both the Catholic and Protestant casuistic tradition (4). Indeed, Pseudo-Martyr is an excellent example of the extent to which Donne was familiar with case divinity.

The standard casuistic examinations of acceptable conduct "calls for the individual’s full participation in appraising experience" (Brown 23). An individual is responsible for his or her own actions and must constantly evaluate his or he r temporal actions with its impact on the goal of spiritual salvation. It is from this idea of individual responsibility that I would argue Donne is reinforcing a casuistic tradition throughout the third Satire.

Unlike traditional casuistic examinations, however, Donne is more ambiguous in his exhortations. A casuistic text commonly involves the careful examination of a problem specific to an individual. Donne opens up this strict methodology and instead generalizes as to the methodology each individual must employ to successfully navigate the temporal world and achieve the ultimate goal of salvation.

This generalization or ambiguity that Donne employs in the third Satire serves to shift the reader’s attention from any conclusions the satirist himself may have reached as to which Church is the true church or which road leads to salvation. Inste ad, the poem reflects back upon the reader’s need to make a similar journey. If Donne were to explicitly outline his personal journey he would be falling prey to what he is "railing" against in the satire, namely that authority imposes itself u pon the religious ideology of its subjects rather than encouraging the active participation casuistics held so dear. Thus, in Brown’s words, Donne’s goal in the third satire is to make it clear to his readers that "each person is responsible for eva luating the facts of his or her own case, and each is accountable for the reasons that fortify any conclusion. Not only must ratiocinative effort precede action, but to commit an act without the persuasion of reason is to sin" (23). As mentioned pr eviously, Donne is working under the assumption that the Truth can be achieved through a rational examination of natural law. As we shall see, Donne’s use of naturalistic imagery (specifically the hill of Truth and the river representative of power) betr ays his belief in the ability of each individual to discern the Truth through reason.

Satyre III begins with the satirist sating,

Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids

Those tears to issue which swell my eye-lids,

I must not laugh, nor weep sins, and be wise,

Can railing then cure these worn maladies?

(lines 1-4)


Here the satirist is clearly presenting his frame of mind, how passionate he feels about the condition of the world around him. His concern is of "these worn maladies," the sins of the world. Asking "Is not our Mistress fair religion?& quot; (line 5) is indicative of the satirist perceiving the world as lazy or prone to blindly accept the spirituality preached to them either by the clergy or by the monarch.

As Thomas Hester contends, the beginning lines are, "...evinced both by the charity shown to fallen men in counseling them how to recover spiritual sanity and the hatred displayed for their habitual failures" (56). He continues, noting t hat the sins Donne is referring to are the "popular abuses of memory, understanding and will" (55). In other words, the satirist is concerned with the bastardization of natural law and the imposition of flawed ideology by a politically motivate d authority.

Although I agree with Hester’s above statement, I cannot wholly endorse his conclusion that "railing" can cure the "worn maladies" of society (58). Rather, it appears that Donne’s primary goal in writing the third Satire is precisely to argue that railing alone cannot cure the sins of society. If it were the case that railing, or simply expounding on the deplorable state of affairs Donne found himself in could solve the problem, the third Satire would not have been writ ten in the complicated and ambiguous fashion as it was. Donne resists the temptation to simply espouse his own personal ideology (whether it be papalist, anti-papalist, absolutist, et cetera) in favor of advocating an individual who finds the Truth on t heir own, through their own rational process.

I wish to reassert the ambiguity contained in the third Satire. I find examples of Donne’s ambiguity in his choice of language as well as in his use of allusion. Consider the language used in the opening lines. The term spleen, Richard Strier no tes, contained "... a wide range of reference that was simultaneously and ambiguously psychological and physiological" (287). Thus, the satirist claiming that "Kind pity chokes my spleen" leaves the reader with a mixed impression; one representative of how immensely the worn maladies affect him both mentally and physically.

Perhaps the most convincing observation of Donne’s satirical language as being ambiguous come from Milgate. He points the reader to Donne’s "use of ironic or illustrative allusion to things not strictly relevant to the main subject of the sat ire" (xix). Donne allows his poems to stray. He uses words with double meanings. He also moves fluidly among allusions that appear to be off center from his main subject; from philosophers to adventurers, from hills to streams. The purpose of th is ambiguity is not to confuse the reader, but to force him or her to delve deeper into the message of the poem. By forcing the reader to work at understanding the language of the third Satire, it appears that Donne hopes the reader will put as much effo rt into the search for True religion.

After having asked if railing is enough to cure the sins of the world, Donne proceeds to ask another series of questions:

Is not our mistress fair religion,

As worthy of all our soul’s devotion,

As virtue was to the first blinded age?

Are not heaven’s joys as valiant to assuage

Lusts, as earth’s honor was to them? Alas,

As we do them in means, shall they surpass

Us in the end, and shall thy father’s spirit

Meet blind philosophers in heaven, whose merit

Of strict life be imputed faith, and hear

Thee, whom he taught so easy ways and near

To follow, damned? (lines 5-15)


The underlying assumption of this verse paragraph is that an individual must have correct understanding gained through reason in order to find salvation. The reference to "blind philosophers" being met in heaven notes the satirist’s belief t hat the pagan philosophers who used reason to discern natural law and act in accordance with it may very well be better off spiritually than the contemporary populace. The "easy ways" of religious salvation that Donne refers to as being taught by fathers to sons can be interpreted in a variety of ways. He may mean that it is not sufficient to simply accept Christ as a one’s personal savior to gain salvation. Or, he may be referring to the predestination doctrine that believed the selection of those who would be saved had already been made. Regardless of Donne’s specific intent, it is clear that something more than "easy ways" taught by "fathers" must be engaged with. Juxtaposing the dammed father with the saved blind phi losophers indicates Donne’s high regard for the use of reason in attaining virtue.

The next verse paragraph continues to question the reader:

... O if thou dar’st, fear this;

This fear great courage and high valor is.

Dar’st thou aid mutinous Dutch, and dar’st thou lay

Thee in ships’ wooden sepulchres, a prey

To leaders’ rage, to storms, to shot, to dearth?

Dar’st thou dive seas, and dungeons of the earth?

Hast thou courageous fire to thaw the ice

Of frozen north discoveries? and thrice

Colder than salamanders, like divine

Children in th’oven, fires of Spain, and the line

Whose countries limbecks to our bodies be,

Canst thou for gain bear? and must every he

Which cries not, ‘Goddess!’ to thy mistress, draw,

Or eat thy poisonous words? courage of straw!

O desperate coward, wilt thou seem bold, and

To thy foes and his (who made thee stand

Sentinel in his world’s garrison) thus yield,

and for forbidden wars, leave th’appointed field?

(lines 15-33)


In another demonstration of Donne’s ambiguous language in the poem, these lines appear to both praise the temporal courage displayed by his contemporaries and also to chastise his peers for lacking the courage to stand "Sentinel" against spir itual foes. Moore writes that true courage "... requires vigilance and commitment. The truly brave man is not an adventurer, but a sentinel who knows his duty and remains at his post" (44). In calling attention to the courage of his peers, Do nne acknowledges the innate ability the individual possesses to address the true foe, the devil. Thus, Donne does not isolate those who have engaged in a variety of risky adventures but simply calls their attention to a greater and mush more dire adventu re: the quest for salvation.

Having peaked the interest of the intellectuals with his talk of virtue through reason as well as the thrill seekers with his discussion of courage (the intellectuals and the fighters so to speak), Donne continues:

Know thy foes: the foul Devil, he, whom thou

Strivest to please, for hate, not love, would allow

Thee fain, his whole realm to be quit; and as

The world’s all parts wither away and pass,

So the world’s self, thy other loved foe, is

In her decrepit wane, and thou loving this,

Dost love a withered and worn strumpet; last,

Flesh (itself’s death) and joys which flesh can taste,

Thou lovest; and thy fair goodly soul, which doth

Give this flesh power to taste joy, thou dost loathe.

(lines 34-42)


In this verse paragraph Donne explicitly states that the foe man should fear is the devil. The second foe that Donne refers to is the love of the flesh or temporal pleasures. Thus, both temporal and metaphysical foes are represented. Donne notes tha t it is illogical and dangerous for man to partake in the pleasures of the flesh without an appreciation and understanding of the God who made such pleasure possible. It is illogical because the temporal pleasures are fleeting and already "in her de crepit wane." It is dangerous because ignorance of the Truth only leads toward damnation.

Therefore, in the first forty or so lines of the poem Donne identifies three groups of men: the intellectuals, the fighters and the lovers. For each group Donne constructs an argument intended to encourage them to pursue true religion that would a ppeal to their sensibilities. To the intellectuals he notes that they must not accept the "easy ways" of inherited religion. They must use their intellect to discover virtue just as the unenlightened philosophers had in past ages used reason t o interpret natural law and discern correct behavior. With regard to the fighters, Donne plays upon their passion for adventure and chides them for not having the courage to quest for true religion. For the lovers, Donne notes that temporal pleasure is fleeting. In addition, he contends that anyone who has an appreciation for the pleasures of the flesh should also be appreciative of the God who made those pleasures possible.

Moving away from the these three groups of men, Donne takes up the cases of five individuals. These five case studies are reminiscent of brief casuistical analyses but with one conspicuous difference. Donne does not present these five men as indi vidual cases to be modeled after, but rather offers them as an example of incorrect behavior. He rebukes each of these men for finding religion without a quest for truth, for choosing religion on the basis of taste or convenience.

Mirreus, the first case study of the grouping, chooses the Catholic faith because he finds the tradition aesthetically pleasing and a comfort (lines 44-9). Crants, in search of a wholesome mistress of religion, chooses Calvinism because he believe s the "coarse country drudges" are uncorrupted (lines 49-54). Outward appearance, aesthetics motivate these two men.

The choice of Graius, the Anglican of the group, is motivated geographically. He was born in England and abides unwaveringly by the state sanctioned religion. What Graius fails to realize, however, is the corruption which accompanies Anglicanism. Its preachers, "vile ambitious bawds," (line 56), are animated not by a desire to save men’s souls but rather for want of power and political gain. By likening Graius’s choice of religion to the bride choice which perpetuated the power of the English nobility, the satirist implicates that the impetus behind the "conversion" of the English state to Anglicanism was to protect its own infrastructure rather than a reasoned decision informed by adherence to natural law. Thus, Graius’ su bservient attitude is idolatry, a mere re-inscribing of Mirreus’ love for the catholic tradition upon the tradition of the English nobility and their inbred politics.

The portrayal of the English church and state is particularly scathing within the section regarding Graius. Indeed, the preachers of the word of God are themselves no better than "vile ambitious bawds" who seek not the salvation of their flock, but only material gain as if they were pimping the dogma of the Anglican church. Sustaining the inbred politics of England only serves to sustain their own positions of power. The lines reading, "... bid him think that she/ Which dwells wit h us, is only perfect..." betrays the satirists position that the current state of England and its prioritizing politics over spirituality is imperfect. Were Graius to realize this imperfection, rather than blindly accepting the religion he was born into, he might be able to begin the quest for Truth.

The final two religious adventurers, Phrygius and Gracchus, are guided by their love of reason in their choice (or lack thereof) of true religion. The satirist finds both of these positions dangerous because they lack the faith necessary to reach the "Truth." As discusssed earlier in the poem, the satirist as if God considered "blind philosophers" virtuous enough to be imputed faith and thus attain salvation (lines 12-13). Phrygius and Gracchus represent and answer to this que stion.

Phrygius falls victim to the folly of faulty reason. Deeming that "all cannot be good," he "abhors all." However, such radical skepticism is fruitless. If, "... as one/ Knowing some women whores, dares marry none" ( lines 63-4), then one is paralyzed and incapable of any action. Such a paralysis leads to damnation because it lends itself to isolation and the obstruction of progress toward the salvation of the individual. If one refuses to take a bride, to pr ocreate, natural law is violated.

The satirist continues with his procreative model in his dealings with Gracchus. He is the libertine philosopher. He "loves all as one" (line 75). While on the surface this might appear not only a liberal but a necessary move toward to lerance of various Christian religious sects, Gracchus goes too far as to embrace even pagan religions. There is absolutely no indication that Donne is limiting Gracchus’ choice simply to Christian sects. If Phrygius embraces none, then to complete the contrary, Gracchus must embrace all, including the pagan. By accepting the validity of all religions in this way, Gracchus is in fact denying Christ.

While Gracchus is presented as a incorrect model, he is treated as if he is closest to the Truth by the satirist. James Baumlin notes that the criticism of Gracchus is tempered with respect for at least hitting upon, if not understanding, the corr ect position.(128). While Baumlin contends that Gracchus represents Donne’s belief in an appropriate leniency toward pagan religions, I feel that Gracchus instead is described as "blinded" precisely because he does not accept the Christian fait h as taking precedence. There appears to be no reason why Donne would break from his model of detailing incorrect behavior to endorse Gracchus position. I believe that Gracchus is "blinded" because he fails to use reason correctly in evaluatin g the importance of Christian thought in achieving salvation. Ancient philosophers may be met in heaven, but only because they did not have the benefit of Christ’s word.

Having thus demonstrated the fallacious reasoning most men fall prey in choosing the "true religion," the satirist again redirects the attention of his audience. He attempts to point out both the simplicity of recognizing what the Truth is and also the difficulty in achieving its implementation in an individual’s life. The satirist exhorts, "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" (li nes 71-73). In presenting the quest for truth in this fashion, the satirist is locating the truth from a linear perspective. In fact, asking one’s father and one’s father’s father leads directly to asking God himself for help in finding the truth. Thus , the satirist urges his audience to find the truth through God’s words, Christ’s words in the Bible. He suggests, in other words, using God’s gift of reason to search for the truth. Placing all of one’s faith in a sect that sets doctrine merely for poli tical gain is to disregard the word of God. It is important to note, however, that the satirist is not advocating the disposition of authority. By calling into question the rhetoric of sectarian leaders he instead encourages his audience to implement th e truth they find in right inquiry:

Be busy to seek her [truth], believe me this,

He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,

may all be bad; doubt wisely, in a strange way

To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong is ...

(lines 74-79)


Sleeping, or running wrong implies action. Therefore, to stand inquiring right is not to discourage action, as Phrygius was paralyzed by his philosophical dead end, but to act in accordance with the truths one finds.

The quest for the "Truth" is a difficult enterprise. While one might recognize approximately where Truth lies, gaining knowledge of the Truth, implementing it in life, and the attainment salvation is an arduous journey. The satirist uti lizes a metaphor of a great hill to symbolize this journey:

... 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 non can work in that night,

To will implies delay, therefore now do.

(lines 79-86)


One "must" undertake this journey. If one were to wait until old age, "death’s twilight," it might be too late to find salvation. Donne never explicitly claims he has found the Truth, nor does he exhort his audience to foll ow in his footsteps. Rather, the poet accompanies his audience on the continuous quest for Truth.

While the third Satire is directed at the average individual, the aged leadership of Europe does not escape his gaze. The satirist asks:

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? Or will it then boot thee

To say a Philip, or a Gregory,

Or a Harry, or a Martin taught thee this?

Is it not this excuse for mere contraries,

Equally strong; cannot both sides say so?

That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;

Those past, her nature and name is changed; to be

Then humble to her is idolatry.

(lines 95-103)

The above lines foretell the folly of "passing the buck" on judgment day. While it is no excuse for the audience of the satire to plead ignorance and expect mercy for their sins because they were merely acting in accord with their instructio n; so kings and popes might also claim they were acting according to the teachings of the leaders from whom they inherited power. The scene the satirist presents in these lines, while comic, is indicative of the spiritual immaturity of the world he saw a round him. The obstacle to this maturation is the misunderstanding of the nature of power.

Thomas Hester claims that the final passage of Satyre III explains how power functions in the world and details attributes of the power of God (69). While I agree in principle with Hester’s claims regarding the final passage of the satire, I cannot embrace his overall conclusions for reasons I have detailed earlier in this essay. Richard Strier, on the other hand, comes closest to my interpretation, "The whole final movement of the third Satire works to reassure the individual of the limits of political power and, most of all, to urge the individual to be aware of these limits. The final epistemological exhortation leads directly into issues of state power" (306).

The concluding lines of Satyre III are related to issues of state power. It is important to note that the satirist locates power not in a large river, nor in a singular stream, but in a plurality of "streams" (line 103). Charact erizing the multiplicity of power, the genealogical interpretation of power, if you will, relays the importance that all forms of power be wielded in accordance with the goal of salvation. The satirist encourages the growth of his audience as flowers bes ide the bed of a stream. But at the same time he warns the audience of embracing corrupt power. The satirist concludes, "So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust/ Power from God claimed, than God himself to trust" (lines 109-110). Thus , the final exhortation is to turn one’s attention toward salvation to trust in God’s word, and to use the power one possesses in an appropriate fashion.

Further, the final lines of the poem do appear to encourage martyrdom as an option for individuals who feel that the salvation of their souls is more important than their secular positions in power. However, this is not an open ended sanctioning o f martyrdom. Rather, without right belief, a potential martyr can be considered no more spiritually saved than a sinner. This may seem like a harsh statement. As the exhortations within the third Satire stand, though, one cannot be saved without holdin g right beliefs. The five men outlined in the poem, Mirreus, Crants, Graius, Phrygius and Gracchus, each may well have chosen the correct religion. But, because they did not take into consideration the application and implications of their choice, they may as well be considered nothing but "vile ambitious bawds." To "seek true religion" is as important as to "stand inquiring right." These two exhortations culminate in the final lines of the poem. To understand the bounds of power is to be aware of the dangers of the temporal, political world. Indeed, one must be aware of the political lest one is unbewittingly seduced by earthly gains masked as commands from God and thus be distracted from the goal of salvation.

Donne’s third Satire must be examined as an independent poem. It is such a rich and compelling piece that it does not need to be mired down in dealings with his biography or in dealings with the other satires. The poem stands independently becaus e of its responses to the religious and political debates which raged during Donne’s life. Accompanying this debate came a large amount of texts, written or otherwise, which commented upon and attempted to persuade Donne and his contemporaries toward one position or the other. This ideological conflict, as we have seen, revolved around the use of reason and adherence to natural law as the basis for validating a given stance. The conundrum was that each believed that their positions did hold up to natur al law.

Donne recognized the immaturity of such "railings" and choose to write a poem which would place the impetus of interpretation upon the shoulders of the individual rather than allow a blind adherence to "authorities" and their in terpretation. He noted that such authorities, secular or religious, are often times motivated by temporal gain rather than out of concern for the spiritual well-being of their people. Thus, in order for the individual to ensure the salvation of his or h er soul, each must exercise God’s gift of reason to establish the path which leads to Truth. The ambiguity of the poem, using words with double meanings and naturalistic allusions that do not quite appear to fit in a piece that discusses a metaphysical n eeds, point to the satirist as encouraging the individual to really work at understanding a text. This work involves reason and through engagement with texts, spoken, written or culturally coded, the individual is able to make clear the muddied light and find the Truth shining brightly upon that ragged, cragged, hill.


Works Cited


Bald, R.C. John Donne: A Life. Oxford England: Oxford University Press. 1970.


Brown, Meg Lota. Donne and the Politics of Conscience in Early Modern England. Ney York: E.J. Brill. !995.


Donne, John. John Donne: The Complete English Poems. Ed. A.J. Smith.

New York: Penguin Books. 1996.


Donne, John. Pseudo-Martyr. Ed. Anthony Raspa. Ottawa Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1993.


Hester, M. Thomas. Kinde Pitty and Brave Scorn: John Donne’s Satyres. Durham NC: Duke University Press. 1982.


Milgate, W. John Donne: The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1967.


Moore, Thomas V. "Donne’s Use of Uncertainty as a Vital Force in Satyre III." Modern Philology vol. 76, 1969: p 41-49.


Sellin, Paul. "The Proper Dating of John Donne’s ‘Satyre III.’" Huntinton Library Quarterly. p 275-312.


Sellin, Paul. "Satyre III No Satire: Postulates for Group Discussion." John Donne Journal vol. 10 no. 1-2, 1991: p. 85-89.


Slights, Camille Wells. "Participating Wisely in Satyre III." John Donne Journal vol. 10 no. 1-2, 1991: p. 91-5


Sommerville, Johann. Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640. New York: Longman. 1986.


Strier, Richard. "Radical Donne: Satire III." ELH vol. 60, 1993: p. 283-322.