Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature,
Wntr 1999 v51 i2 p95
TALKING TO A SILENT GOD: DONNE'S HOLY SONNETS AND THE VIA NEGATIVA.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1999 Marquette University Press
DONNE'S Holy Sonnets trouble many twentieth-century readers who, like Helen Gardner, find "some sickness in the soul" (xxxi) expressed in these poems--a certain note of despair out of keeping with the subject and the author's status. Most readers expect the poems of the Anglican priest, Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, to progress toward spiritual health, faith, and a comforting sense of God's abiding presence, even though they frequently begin with a speaker in some spiritual distress. But such an outcome is achieved in few, if any, of these poems. How, then, are we to resolve the resulting tension between readers' expectations and what the sonnets actually deliver?(1)
Some critics assert that, taken individually, these poems are not meant to portray the entire spiritual journey of the speaker. Gardner, for example, argues that each sonnet is but part of a larger whole, a meditative sequence which follows roughly the pattern of meditation suggested by St. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, a work which would have been familiar to Donne in light of his Jesuit connections (li). Gardner's point is that the reader cannot expect to find a satisfying conclusion to any single sonnet; resolution is apparent only when one reads an entire sonnet sequence. Louis Martz, however, asserts that at least some of the Holy Sonnets do indeed contain a complete meditation "in miniature" although most of these poems are merely memorable meditative moments (Poetry of Meditation 49).(2)
Other critics explain the dissatisfying conclusions of the Holy Sonnets by looking at the mind of the poet rather than the nature of the poems themselves. John Stachniewski, for example, concludes that the unresolved tensions in the Holy Sonnets indicate an unsuccessfully repressed despair engendered by Donne's belief in a Calvinistic God before whom human beings are powerless to effect or even reject their own salvation (677; 700-02). John N. Wall, however, asserts that the Holy Sonnets explore the paradoxical nature of the Christian's earthly life (191). "If there is movement in these poems," says Wall, "it is not toward resolution but toward acceptance of the problem" (203). Both Wall and Stachniewski, then, ask the reader simply to accept these poems' lack of a satisfying conclusion as a given.
Thus, various explanations for the apparently unsatisfactory endings of the Holy Sonnets have been proposed, but none of them seems to have satisfied many readers.(3) Perhaps, then, "the problem" that Wall wants us to accept resides not in the poems or the poet but rather in our expectations. Instead of being dissatisfied because the poems do not resolve the tensions we expect to be resolved, we may need to see that the very lack of the expected resolution is indicative of two problems peculiar to religious poetry. First, as some critics have suggested, humans find themselves in a position of desiring reconciliation with God but are unable to achieve it on their own (Wall 191).
Second is the problem of how to avoid what Susan E. Linville calls "a too easy pietism or self-righteous affirmation of ready-made, orthodox belief" (142). She argues that "the deliberate avoidance of a neat resolution is not necessarily a rejection of doctrine any more than use of a neat resolution inevitably confirms doctrine; irresolution can co-exist with doctrine in powerful, varied ways" (153). The image that we find in many of these poems of the penitent individual earnestly beseeching God for some spiritual grace with no apparent response from God need not be an image of despair, a surrender to doubts about God's concern for humankind or even God's existence. That image may, in fact, be a way of representing the radical otherness of God. If so, then Donne is part of a long tradition of Christian mysticism, rooted in the Psalms, which acknowledges and, in fact, insists upon recognizing the vast difference that separates God from humans. But this tradition, known as the via negativa, is not a tradition of despair; rather it sees God working to effect the salvation of his believers even in their experience of his silence, his apparent absence. Read in the context of the via negativa tradition, Donne's Holy Sonnets do not seem so troubling as they first appear.
To focus this discussion, I shall concentrate on those sonnets which are, either wholly or in part, addressed to God. Though these particular sonnets are not atypical of the Holy Sonnets as a whole, they are the ones in which God's silence is most striking. In each of these ten cases--nine of the nineteen Holy Sonnets (Gardner's numbers 1, 3, 4, 5, 10, and 12 of the 1633 sonnets; 1 and 2 of the 1635; and 1 from the Westmoreland MS) are directly addressed to God, and one (2 from Westmoreland) addresses Christ--the speaker is in a state of what "O might those sighes and teares returne againe" calls "holy discontent."(4) In each case, the speaker recognizes his own sinfulness. In "I am a little world made cunningly," the speaker says that "black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night / My worlds both parts [physical and spiritual], and (oh) both parts must die." Sometimes the speaker's sinfulness is expressed in terms of his relationship with adversaries of God. "Batter my heart, three person'd God" refers to the speaker as betrothed to God's "enemie," while in "As due by many titles I resigne," the speaker considers himself a temple of the Spirit which has been usurped by Satan, and he seems powerless to do anything about this unwanted usurpation.
In some of the Holy Sonnets, the speaker's plight is made more urgent by the realization of his mortality. In "This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint," for example, the sense of impending death is striking. The speaker refers to the present moment as his "pilgrimages last mile" and to his "last pace," his "last inch," and his "minutes last point." "And gluttonous death," he says, "will instantly unjoynt / My body, and soule, and I shall sleepe a space." In "Thou has made me, And shall thy worke decay?" the speaker becomes increasingly alarmed. "Repaire me now," he pleads,
for now mine end doth haste,
I runne to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday,
I dare not move my dimme eyes any way,
Despaire behind, and death before doth cast
But the terror which so alarms the speaker is not fear of death itself as much as fear of a death that will leave him forever separated from God; death does not trouble the speaker so much as the ultimate consequences of his sinfulness. In this same poem, the speaker makes clear that his impending death has prompted him to consider his spiritual state. He recognizes that his sinfulness has wasted his flesh and he wants to be "repaired." He concludes by beseeching God to draw him away from the powerful influence of the devil.
All of these sonnets, with the possible exception of "Since she whom I loved," are petitions to God for an act of grace. In some cases the speaker asks for outright forgiveness for his sins. In "This is my playes last scene," the speaker, after acknowledging that his sins "would presse me, to hell" asks God simply to "Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evill." In "If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree" the request is that God forget the speaker's sins. And the speaker of "O might those sighes and teares returne againe," a poem not strictly within the purview of this study, asks that sorrow for his sinfulness might bear "some fruit":
In my Idolatry what showres of raine
Mine eyes did waste? what griefs my heart did rent?
That sufferance was my sinne, now I repent....
In at least two other Holy Sonnets--one, "Spit in my face ye Jewes, and pierce my side" another sonnet not addressed to God, and the other, "Batter my heart"--the speaker is so haunted by his sinfulness that he pleads for God to bring violence upon him in order to effect the reconciliation with God that he fervently desires but which he is unable to achieve of his own will. Other sonnets ask for instruction. "Teach mee how to repent" says the speaker of "At the round earths imagin'd comers, blow."
Some of these sonnets end with a desperate plea. "I am a little world made cunningly," for example, ends with the lines "And burne me o Lord, with a fiery zeale / Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heale." "This is my playes last scene" ends with the words previously noted, "Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evill, / For thus I leave the world, the flesh, and devill." And "Batter my heart" concludes with the words "Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free, / Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee."
Almost certainly convinced of the sincerity of the speaker's desire for God's intervention, the reader may expect God to respond in a quiet voice--as he does in Herbert's poems.(5) But like the mistresses in Donne's love poems, Donne's God is silent. Even those sonnets (numbers 3, 4, and 7 of the 1633 sonnets and 4 of the 1635 sonnets) which end on a hopeful note never attain the certainty of God's favor.
The imagery of estrangement from God is vivid. In "Batter my heart," the speaker says he is a walled town from which God is shut out. In "Thou hast made me, And shall thy worke decay?" the speaker sees himself as the abandoned and decaying artifact of God. Here, the sense of estrangement touches on despair. Despair is also clearly evident in "As due by many titles I resigne." This poem ends with the speaker concluding that God "wilt'not chuse me." He begs God to "rise and for [His] owne worke fight."
How, then, does one reconcile the silence of God in these poems and the professed faith of the poet? If we accept that these poems are not meant to cast doubt upon the existence of God, are we not, then, as Stachniewski argues, to see them as expressions of despair? Or, does God's apparent silence somehow lead the speaker and the reader to a new and heightened sense of God's presence?
The experience of God's silence, of God's absence, is an experience frequently treated in Christian literature. The Bible contains numerous instances. When the Israelites escape from their Egyptian masters, for example, they spend forty years wandering in the desert often feeling abandoned by God (Exodus 15). The writer of Psalm 10 asks, "Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?"(6) In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays for deliverance from death and hears only God's silence; and on the cross he asks, echoing the words of Psalm 22, why God has forsaken him (Matthew 27:46). In addition to the psalmists, other people devoted to the life of the spirit, as well, have written of this experience. The fourteenth-century English mystic Walter Hilton, for example, tells of the "lacking of comfort and devotion" that sometimes afflicts the Christian (84). And Hilton's contemporary Julian of Norwich mentions the experience of "the absens of oure lorde" (620).
Throughout Christian history, many writers have tried to comprehend the reasons for the sometimes sudden withdrawal of the sense of God's comforting presence in the lives of his believers. The via negativa, as this tradition came to be known, is based on the notion that God is ineffable. In the late fifth and early sixth centuries, Pseudo-Dionysius argued that human intellect is incapable of formulating any but inadequate propositions concerning God. The best way to God, according to Pseudo-Dionysius, was not by means of intellectual activity but through silence and ignorantia (Levao 10).
In the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa further developed the idea of the via negativa in his De Docta Ignorantia (8). He maintained that the desire to know God is characteristically human, yet certainty seems to dissolve under this desire. The finite mind, he argued, cannot know infinite truth. God is beyond all logical oppositions we can construct. Since, therefore, we cannot know him in any direct way, either we must apply ourselves to the understanding of God's creation, thereby apprehending the "artist" by means of his "artifacts" (the via positiva), or we comprehend the divine by a process of eliminating those propositions about God that are obviously false. As a way of knowing God, the via negativa approaches ever closer to the truth of what God is by considering what he is not, always admitting, however, that God can never be known in any positive way (60; see also Hopkins 24).
Neither Pseudo-Dionysius nor Nicholas denied the via positiva; they often affirm that the words of Scripture and the vastness and grandeur of the universe as well as the order and beauty of nature testify to the presence of God (Pseudo-Dionysius 73; Nicholas of Cusa 8). But when the sense of God's presence seems mysteriously and inexplicably withdrawn, the via negativa has proven helpful. Far from being a doctrine of despair, the via negativa asserts that the believer can experience God even through the painful awareness of his absence. The "dark night of the soul," as John of the Cross called this experience, is a time of radical stripping away of everything which the seeker values more than God and a reordering of the seeker's being. God, according to the via negativa, is not absent in these times of spiritual darkness; he is, even in his apparent inactivity, bringing the seeker to an "understanding" of the very limits of human finitude and setting the stage for a new relationship between the seeker and himself (Cronk 45-9).
The work of reordering is understood to occur often without the conscious knowledge of the believer. As John of the Cross states,
God teaches the soul after a most hidden and secret manner, without her
knowing how; this is that which is called "understanding yet understanding
not." For this is not done by active understanding, as the philosophers
call it, which works in forms and fancies of things; but it is done in the
understanding inasmuch as it is possible and passive when, without
receiving such forms and fancies, it passively receives substantial
knowledge, which is given to it without any active office or work of its
John of the Cross recognizes that sometimes God's work is not apparent to the mind of the believer.
Because both the via negativa tradition and Donne deal with God's apparent silence or absence, an acquaintance with the via negativa may be helpful to the readers of the Holy Sonnets. There is considerable evidence that he was aware of this tradition and that he was influenced by it. First, given his Roman Catholic background, Donne is likely to have known of contemporary Christian mystics in the via negativa tradition such as St. Teresa, Luis de Granada, and John of the Cross. Second, besides the fact of Nicholas' influence upon Renaissance thought (Levao xix), we know that Donne was acquainted with this via negativa writer because he refers to Nicholas' Cribratio Alchorani in a letter to Sir Robert Ker dated April 3, 1627, in which he talks about "cribrating," "recrib[r]ating," and "post-crib [r] ating" one of his own sermons in order to discover what had displeased the king about it (Letters 308).
But the strongest evidence that Donne is acquainted with the via negativa tradition is the fact that scholars have frequently noted parallels between this tradition and Donne's sermons. Dominic Baker-Smith argues that Donne echoes Nicholas' ignorantia when he refers to "a profitable, a wholesome, a learned ignorance, which is a modest, and a reverent abstinence from searching into those secrets which God hath not revealed in his word" (415; Baker-Smith quotes Sermons 9:234). Dennis McKevlin also notes the parallels between Nicholas and Donne (19-28), and Itrat Husain cites the following words from one of Donne's sermons as evidence of the connection between Donne's thought and the "dark night" of John of the Cross:
Love him [God] not onely in spiritual transfigurations when he visits thy
soule with glorious consolations, but even in his inward eclipses, when he
withholds his comforts, and withdraws his cheerfulness, even when he makes
as though he knew not thee, Love him. (140; see also 133)
Clements finds numerous points of similarity between Donne and John of the Cross (62). And Gale Carfithers observes that Donne's reference to the desert as a place "of solitude, and retirednesse" in his "Third Sermon on John 1.8" "sounds like the via negativa of St. John of the Cross" (155).
Parallels between the via negativa and Donne's sermons are not difficult to find. In one of his sermons, Donne talks about an experience of Abraham in "dark night" terms:
When God talked with Abraham, a horror of great darknesse fell upon him,
sayes that Text [Genesis 15:12]. The Father of lights, and the God of all
comfort present, and present in an action of Mercy, and yet, a horror of
great darknesse upon Abraham. (Sermons 8:123)
Later in the same sermon Donne differentiates between the experience of God's presence and that of his apparent absence in terms of biblical figures:
... whether I shall see God as a Dove with an Olive branch, (peace to my
soule) or as an Eagle, a vulture to prey, and to prey everlastingly upon
mee, whether in the deepe floods of Tribulation, spirituall or temporall, I
shall see God as an Arke to take mee in, or as a Whale to swallow mee; and
if his Whale doe swallow mee, (the Tribulation devour me) whether his
purpose bee to restore mee, or to consume me, I, I of my selfe cannot tell.
May we not, then, reasonably expect representations of both the ark and the whale in Donne's poetry?
Instead of straining to find some sense of resolution of tension in the Holy Sonnets or concluding that they are but the products of a spiritual despair, we might more profitably read the Holy Sonnets as representations of the via negativa--that is, as the depiction of the experience of God's otherness and mystery as well as his presence even in his apparent absence.
The Holy Sonnet speakers find themselves pleading with a God who does not respond to their requests but on whom they want to depend. They try various means to evoke a response from God. Some are intended as compelling arguments:
If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn'd; Alas; why should I bee?
The speaker then challenges God in lines 7 and 8: "And mercy being easie, and glorious /To God, in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?" In another sonnet, the speaker begins, "Thou hast made me, And shall thy worke decay?" God, if he is not disposed to intervene for the sake of the speaker, is challenged to act in his own self-interest in order to preserve his own work. But the cleverness of these arguments is not recompensed by any conviction in the poem that God has taken possession of the speaker, by any sense of the gift of God's presence in the speaker's soul.
Though the speakers usually address God in familiar yet reverential language, sometimes the arguments are more impassioned, even angry in tone. Anger is certainly evident in the lines quoted above from "If poysonous mineralls," but when the speaker directly addresses God in line 9, the tone is milder: "But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?" Neither the anger nor the subsequent softened attitude, however, convey any conviction that the speaker has moved God.
Sometimes anger is expressed in indirect ways. In "Batter my heart," for example, the tone is violently emotional:
Batter my heart, three person'd God ...
... o'erthrow mee, `and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
Then, as previously noted, the speaker asks God to conquer, imprison, enthrall, and ravish him. Although he calls God's anger down upon himself, the reader is left with impression that the anger is really directed at the speaker himself In any case, there is no sense that this tactic provokes God to action A similar approach is taken in "I am a little world made cunningly." The speaker thinks of himself as a universe writ small. He admits that his miniature cosmos, both the physical and the spiritual, is tainted by "black sinne," and he acknowledges God's power to drown his universe thereby cleansing it, just as the Great Flood cleansed the earth. And if water does not succeed, then there is the fire which is promised in Isaiah (66:15). The speaker ends by asking God to consume him with fire. But he is not reduced to ashes.
Even the speaker's penitence is inadequate to move God. "O might those sighes and teares returne againe" speaks of the grief which is caused by the speaker's sins. "I am a little world" and "If poysonous mineralls" mention tears of remorse But this attitude receives no response from God, who seems beyond the reach of the speaker's words. The fact that the clever arguments, the anger, the bullying, or even the remorse of the speakers never earn a response nonetheless indicates a fully conventional conviction that God is not subject to human whims or even earnest desires. His actions cannot be predicted He refuses to play the various roles which the speakers design for him.
Donne once observed that when God speaks, "heare we no voyce" (Sermons 6:217). His God may be silent in these poems but, if the reading I am suggesting is plausible, that silence, like the silence of the God in the "dark night of the soul," need not be deemed the silence of a God who is uncaring, unconcerned, or just plain arbitrary in his dealings with humans. God's reticence is rather a clear and effective way of indicating his othemess and mystery and of representing the inaccessibility of an infinite being to a finite human. Donne's God refuses to become a dramatic persona as he is in the poetry of Herbert. Like the God of the via negativa, Donne's God refuses to be caught in the constructions of human reason and human language. Any Herbertian intrusion of God in Donne's Holy Sonnets would only undercut the sense of God's othemess and the mystery Donne insistently and repeatedly acknowledges.
Louis Martz's article "Donne and Herbert: Vehement Grief and Silent Tears" draws some interesting distinctions between Donne and Herbert. While Herbert's poems "dance and pirouette above the theological issues, dance above the old facts of history, liberate themselves.., from the stem and warring doctrines of the time," Donne, says Martz, explores a deep sense of sinfulness. While Herbert's poetry displays a sense of security, Donne's betrays a tremendous sense of uncertainty and alienation of man from God (32). These different stances may explain why God speaks in Herbert's poems but takes no active role in any of Donne's religious poetry, with the possible exception of "The Lamentations of Jeremy, for the Most part according to Tremelius" (Gardner 35-48).
The silence of Donne's God, besides indicating the radical separation between humankind and God, also suggests both the inadequacy of human beings and their radical dependence on God. The Holy Sonnet speakers are brought to the point of not only silence but also ignorantia. They are brought to the point of silence because they must realize that there is nothing that they can say which will cause God to act; their words are powerless. They are made fully conscious of ignorantia because they cannot know God. And the reader must realize that human wills are ineffective in obtaining what they most desire. In "Batter my heart," the speaker acknowledges that his reason is "captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue." And so he ends at the point of recognition that he must wait for God to act; he states that he will never be chaste unless God "ravish" him. The paradoxical formulations highlight the inadequacy of reason. As Elizabeth Tebeux points out, for Donne reason is important to salvation, but he "intentionally makes readers feel insecure about their ability to use rational instruments to articulate spiritual truth or to understand it because he never wants his hearers to forget human limitations" (211). And by juxtaposing the speaker's cries for God's grace with God's silence, Donne intensifies the desire of the speaker in the face of his inability to do or say anything to fulfill that desire. The author of these poems, like the writers in the via negativa tradition, recognizes the infirmity of both human intellect and human language.
Exploring Donne's notion of the nature of language and writing, James Baumlin asks whether written linguistic forms such as letters or poems substantiate the presence of the writer. More specifically, he questions whether the written word is a transubstantiation, a consubstantiation, or merely a commemoration of an event (159). Donne's Songs and Sonnets, Baumlin asserts, take a position between Catholic transubstantiation and Protestant consubstantiation; but the "Valedictions" suggest a more Zwinglian commemorative role for language. When writing invokes only the memory of a past event, the reader confronts the absence of the writer (179). "Then," Baumlin concludes, "writing provides but a weak compensation and surely no antidote for absence, becoming a pharmikon or drug--or, more precisely, a compulsive action that seeks to allay (though it can never cure) the anxiety of separation" (180).(7)
May we not, then, consider the Holy Sonnets as efforts which seek to allay, without being able to cure, the anxiety of separation between the speaker and God? This is precisely the point about human existence which the via negativa makes: Finite human beings cannot hope to know or encounter God in any direct way.
Acceptance of this inevitable alienation, however, need not be a cause for despair because, in the "dark night of the soul," though God is experienced as being absent, he is also present as a force reordering the life of the seeker. Even if the Holy Sonnet speakers never achieve any sense of spiritual progress and even if the speakers' anxiety about their estrangement from God is never cured, the reader can see that God is present, in one sense, by virtue of the fact that He is addressed or invoked and because, in another sense, the speakers are preoccupied by the question of God. Their inability to achieve a sense of God's presence only heightens their yearning for God, as well as their sense of their own spiritual aliveness.
For Donne, God's silence is not only no cause for despair but is, in fact, something to welcome. In "Oh, to vex me, contraryes meete in one," the speaker says, "Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare." In the last' stanza of "A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors Last Going into Germany," the speaker says:
Seale then this bill of my Divorce to All,
On whom those fainter beames of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scattered bee
On Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.
Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light:
To see God only, I goe out of sight:
And to scape stormy dayes, I chuse
An Everlasting night.
Here the reader can see that the speaker clearly senses God's presence in the darkness. He recognizes that the apparent sense of happiness of his daylight pursuit of "Fame, Wit, and Hopes" was detrimental to his ultimate salvation, which he recognizes is best served by the more troubling times of darkness, times which seem to be bleak and hopeless but which in fact bring him closer to God. Perhaps a similar situation is represented in the Holy Sonnets even if they are not explicit about the experience of divine presence in absence.
Besides being indices of spiritual vitality, the Holy Sonnets are also, in a way, artifacts of the grace that the speakers seek. If the speaker of "At the round earths imagin'd comers, blow" is never quite conscious of receiving God's pardon, the reader can see that his recognition of the need to repent is itself a sign of repentance, which can be read as a sign of God's presence. In fact, in all the sonnets addressed to God, God is present in the very words of the pray-er.
Donne's sermons support this view of prayer. He states:
To sigh, and turne backward, to repent, and relapse, is a wofull Condition:
But to sigh, and turne forward, to turne upon God, and to pursue this
sorrow for our sins, then, in such sighes, The Spirit of man returnes to
God that gave it; As God breathed into man, so man breathes unto the
nostrils of God a savour of rest.... (Sermons 8:197)
Donne says in another of his sermons,
There is not so poore a creature but may be thy glasse to see God in ...
and whatsoever hath any beeing, is by that very beeing, a glasse in which
we see God, who is the roote, and the fountaine of all beeing. (Sermons
The very turning of the speaker to God, therefore, is a sign and symptom of God's working in the life of the speaker. As the speaker in "If faithfull soules be alike glorifi'd" says, "Then turne / O pensive soule, to God, for he knowes best / Thy true griefe, for he put it in my breast." The same idea is expressed in stanza 23 of "A Litanie":
Heare us, O heare us Lord; to thee
A sinner is more musique, when he prayes,
Then spheres, or Angels praises bee,
In Panegyrique Allelujaes,
Heare us, for till thou heare us, Lord
We know not what to say.
Thine eare to'our sighes, teares, thoughts gives voice and word.
O Thou who Satan heard'st in Jobs sicke day,
Heare thy selfe now, for thou in us dost pray.
The speaker's turning to God may itself be the assurance the speaker seeks. God, like Donne's lover looking into the eyes of his beloved ("The good-morrow," Shawcross 89), looks into the life of the pray-er and sees himself reflected in the prayer. The previously mentioned softening of the speaker's tone in "If poysonous mineralls" is particularly illustrative. The whole tone of the poem changes when the speaker turns from his anger to address God. His anger subsides. God's response is mirrored in the prayer itself. The Spirit of God overcomes the speaker's spirit of anger.
The limitations of reason are demonstrated in the Holy Sonnets by the speaker's limited point of view. God works in ways beyond the speaker's, though in this case not the reader's, ability to comprehend. If we accept Donne's notion of prayer, then the reader is in a position to see God's presence in the dramatic situation of the poem. The reader must look beyond the speaker's limited point of view for evidence of the condition he dramatically records.
To see the Holy Sonnets as dramatizations of the via negativa is to acknowledge their implications about infirmity of human intellect and human language in human beings' encounter with their creator, but such a reading does not necessarily mean they are poems of despair. They affirm the value of communication with God. Though God seems absent, he is most real in the poet's sense of need, most powerfully felt in his experience of the "dark night."
God was surely present in the biblical experiences of the dark night. When the Jews wander in the desert, seemingly forsaken by God, they still have the cloud and the fire to guide them and the manna to feed them. When on the cross Jesus expresses his sense of the absence of God by quoting Psalm 22, he is also speaking of the presence of God for this psalm ends with the psalmist affirming his conviction that he has not been forsaken after all.
Though God seems indifferent to the speaker of Donne's poems, the reader can see that God is really at work beyond the pale of the speaker's understanding; he is stripping away the speaker's false pretensions, the intellectualizations, the argumentation, the emotionalism. The evidence of God's working in the soul of the speaker is in the turning of the speaker, the pray-er, to God. Though the reader's desire for meaning, for resolution, seems confounded, that desire is fulfilled when the reader looks beyond the limited point of view of the speaker and recognizes both the special artistry and the religious commitment of the poet who endows his speaker with not only dramatic life, but spiritual purpose.
By seeing the Holy Sonnets in the context of the tradition of the via negativa, we can understand that the absence of God need not be read as evidence that God does not exist, that he is not omnipotent, or that he is unconcerned. Rather, as in the "dark night" experience, the silence of God in the Holy Sonnets may be seen as an indication of God's radical othemess and, paradoxically, as a sign that God is actually at work reordering the life of the speaker. Thus, God demonstrates the limitations of human reasoning and human language, making the speaker trust less in feelings and depend less upon his own efforts while being more dependent upon God. At the same time, the reader can see evidence in the speaker's words and attitudes of the presence of God not as an active participant in the dramatized moment but as a silent presence beyond human words and human reason.
(1) The suggestions of Professors Judd Arnold and Robert Hume on earlier drafts of this article are greatly appreciated.
(2) Douglas Peterson maintains that "the controlling principle in all nineteen of the Holy Sonnets is the Anglican doctrine of contrition" (506). The sonnets, he says, prepare the reader for repentance by inspiring first fear then love. Arthur Bell's strategy is similar to Peterson's, but he is concerned with atonement rather than contrition. Similarly, Eleanor J. McNees sees Donne's divine poems as preludes to the eucharist. According to McNees, these poems "rarely focus on the act of communion; rather, they are preoccupied with the repentance and confession of sins before participation in the act of Holy Communion" (34).
(3) Arthur Clements accounts for the failure of the Holy Sonnets to achieve a resolution of tensions by maintaining that these poems express only desire, never realization (74). He associates the Holy Sonnets with what Evelyn Underhill calls the purgative stage of spiritual development. Union with God (and the desired resolution of the tensions) is not realized until the third and final, or contemplative stage. See also Stanley Archer's "Meditation and the Structure of the Holy Sonnets" for a critique of Martz's approach and Patrick Grant's defense of Martz.
(4) "This is my playes last scene, here heavens appoint" does not explicitly mention God, but the implication of the penultimate line, "Impute me righteous, thus purg'd of evill," may be read as a prayer to the divine. All quotations from the Holy Sonnets are taken from Gardner.
(5) See Herbert's "Even-song," "Jordan (II)," and "The Collar" (63, 102, 153) for examples of God's direct response to the speaker's petition.
(6) See also Psalms 5, 13, 22, 60, 62, 74, 83, 86, 102, 103, and 143.
(7) Baumlin's discussion has implications for the via negativa. If God's presence is revealed in his creation, in Scripture, and in interventions in history, then there is a sense in which these become signs, like language, which convey not only God's presence but also his absence from that which he has created.
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A lecturer at Pennsylvania State University, Lawrence Beaston received his Ph.D. in English in 1998 with a concentration in medieval English