ELH, Summer 1993 v60 n2 p283(40)

Radical Donne: "Satire III". Strier, Richard.

Abstract: John Donne's 'Satire III' emphasizes the responsibility and autonomy of the individual. The poem insists that individuals have the absolute responsibility for the state of their individual souls. However, Donne recognizes the tendency of people to allow external authorities to control the conscience. The poet criticizes all forms of authority, including Catholic as well as Protestant and religious as well as secular. Thus, 'Satire III' can be seen to embody the most radical of European 16th century thought.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1993 Johns Hopkins University Press


Recent scholarship has rejected the bifurcation between "Jack Donne" and "Doctor Donne." In many ways this has been a progress, but in doing this, we have rejected Donne's own conception of his life, since he rather than his biographers originated these terms, and we have also, I am afraid, lost our sense of Jack.(1) This essay aims to restore a nineteenth and early twentieth-century sense of the young John Donne, a sense of boldness, radicalism, and free-thinking. One might call it an Empsonian sense of young Donne. Empson constantly inveighed against the conservatism and smoothing out effect of "tradition"-oriented historical scholarship; he warned against recovering only "subservient or boot-licking morals" from the past.(2) Any scholarship that is obsessed with anachronism and with establishing the limits of what was "thinkable" in a period will tend to have this effect. Whether the homogeneous framework that defines the supposed limits is called a "world picture" or an "episteme" makes no difference.(3)

Empson was particularly insistent on the young John Donne's theological and intellectual radicalism. Just as the conservative scholars saw the modernists as "Kidnapping Donne," Empson saw the conservatives as doing the same.(4) My essay is concerned with Donne's third Satire, the piece that John Carey rightly calls the "great, crucial poem of Donne's early manhood."(5) "Donne the Spaceman," Empson's wonderful essay on Donne's fantasy of freedom from repression, is mainly concerned with the erotic poems, but in the preliminaries to his major argument Empson makes some remarks about Satire III. With his normal distrust of "scholarly" truisms and his desire for genuine historicism, Empson notes that although this poem "seems often to be regarded as a commonplace bit of Anglican liberalism," such "liberalism" was not commonplace or even safe in the mid-1590s. He feels, moreover, that despite some familiar rhetoric about fighting the devil, the third Satire seems "somehow also to give |an~ inherent argument for freedom of conscience."(6) I will try to demonstrate both that Empson was right about the radicalism of the poem, and that such a view is not anachronistic. I will not argue that the poem is consistent in its radicalism -- it will, in fact, be part of my argument to deny this--but I will try to show that its radicalism is its deepest and poetically most distinguished strain.

The third Satire is entitled "Of Religion" in one manuscript and "Uppon Religion" in another.(7) It would be surprising if a major text "Of Religion" by the young John Donne were a conventional piece. Donne's religious biography is extraordinary. What makes it so is not only his move from the militant Catholicism of his birth and upbringing to the Protestantism of the English Church--though this is interesting enough. Also extraordinary is the length of time which it took Donne to make this move and, most of all, his recorded state of mind during the prolonged "in-between" period.(8) In a world where everyone was a religious something--often a militant something--Donne was, for a remarkably long time, a religious nothing. In the autobiographical "Preface to the Priestes and Jesuits" of Pseudo-martyr, written in 1609-1610, Donne acknowledged his love of "freedome and libertie" in his studies, his tendency toward what he describes as an intellectual and religious bachelorhood--a temperamental unwillingness to "betroth or enthral my selfe, to any one science, which should possesse or denominate me."(9) The identification of commitment with enthrallment is a familiar feature of the erotic life Donne represents in the lyrics--"Rob mee, but binde me not, and let me go."(10) In this preface to his most sober, important, and public piece of writing, Donne uses this identification to represent his intellectual and spiritual life. He sees his unwillingness to espouse a single religious position as having produced a promiscuity in him, an "easiness" to afford "a sweete and gentle interpretation, to all professors" of Christianity.

In the context of this candid but rhetorically complex self-characterization--is it praise or blame?--Donne proceeds to an account of his religious history. He used, he says, "no inordinate haste, nor precipitation in binding my conscience to any locall Religion." "Binding" the conscience sounds negative here, as does the rather belittling "locall Religion." One would think that by the time of writing Pseudo-martyr (1610), Donne had indeed "bound" his conscience to the "locall Religion" of England, but it should be remembered that it took five more years and considerable pressure for Donne finally to decide to take orders in this local church.(11) He presents his long period of what he calls "irresolution"--which "bred some scandall"--as having consisted of two phases. The work of the first phase was negative. Since Donne began his spiritual life with a heavily inscribed rather than a clean slate, to get to a position of neutrality he had "first to blot out certaine impressions of the Romane religion." Changing the image to make it more personal, he had, Donne says, "to wrastle both against the examples and against the reasons, by which some hold was taken, and some anticipations early laid upon my conscience" by "Persons who by nature had a power and superiority over my will" (parents and relatives) and by other Catholic adults who "by their learning and good life" made "impressions" on Donne's youthful psyche.(12) It is inaccurate, therefore, to say that Donne "would not abandon the religion of his youth until he had satisfied himself intellectually and morally that it was the right thing to do."(13) Donne presents abandoning the religion of his youth as a prerequisite for attaining intellectual satisfaction. After the blotting out came a period of "search and disquisition" in which Donne attempted to survey and digest "the whole body of Divinity, controverted between ours and the Romane church." This was a lengthy process. As late as 1608, a friend who had converted to Roman Catholicism described Donne not as an obstinate Protestant but as (strikingly) "a mere libertine" in religion.(14) Donne saw Biathanatos, composed in 1607 or 1608, when he was at least thirty-four, as "written by Jack Donne."(15) And even in the preface to Pseudo-Martyr (1610), Donne earnestly warned against thinking "that hee hath no Religion, which dares not call his Religion by some newer name than Christian." The third Satire was written in the mid-1590s, early in the period of Donne's suspension of commitment; I believe that its ultimate import is to stand as a defense of such suspension.

In giving the interpretation of Donne's account of his religious biography that I have, and in taking this account, so interpreted, as providing the proper context for approaching Satire III, I am implicitly rejecting the claim, made throughout this century by various scholars, that the Satires are fundamentally Roman Catholic in point of view and sensibility.(16) As R. C. Bald says, the biographical evidence makes it unlikely that by the mid 1590s Donne was "an unyielding Catholic."(17) But the more important evidence is provided by the Satires themselves. The five Satires seem to have circulated in manuscript as a "book" or group in the order in which they appear in the first printed editions, and they were probably composed in this order.(18) The other satires, then, especially the second and fourth, should throw some light on the parameters of the third. In the second, Donne shows a detailed knowledge of Catholic institutional and intellectual structures ("Confession ... Schoolmen ... Canonists" |33-38~), and in the fourth, Donne may well, as Erskine-Smith has suggested, be drawing on the experience of danger and vulnerability of a Catholic in a Protestant state.(19) Yet what is most striking in the religious references of these satires is their independence from any established religious position.

Donne's aim (or fantasy) in these poems is to stand clear of the religious, political, and social pressures of his world. The second satire is especially striking for its political daring, its references (censored in the first edition of the Poems) to lying "Like a Kings favorite, yea like a King" (70) and to bastardy "in Kings titles" (which is likened, in its abundance, to "Symonie' and Sodomy in Churchmen's lives" |74-75~).(20) With regard to texts, sacred and otherwise, Satire II is cynical about the procedures of all commentators and controversialists (99-102). The fourth satire continues this detachment. It equates Catholic and Protestant persecutions ("protestation" at Rome could throw anyone "into the'Inquisition" while swearing an oath "by Jesu" can put one, in England, at the mercy of a Topcliffe).(21) This satire carefully balances Protestants and Catholics in contexts of both praise and blame: as lying historians ("Jovius or Sleidan" |47-48~) and as eminent scholars ("Beza ... some Jesuites" |55-56~).(22) This is not the writing of a Catholic--or at least not of a normative post-Tridentine Catholic. It may well be the position of an Erasmian, but that was a very different matter. The Council of Trent was vehemently anti-Erasmian.(23) Erasmus was the preeminent case of a figure who was frequently thought to have "no Religion" because he refused to "call his Religion by some newer name than Christian." Odd as it may seem to us, at the end of the sixteenth century (and perhaps throughout it) to be an Erasmian was to be a radical.(24)


Where the first two satires immediately establish a dialogical frame (their opening words are "Away thou" and "Sir, though" respectively), the third opens with the speaker in a state of puzzled yet highly stylized self-contemplation. There is no clear interlocutor.(25) The speaker is in a state of anxiety and bafflement; he stresses both his emotionality and his baffled state. His emotions interfere with one another: "Kinde pitty chokes my spleene." This is a strange and striking opening. We are thrown suddenly and uncomfortably not just into the speaker's mind but into his internal bodily processes. "Spleen" was a term with a range of reference that was simultaneously and ambiguously psychological and physiological. "Chokes" dominates this half line. The "kindness" of pity seems purely ascriptive. The speaker seems splenetic about pity. The rest of the line is more stable and controlled: "brave scorn forbids." We are now in a world where the epithet and the verb correspond ("brave ... forbids") rather than conflict ("pity chokes"). We are far from physiology and have entered the realm of will and lordly control ("forbids"). The second line, however, brings us back to uncomfortable physical proximity. What "brave scorn forbids" is "Those teares to issue which swell my eye-lids." We are awfully close to the speaker's face, and there is something (from the staunchly male point of view of "brave scorn") embarrassingly "feminine" and physiological in "swell my eye-lids." The image of a full pregnancy not allowed to "issue" into a birth is as uncomfortable as the image of choking.(26) The speaker really does seem mired in conflicting emotions. The spleen and scorn of the first line is convincing, but no more so than the extraordinary delicacy of the second. It is a relief to encounter an ethical rather than a physiological subject at the beginning of the third line, an "I" with some moral distance from physiology: "I must not laugh, nor weepe sinnes." Why this speaker "must not laugh" |at~ sins is, in Christian terms at least, easily apprehended, but why not "weepe sinnes"? Jesus, after all, wept for Jerusalem.(27) The rest of the line explains why this speaker cannot allow himself either of his contradictory responses. He cannot do so "and be wise." To be "wise" in a strongly classical, distinctively Stoic sense is more important to this speaker than sorting out, expressing, or tempering his emotions.(28) The disconcertingly wet and physiological emotionality of the opening is perhaps meant to have the effect of leading us (male) as well as the speaker to value the "dry light" and unemotionality of Stoic wisdom.(29)

The opening sentence ends with the speaker considering a response that is different from both laughing and weeping, and presumably (but not assuredly) compatible with "wisdom": "Can railing then cure these worne maladies?" Donne is contemplating Juvenalian satire conceived, as Sidney conceived it, in semi-medical terms, with sins now perceived as "maladies." This is very tentatively approached, and we can understand why. Even accepting the equation of sins with diseases, it seems a lot to ask from "railing" that it cure established maladies. This is more than Sidney credited to "bold but wholesome lambic."(30) Donne's complex and conflicted proem to the satire seems to end (fitly) by questioning the efficacy of a mode that it was about to adopt. Neither we nor the poet are sure that there is a satiric mode able both to "cure these worne maladies" and to enable the speaker to "be wise." It is not clear that "railing" should even be tried.(31) Perhaps the moral essay would be the better genre.

The second sentence is another question; it is meant to be sarcastic, perhaps a form of "railing," yet it emerges as more baffled than biting as Donne reveals that the sins or "maladies" with which the poem is here concerned are failures in spiritual commitment. Since his conception of "wisdom" is deeply classical, it is a natural move for this speaker to view "our" degree of spiritual commitment and its object against that of the pagans of the classical period and theirs, asking:

Is not our Mistresse faire Religion, As worthy of all our Soules devotion, As vertue was to the first blinded age?


These lines present a striking view of "the first blinded age." The highest goal of pagan practical life was an object of "Soules devotion." The speaker is puzzled at the inefficacy of "faire Religion" to inspire an (at least) equivalent devotion. "Devotion" is a matter of commitment, not of religiosity. The "soules devotion" of "the first blinded age" is unquestioned; it is the premise of the comparison. The sense in which this first age was "blinded" is obvious--it was not privy to the sight of "faire Religion" (meaning Christianity)--but this "blindness" seems merely technical. The point is the superiority, not the inferiority, of the pagans. In the next sentence, Donne tries the comparison again, explicitly measuring "our" failures by the extent of our advantages: "Are not heavens joyes as valiant to asswage / Lusts as earths honour was to them?" (8-9). The test of "devotion" is, apparently, moral--its ability, as the enjambment insists, to "asswage / Lusts," to lead persons to suppress or (better) redirect their appetites and passions.

The speaker stops to make a comment in the midst of these puzzled questionings. He moves from scorn to sorrow as he contemplates the difference between "heavens joyes" and "earths honour": "Alas, as wee do them in meanes, shall they surpasse / Us in the end" (10-11). This is elegantly compact and precise. The contrast is both the philosophical one between ends and means and the religious one between means and "the end." The mention of "heavens joyes" in line 8 generates a transcendental, even apocalyptic context. It follows from the speaker's argument that the pagans who gave their "Soules devotion" to virtue will attain the transcendental "end," and the speaker here acknowledges this. Thoughts of heaven seem regularly to have brought the thought of his father to Donne's mind. In the Holy Sonnet beginning "If faithfull soules," Donne's glorified father is imagined as beholding Donne's spiritual athleticism ("valiantly I hels wide mouth o'rstride"), though this fantasy is then problematized. Here, Donne contemplates the possibility that "my fathers spirit" shall

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?


The most general content of this is clear. The "blinde Philosophers" are unequivocally "in heaven," not in limbo or in Purgatory.(32) They seem, in fact, more solidly and substantially there than does "thy fathers spirit."(33) A puzzle is how the philosophers got to be "in heaven." They did so, it seems, on strictly Catholic grounds, through, as the line-break suggests, "merit." The explication of "merit" as "strict life" is a highly moralistic and Pelagian view, but fully intelligible in a philosophical context, and fully in keeping with the stress in the poem on the capacity of "devotion" to "asswage / Lusts." Yet the situation is not so straightforward. It turns out that salvation is by faith, after all, and Donne is speculating or postulating that "merit / Of strict life may be'imputed faith." This is a startlingly un-Lutheran use of the key Lutheran concepts of "imputation" and faith, since the force of the notion of "imputed" righteousness was precisely to oppose the philosophical, classical, and "common sense" idea of achieved, actual righteousness.(34) Milgate sees Donne as being impudent here.(35) This is an intelligent and plausible suggestion, but I wonder whether Donne is not being boldly syncretic, trying to find a formula for salvation of the philosophers that would include the key notions of both theologies. Donne is playing, speculating--"may be imputed"--but this may be serious play.

Even less clear is how the father got to heaven and what the "easie wayes" can be. It is unlikely that Donne is expressing the view, however historically well-founded, that salvation by faith was meant to be an easy way and near.(36) It is also unlikely that Donne would present his father as having been saved by "faith alone." Biography works against this, as does the overall context of the poem, which is strongly moralistic. So the father must have gotten to heaven through some combination of "merit / Of strict life" and faith. But in that case where are the "easie wayes"? They are a chimera.(37) The writing itself attests to this. Donne's elaboration on "easie wayes" produces the weak enjambment and redundancy of "and neare / To follow." There is no alternative to "merit / Of strict life." But in that case, where is the superiority--and distinctiveness--of Christianity?(38) The difference disappears. A subtle sign of this is that, functionally, within the imagined narrative, the father's spirit could be just as blind as the philosophers, since this spirit does not get to see but only to "heare" the special (bad) news. The privileging of "sight" that underwrites the denigration of the philosophers is never imagistically activated.

The moralistic focus continues. After the mention of damnation, a new section begins with "O if thou dar'st, feare this, / This feare great courage and high valour is." Courage becomes the central theme--a theme, it should be noted, that further undermines the praise of following "easie wayes." Donne is calling for true daring which, paradoxically, and in good Aristotelian fashion, involves proper fear.(39) Yet Donne admires the military and navigational daring, even the foolhardiness, of his generation.(40) The voice takes on Donne's characteristic wit (ships as "wooden sepulchres"), love of catalogues ("To leaders rage, to stormes, to shot, to dearth"), and range of reference ("limbecks"). The passage describes secular activities, but again the realms refuse to stay apart. In considering the relation of his countrymen to heat and cold, Donne's mind leaps about with characteristic nimbleness and characteristic inability (or refusal) to keep the secular and the sacred distinct. In a dizzying flurry, he sees his contemporary young Englishmen bringing--"for gain"--"couragious fire" to the cold north, and enduring equatorial heat and the "fires of Spain" better than "Salamanders" and "like divine / Children in th' oven" (21-24). "Fires of Spain" sounds like a reference to Inquisitorial as well as geographical "fires," and Milgate reminds us that the story of the "children" in the fire in Daniel is a story of resistance to state-commanded idolatry.(41) For a moment, the mercenary English sea-adventurers are "divine" in resisting idolatrous tyranny. The poem seems to be proceeding on two different levels, with the associations established by the imagery not entirely consonant with the distinctions established by the discourse.

Imagery and discursive content are again at odds in the final instance of improper courage: "must every hee / Which cryes not, Goddesse, to thy Mistresse, draw ... ?" (27-28). This is obviously meant to be an image of spurious, misapplied valor, but the imagistic context complicates this intention. The only mistress previously mentioned in the poem is "our Mistresse faire Religion." The connection suggests that perhaps violent defense of this Mistress against every other is "courage of straw" as well. Perhaps "faire Religion" is not to be defended by the sword, and perhaps other "mistresses" are fair--like virtue, for instance, or other, non-Christian religions. The poem does not, at this point, develop these suggestions, but they seem to be pressing on the surface of the argument. Despite some lively writing, the poem seems not yet to have found its thematic center.