Appointed by James I as chaplain for the embassy led by the Lord of Doncaster to meditate between Catholics and Protestants in Bohemia, John Donne left England on May 12, 1619, apprehensive that he might never return. The hymn Donne wrote in conjunction with this trip has received not only less critical attention, but also less praiseworthy criticism than any of his major religious lyrics, particularly his other two hymns. Focusing primarily upon the closing lines of the poem, critics tend to sum up, and thereby dismiss, "A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany" as another example of Donne's obsession with death. Helen Gardner concludes that "the close of the poem is a prayer for death, by which our divorce from the world is sealed or ratified" (107), and R. C. Bald contends that, because Donne "seems to be weighed down by fears of shipwreck or drowning," the poem expresses little else than "the sick fancies of a troubled mind" (343). More recently, John Pollock surmises that the unusually dark mood of the poem "can be seen as the direct result of Donne's unrelieved guilt and fear of growing old" (21-22). While Arthur Marotti's discussion focuses upon "Donne's deep ambivalence about rejecting worldly values and ambitions," he, nevertheless, perceives in the hymn a "yearning for death" (279). The only reading more extreme than that provided by John Carey who, in his usual manner of exaggerated scorn, believes that "this is a poem about committing suicide" (218) is that of David Aers and Gunther Kress who insist that Donne's approach in lines 9-12 is "actually that of a Moloch-worshipper" (71).
The singular voice of praise for the poem is that of Wilbur Sanders, who believes that "A Hymne to Christ" is "one of the greatest religious lyrics in the language" (150). Although I find this assessment to be overstated, the hymn is certainly a more engaging lyric than has generally been accepted. Throughout his discussion of the poem, Sanders insists that the hymn cannot be explained simply as a morbid longing for death, nor even as a convenient, and thereby vulgar, renunciation of the world in an attempt to receive "higher joys" (152). Sanders argues, instead, that the poem is one of discovery, one that is "instinct with wonder," as Donne "measures the preciousness of the faith by the costliness of the sacrifices he discovers himself already making for it" (153,152). While I concur in general with Sanders, I contend that by reading the hymn within the context of Donne's own Valediction sermon that complements it, one more clearly perceives the ingenuity of Donne as he celebrates the paradox of repentance. Within the adversities confronting him in the spring of 1619, Donne discovers once again that suffering is the means for the power of God to enter the world, for it is only by sharing in the sufferings of Christ that those within the Church are able to be conformed to Christ.
When Donne was directed into the Anglican Church at the insistence of James I, Walton would have us believe that Donne's acceptance of his new vocation was immediate and complete:
And now all his studies, which had been occasionally diffused, were all concentered in divinity. Now he had a new calling, new thoughts, and a new employment for his wit and eloquence. Now, all his earthly affections were changed into divine love; and all the faculties of his own soul were engaged in the conversion of others; in preaching the glad tidings of remission to repenting sinners, and peace to each troubled soul. (342)
However, as Gardner points out in her discussion of "To Mr. Tilman after he had taken orders," Donne was initially reluctant to enter the Church and, in fact, he "never speaks as if he ever felt any direct inward call to the ministry" (131). The reason for such reluctance, on the one hand, stems from Donne's sense of unworthiness for his new calling, for he must have been acutely aware, as Bald points out, that taking orders "might seem rather shocking to some of those who had known him formerly." He quotes from a letter Donne wrote to Henry Wotton and then comments, "there is a genuine humility of tone which contrasts quite sharply with the worldliness of some of the letters he had written a short time previously" (305). On the other hand, it is no secret that prior to entering the Church, Donne had sought earnestly to procure a secular position, first in Ireland, later in Virginia, and finally in Venice.
As a result of his difficulties in acquiring a secular preferment, it is curious that when Donne was appointed early in 1619 as chaplain to Doncaster, he was less than eager to involve himself in an activity of such obvious political importance. In a letter addressed to Goodyer, Donne recounts some of his reservations:
I leave a scattered flock of wretched children, and I carry an infirm and valetudinary body, and I go into the mouth of such adversaries as I cannot blame for hating me, the Jesuits, and yet I go. Though this be no service to my Lord, yet I shall never come nearer doing him a service, nor do anything liker a service than this. (Life and Letters II. 121)
This passage constitutes a delineation of Donne's perceived limitations, both physical and spiritual. Following the death of this wife Ann eighteen months prior to his departure for Germany, Donne seems to have withdrawn from the world and, as a result, laments consigning his "scattered flock of wretched children" into the care of servants. Donne also confesses to Goodyer his hesitation to undertake this journey because of his "infirm and valetudinary body." It is clear from Walton's account and from Donne's letters and actions not only that Donne was in poor health, perhaps even as a result of his extended and intense grieving, but also that he felt his life might be drawing to a close. For a man in the seventeenth century who was forty-seven years of age and whose health was failing, these concerns are understandable, yet Donne seems to press the matter. In a letter to the Countess of Montgomery, who had requested a copy of one of his sermons, Donne alludes to his upcoming trip to Germany as "going out of the kingdom," and then adds parenthetically, "and perchance out of the world" (Life and Letters II. 123); and for Robert Ker, with whom Donne appears to be in the process of putting his affairs in order, he provides a copy of his treatise on suicide, Biathanatos, and instructs his friend. "Reserve it for me if I live, and if I die I only forbid it the press and the fire" (Life and Letters II. 124). Donne also admits to Good yet his hesitancy to enter the realm of his adversaries, the Jesuits, whom he had satirized vehemently, especially in his prose works Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave. Finally, Donne's own personal concerns were further colored at this time by the death of Queen Anne and the subsequent illness that nearly took the life of the King.
In spite of the tribulations affecting Donne during the spring of 1619, the hymn and the sermon he wrote at his last going into Germany are not morose, self-indulgent expressions in which he longs for death. There is a difference, after all, between feelings, however strong they may be, that death is near, and a desire to die, which is the sin of despair. The hymn, especially when read in conjunction with the Valediction sermon, does not reveal the mind of a man who is seeking to escape from the difficulties of his life, but rather one who seems more concerned that his imminent trip to Germany will provide, as he expresses to Goodyer, "no service to my Lord."
The political occasion for Donne's trip to Germany accounts in part for the popularity among Donne's contemporaries not only for the hymn, but also for the Valediction sermon. David Novarr notes that "the widespread availability of the hymn in manuscript is an indication that Donne was not averse to its being known" (130), and Potter and Simpson state that the popularity of the Valediction sermon "is evident from the fact that more manuscript copies of it have been preserved than of any other sermon" (II.33). However, the greater interest in the two works undoubtedly results from Donne's use of himself as an emblem of one who has been blessed with the mercies of God in the midst of his adversity. Within the public and exemplary context of Donne's Journey, it is impossible to overstate the importance of accounting for the audience of the Valediction sermon. Among the Benchers of Lincoln's Inn hearing this homily were those who knew Donne as a youth and who were also among Donne's closest friends, including Christopher Brooke. As a result, Donne sounds a personal and humble note in addressing his congregation, particularly in the conclusion of the sermon:
Remember me, not my abilities, for when I consider my Apostleship to you, that I was sent to you, I am in St. Paules quorum, quorum ego minimus, I am the least of them that have been sent to you, and when I consider my infirmities (I know I might justly lay a heavier name upon them) I know I am in his other quorum, quorum ego maximus, sent to save sinners, of whom I am the cheifest. (II.388-89)
When Donne revised this passage for a later edition of the sermon, he not only omitted the parenthetical statement, "I know I might justly lay a heavier name upon them [his infirmities]," but also, as the editors of Donne's Sermons remark, "toned the passage down into a more general acknowledgement of human infirmity" (II.34). One further example of this type occurs in the final sentence of the sermon, the earlier version of which states:
To end, it is the Kingdome where we shall end, and yet being but then, where we shall have continual rest, and yet never grow lazy, where we shall have more strength and hoe Enemyes, where we shall live and never die, where we shall meet and never part, but here we must. (II.390)
The later rendition omits the final four words ("but here we must") and, typifying the effect of the alterations existing throughout the later version, thereby removes the poignancy of Donne's personal farewell to his congregation, as he enjoins them to remember him, as he will remember them, within the fellowship of those who constitute the body of Christ.
The sermon itself explicated Ecclesiastes 12:1, "Remember now thy Creator in the daies of thy youth." While the sermon is, in fact, an exercise in remembering the mercies of God, the topic of the sermon is the virtue of repentance, which Donne likens to gold that is discovered, as he writes, "for the most part in the washes, . . . in the waters of Tribulation" (II.373). Following the introduction, which emphasizes that "the nearest way to bring man to God [is] by awaking his memory" (II.374), Donne divides the sermon into three parts. The first centers upon Donne's contention that the memory is a superior faculty to both the understanding and the will in bringing one to God. Altering St. Bernard's analogy that the memory is the stomach of the soul, Donne imagines the memory as the gallery of the soul, which is "hung with soe many, and so lively pictures of the goodnes and mercies of thy God to thee, as that every one of them may be a sufficient Catechisme to instruct thee in all thy particular dutyes to God for those mercies" (II.376). The second part, which begins with a discussion of the Offering of First Fruits, reinforces the urgency of remembering now, at this moment. An extended section of this second point is devoted to a recapitulation of the six days of Creation, which Donne, of course, reads typologically; in remembering the separate days of the Creation, Donne sees in the particulars of each "a typological allegory of 'our regeneration'" (Carrithers 139) through Christ and within the Church. The final division insists that the Creator is the object of the exercise of memory:
Remember the Creator then, because thou can't remember nothing beyond him, and remember him soe too, that thou maist sticke upon nothing on this side of him, that soe neither height nor depth, nor any other creature may separate thee from God. (II.387)
It is by remembering the Creator and His faithfulness, Donne argues, that those who believe in Him receive comfort during the afflictions of this life.
In the conclusion of this sermon, Donne alters the Great Commandment, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind [and] Thou shalt thy neighbor as thyself" (Mt. 22:37, 39), when he implores his congregation, "as we remember God, soe for his sake and in him, let us remember one another" (II.388). As the personal interactions outlined within this injunction imply, Donne draws our attention in the conclusion to the circular structure both of this bit of instruction and of the sermon as a whole ("To shut up this Circle and to returne to the beginning . . . " 388). Further, the conclusion itself is punctuated with circular, and even spherical, conceits that are scribed upon the memory, in a manner similar to a memory theatre (Yates). Donne urges the Benchers of Lincoln's Inn to remember him in prayer, to remember him "in the eares of that God to whom the farthest East and the farthest West are but as the right and left eare in one of us" (II.388). A few lines later, Donne states that after he has departed from them, their eyes "shall meet every morning in looking upon the same sun, and meet every night in looking upon the same Moone" (II.389). Similarly, their hearts "may meet every morning and evening in that God who sees and heares alike in all distances," until finally, Donne assures them, "within the gates of heaven, I may meete you all, and there sale to my Saviour and your Saviour, that which he said to his Father and our Father, Of those whom thou gavest me have I not lost one" (II.389). As he bids farewell, Donne comforts his congregation, stating, "though we must saile through a Sea, yet it is the Sea of [Christ's] blood" (II.389), an image that repeats itself in the opening lines of the hymn. The conclusion to the Valediction sermon culminates in an encircling act of remembrance that becomes, as Gale Carrithers states, "a sacramental activity of self-creation in a context of charity and humility" (143).
Donne's "A Hymne to Christ," a complementary exercise in remembering God's mercies, echoes the same circular structure, in which Donne presents himself in a posture of humble repentance as he reads his trip to Germany typologically. In the opening stanza Donne reveals his anxieties about his ailing physical health as he embarks on this journey in a "torne ship," upon a sea that may "swallow" him, and beneath "clouds of anger" (Complete Poetry 387). In the midst of these adversities, however, Donne perceives not death and despair, but Christ, As in the Valediction sermon, Donne finds gold in the washes; in the tribulations he associates with his impending journey, he finds the way to Christ through penitent obedience. The interface here between sermon and hymn plays upon the parallel that Renaissance alchemists frequently drew between the philosopher's stone and Christ, by whom the base matter of our adversity is transformed into the precious metal of our redemption (Coudert 89-90, 96, 104-06). In other words, the mercy and salvation offered by Christ are discovered through participating in his sufferings (cf. Phil. 3:8-11), an idea which Donne imagines in the hymn by aligning himself typologically with Noah and Moses.
The opening stanza resonates with biblical allusions. The ship and the sea, emblems for Donne of "thy Arke" and "thy blood," call to mind, or course, the story of Noah. Although Noah inhabited the ark, the salvation offered through it belonged to God, for it was His idea and His design, and He was the one who also sealed the door (Genesis 6, 7). Furthermore, this event is understood in the New Testament as a type of baptism: through the ark that God provided, the eight members of Noah's family "were saved through water" (I Peter 3:20-21). Following the references to the Flood, the final three lines of the first stanza allude to two events recorded in Exodus. When Donne writes of the "clouds of anger" that disguise God's face and mask His eyes, it calls to mind Exodus 19 when God descended upon Mt. Sinai in a thick cloud, and the thunder and lightning emanating from the cloud frightened the people of Israel who were gathered at the base. However, it was during this time that Moses ascended the mountain, entered the cloud, and received from God the Ten Commandments. Later in Exodus Moses asks to see the glory of God, and Jehovah responds by saying that He will place Moses in the cleft of a rock and cover the prophet as He passes by so that Moses will be able to see God's back, but not His face (Exodus 33). This turning away by God is not, as alluded to in line 7 of Donne's hymn, an act of disdain, but instead one of revelation. The paradox here is similar to the one expressed in Henry Vaughan's "The Night," which praises "Wise Nicodemus," who "saw such light / As made him know his god by night" (II. 4-5).
The next eighteen lines of the hymn portray Donne in a posture of humility as he turns, and thereby returns, to God; it is an act of repentance, which Donne himself defines in his Sermons: "In one word, (one word will not do it, but in two words) [repentance] is Aversio, and Conversio; it is a turning from our sins, and a returning to our God" (VII. 162). In his poetic address to Christ, Donne determines to "sacrifice this Hand unto thee, /And all whom I lov'd there, and who lov'd mee" (8-9); to "seeke the root below / In winter, . . . / Where none but thee, th' Eternall root of true Love I may know" (12-14); and, finally, to procure his "Divorce to All" (22), especially the "false mistresses" of his youth, "Fame, Wit, Hopes" (25). In response to these lines, Sanders eloquently states, "one may think one knows what is happening here, and that it is something of the kind usually understood by the word 'renunciation'"; what occurs, however, is "something more remarkable" (157). Renouncing the world and the things of the world are effects of repentance, but they are not the goals. Donne responds to Christ throughout this hymn by saying that he is jealous for the one who was first jealous for him. Donne is not so much giving up the world as he is giving in, and thereby giving himself over, to Christ. By allowing his Savior to defeat him, Donne, more than renouncing "the world," fills with Christ alone the void where "the world" once was.
In the final three lines, "A Hymne to Christ," like the sermon it complements, achieves a circular progress; it not only recalls its own beginning, but also moves the reader beyond a mere repetition of the opening allusions. Donne begins the final sentence of the poem by asserting, "Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light," a statement insisting upon the appropriateness of darkness, within the church and for the purpose of prayer, for one to pursue relationship with God. The remaining two lines of the hymn must be read in terms of this claim, as well as in terms of the parallelism found in lines 26 and 27. By explaining that "to see God only" and "to scape stormy dayes" he goes "out of sight" and chooses "an Everlasting night," Donne returns the reader to the opening stanza. As the people of Israel cowered beneath the thunder, lightning, and smoke they perceived at the summit of Mt. Sinai, Moses, responding to God's command for him to ascend the mountain, "drew near unto the thick darkness where God was" (Exodus 20:21), and in a similar act of humble obedience, Noah and his family entered the ark and were saved during the Flood.
These final lines have caused difficulty primarily because critics have been misled by Donne's use of the word "Everlasting" and have believed, as a result, that Donne longs for death. To the contrary, it is not a literal, but a figurative death, through which he finds life within the body of Christ, that Donne chooses here. His last going into Germany is a journey leading from the world and to God through the doctrinally orthodox path of Christ's sufferings, which is analogous to Moses ascending to the darkness of Mt. Sinai where God was and to Noah descending into the trowels of the ark to escape the stormy days. As a result, the very structure of the poem reinforces Donne's realization of the pervasiveness of Christ, whom Donne imagines in his life as both center and circumference, an image reflecting the alchemical symbol for gold. Michael Hall notes that "Donne was fond of recalling the Hermetic definition of God as a circle or sphere" and that "the creation is contained in that sphere and forms part of the perfect whole, though only divinity himself is wholly perfect" (202). Within the circle formed by the allusions that reveal Christ as antitype to Noah and Moses, the center of the poem (line 4) is punctuated by Donne's expressed desire to know God's Son, whom he describes as "th' Eternall root of true Love." By prayerfully entering the Church in obedience to God's call, Donne (like Moses and Noah) (re)turns humbly to the one whose promises comfort him in the darkness of his "infirm and valetudinary body" as he enters "the mouth of such adversaries as I cannot blame for hating me, the Jesuits."
On December 19, 1619, Donne and the other members of the embassy led by Doncaster were in residence at The Hague where they awaited the end of their journey and their long-anticipated return to England. That day Donne preached upon Matthew 4:18-20, which recounts the calling of Peter and his brother Andrew away from their fishing nets to become fishers of men. In response to the demands of his text, Donne fittingly emphasizes the obedience and humility necessary to respond to Christ's command, "follow me." It is within this context that Donne answers the question he himself raises in the homily concerning how this humble obedience might be accomplished: " . . . you must goe lobs way to Christs end. lob hath beaten a path for us, to shew us all the way: A path that affliction walked in, and seemed to delight in" (II.299). Job's way is the path of tribulation, but Donne carefully explains that the afflictions of the godly are crosses to them; they are not the afflictions of the wicked that only "exasperate," "enrage," "stone and pave," and "obdurate and petrifie," but "doe not crucifie them" (II.300). The adversity that carries us to salvation, Donne insists, resides in the God given corrections to which we willingly submit in order to conform our wills to Christ:
so when my crosses have carried mee up to my Saviours Crosse, I put my hands into his hands, and hang upon his nailes, I put mine eyes upon his, and wash off all my former unchast looks, and receive a soveraigne tincture, and a lively verdure, and a new life into my dead teares, from his teares. I put my mouth upon his mouth, and it is I that say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? and it is I that recover againe, and say, Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit. Thus my afflictions are truly a crosse, when those afflictions doe truely crucifie me, and souple me, and mellow me, and knead me, and roll me out, to a conformity with Christ. (II.300)
This is the gold Donne finds in the washes. This is the culminating action of repentance, which Donne dramatizes in the common ground of the hymn and the sermon marking his last going into Germany.
Sellin explains that because "more copies of the supposedly rare Continental Conclave Ignati have survived abroad than scholarship has generally realized" (23), "one imagines that in Reformed courts such as the duke of Bouillon's at Amiens, the elector's at Heidelberg, or the States General's in The Hague, Donne had some name as a polemicist against the Jesuits when he arrived" (22).
The significant differences are revealed in the two versions Potter and Simpson print of this sermon; the later of the two appears as sermon number 11 in Volume II, and the earlier version, which I will quote from exclusively, is printed in the same volume as Appendix B.
Although Donne himself stresses the superiority of the memory in this particular sermon, Sherwood has convincingly argued that "Donne's characteristic ratiocination throughout his works is consistent with his conviction that the goal of human existence is the visio dei, reason's unimpeded comprehension of God in heaven" (22).
When Donne later revised this sermon for publication, he divided it into two separate sermons, which appear in Potter and Simpsoh's edition as numbers 13 and 14 in Volume II.
Aers, David and Gunther Kress. "Vexatious Contraries: A Reading of Donne's Poetry." Literature, Language and Society in England, 1580-1680. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1981. 49-74.
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Coudert, Allison. Alchemy: The Philosopher's Stone. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications, 1980.
Donne, John. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Ed. John T. Shawcross. Garden City, NJ: Anchor Books, 1967.
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Hall, Michael. "Circles and Circumvention in Donne's Sermons." JEGP 82 (1983): 201-14.
Marotti, Arthur E John Donne, Coterie Poet. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1986.
Novarr, David. The Disinterred Muse. Ithaca, London: Cornell UP, 1980.
Pollock, John J. "A Hymne to Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany." Explicator 38 (1980): 20-22.
Sanders, Wilbur. John Donne's Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1971.
Sellin, Paul R. So doth, So is Religion: John Donne and Diplomatic Contexts in the Reformed Netherlands, 1619-1620. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1988.
Sherwood, Terry G. Fulfilling the Circle: A Study of John Donne's Thought. Toronto, Buffalo, London: U of Toronto P, 1984.
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By Jeffrey Johnson
Jeffrey Johnson earned his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-Columbia and is presently an Assistant Professor at College Misericordia, where he teaches courses in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature. He has published articles on Henry Vaughan and George Herbert, and is also a contributing editor for The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne.