home | about Catholic.net | Ask an Expert | Daily Meditations | Apologetics | Catholic Singles | Find a Mass | Free Newsletter | 
englishespañol shopping mallsupport a cause book storenewspapers magazine racktravel vocationschurch documents
Good News
Inspiring Stories
Global Catholic News
Rome’s Zenit News
US Catholic News
Powered by NCRegister.com
Holy Father
Pope Bendict XVI
Umbert the Unborn
Faith & Finances
Our Sacred Obligation
About Our Lady
Parenting God's Way
Faith and Morals
Mass Media
Media Watch
Spiritual Living
Daily Devotional
Living Church
Liturgy and History
Mother Teresa
A Tribute
Following Christ
In Love for Life
Marriage & Sexuality
For Young Adults
Church Teaching
Christmas Songs
Joy for the World

by R.V. Young

About twenty years ago, when someone decided that the papers at the annual conventions of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars had been too heavily weighted with theology and philosophy, I was invited to speak on the subject of literature. For some perverse reason that now escapes my memory, I decided to give a talk on the influence of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction on literary study, thereby increasing the quotient of philosophy. Had I been warned in advance that the late G.E.M. Anscombe would be in the audience, I undoubtedly would have found a safer topic. Anscombe was one of the most profound and acute philosophical minds of the twentieth century, and I had visions of making some grotesque, amateurish blunder and being subjected to the intellectual equivalent of going through a paper shredder. When the talk was over, the lady who had invited me to the conference introduced me to Professor Anscombe and asked her what British philosophers thought of Derrida. After distinguishing him from Louis Althusser (“Is he the one who murdered his wife?”), Anscombe replied, “We don’t think much about him at all.” While I consoled myself by thinking that at least I had not committed a glaring logical fallacy, the other lady informed Professor Anscombe that a colleague and I had just founded the John Donne Journal. Professor Anscombe fixed me with a steely gaze: “Henry Donne, his brother, was a martyr, but John Donne was an apostate! We don’t like him very much at all.”

I got over it, eventually. But the apostasy of John Donne and its impact on the English recusant community have remained for me a compelling topic for reflection. John Donne (1572-1631) is among the very greatest devotional writers of both prose and verse in an age of great religious poetry and meditative literature; he is among the greatest English preachers in an age of great sermons. The tone and texture of his divine poems and prose meditations are far more Catholic than Protestant, and Donne was a life-long enemy of the Puritans who were the most vigorously Protestant party in the Church of England in the seventeenth century. Given his intensely Catholic background and his ambivalent attitude toward Protestantism, Donne provides an illuminating angle on the situation of Catholic recusants in Reformation England and a poignant reminder of the mysterious ways of Our Lord in the provision of grace.

Donne’s younger and less well-known contemporary, the poet Richard Crashaw (1612/13-1649), highlights the issue by furnishing an example of the process in reverse. Crashaw’s father William was a militantly anti-papist preacher and controversialist. The guardians of his son, who was orphaned as a small child, for some reason sent him to schools where he came under the influence of the growing high-church party, whose most prominent member was Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. In the wake of the Puritan victory in the British Civil War, Richard Crashaw would find his way into the Catholic Church. Contemplating these two “Metaphysical” poets, who made opposing choices regarding the most important decision a man can make, Catholics today may wish to consider what human factors influence such choices, while remembering that the final outcome, for each of us, results from a convergence of our wills and the mystery of divine Providence.

Donne describes himself as “being derived from such a stock and race, as I believe, no family, (which is not of far larger extent, and greater branches,) hath endured and suffered more in their persons and fortunes, for obeying the Teachers of Roman Doctrine, than it hath done.” Donne’s father and much of his father’s family were staunch Catholics, and his mother was the grand niece of no less a figure than St. Thomas More. As Donne further remarks, his defection from Catholicism was not easy, “for I was first to blot out certain impressions of the Roman religion, and to wrestle both against the examples and against the reasons by which some hold was taken and some anticipations early laid upon my conscience, both by persons who by nature had a power and superiority over my will, and others who by their learning and good life seemed to me justly to claim an interest for the guiding and rectifying of mine understanding in these matters.” The source of these words is bound to make any Catholic shudder: they come from the preliminary material to Donne’s first publication, Pseudomartyr (1610), in which he seeks to recommend himself to the patronage of King James I by arguing that recusants who suffer for refusing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the British Sovereign are not true martyrs because they are adhering to the Pope’s political power, not to a genuine religious principle.

It is almost impossible to say with certainty when Donne definitely abandoned the Catholic faith of his boyhood, but there are interesting markers, personal and literary, along the way. Sometime in the mid-1590s, perhaps as late as 1596 or 1597, Donne composed his third satire with its defiant plea for the rights of individual conscience:

Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case here, that God hath with his hand
Sign’d Kings blank charters to kill whom they hate,
Nor are they Vicars, but hangmen to Fate.
Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy Soul be tied
To man’s laws, by which she shall not be tried
At that last day? Oh, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin taught thee this? (ll. 89-97)

The poem thus deprecates the religious authority of Catholic champions like Philip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XIV, as well as the Protestant heroes Henry VIII and Martin Luther. In an age when religious dissent—in Catholic and Protestant countries alike—could mean the rack, the stake, or the gallows, these were bold words indeed—so bold that they circulated only in manuscript and never saw print until 1633, two years after Donne’s death.

An eloquent assertion of individual religious integrity in the face of state persecution, Satire III may also reflect the poet’s own dilemma. Blessed with extraordinary gifts of intellect and imagination, Donne was a restless, discontented spirit, lured by the promise of the very “preferment” that he scorned with vehement wit in many of his poems—a position of importance in the royal court that condemned his Church and persecuted his family. By 1597 Donne had to be at least an outwardly conforming member of the Church of England, since he was employed by Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord High Keeper of the Privy Seal, the highest judicial official in Queen Elizabeth’s government. Ironically, Sir Thomas himself had once been a Catholic recusant and had exchanged a life of persecution and deprivation for a position of power and prestige. By means of the same compromise, Donne seemed well on his way along the Elizabethan cursus honorum. But the irony deepens. As Egerton’s private secretary, Donne was living in his employer’s impressive London establishment at York House, where he met and fell in love with Anne More, the niece of Egerton’s second wife. In December of 1601 the couple eloped when the seventeen-year-old Anne was, in all likelihood, already pregnant. Even though Donne’s reluctant father-in-law, Sir George More, was eventually reconciled to the match, Donne’s worldly prospects were ruined. With his recusant background and reputation as a rake, he already suffered liabilities, and an illicit marriage destroyed such reputation for reliability as he may have won. In the words of a contemporary diarist, John Manningham, “Donne is undone; he was lately secretary to the Lord Keeper, and cast off because he would match himself to a gentlewoman against his Lord’s pleasure.”

The romantic thrill of a secret marriage to a teenage bride soon gave way to the everyday realities of genteel poverty, joblessness, a growing family, and sporadic efforts to win the favor and patronage of a number of aristocratic lords and ladies. Pseudo-Martyr was the most elaborate of these efforts, and it succeeded in catching the eye of King James I, to whom it was dedicated. The result, however, was not altogether what Donne had hoped. James, who fancied himself a theologian, was impressed by the wit and learning of the anti-Catholic Catholic polemicist and decided that his best contribution would be to enhance the intellectual credibility of the clergy of the Church of England. Having finally won the favorable attention of the King, Donne found every avenue to preferment blocked except in the Church. After several desperate attempts to secure the patronage of other important men in the realm, Donne finally succumbed and, somewhat reluctantly, took holy orders in the Church of England five years later.

Donne’s situation highlights the anxieties and sufferings overcome by Catholic recusants who remained faithful and by converts during the reigns of Elizabeth and James. We may surmise that any doubts Donne may have still entertained about religion were summarily dismissed by his responsibility to his staunchly Protestant bride and their growing family. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). This is among the hardest of the hard sayings, and Donne’s situation shows us just how gravely and literally it may be intended. The poet’s circumstances were not, however, unique: few of the recusant families enjoyed perfect unanimity, and many were racked by discord. Yet heroes of faith and endurance emerged from these tensions. The poet and martyr St. Robert Southwell, for example, grew up on a prosperous estate acquired by his grandfather through the dissolution of the English monasteries; the sister of a Catholic man who sought to aid Southwell betrayed him to the royal authorities. John Donne’s brother Henry, regarded by Professor Anscombe and many others as a martyr, died of the plague in Newgate, where he had been imprisoned for harboring a Jesuit priest who was himself hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason. Fewer than two decades later, John Donne wrote in disparagement of Catholic martyrdom.

One may wonder if Donne was ever quite comfortable with his change of religion. While it is always dubious to draw specific inferences about a poet’s life from his poems, we may say with certainty that Donne experienced imaginatively at least a fear of not attaining saving grace that required intensely violent imagery for its expression:

Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

In a sonnet written several years after he had taken holy orders in the Church of England, he openly questions the identity of the true church: “Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.” Another late sonnet perhaps sums up the essential Donne as well as any of his poems:

Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one:
Inconstancy unnaturally hath begot
A constant habit; that when I would not
I change in vows and in devotion.

It seems that Donne, along with men like Hooker, Andrewes, and Laud, helped to devise the Anglican via media in order to accommodate his own uncertainties.

When Richard Crashaw came along a generation later, he was initially at ease in that “middle way.” However, his discovery of the works of the great Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Avila, in the late 1630s drew him like a magnet toward the Church that had proclaimed her sanctity. The collapse of the Church of England with the Puritan victory in the civil war of the 1640s drove Crashaw into exile, and in 1646 he was received by the Catholic Church and ordained a priest. It is not true, as some have alleged, that Crashaw only became a Catholic because of the Puritans’ temporary dismantling of the Church of England. His Cambridge colleague and close friend, Joseph Beaumont, who shared Crashaw’s love of liturgical ritual and his devotion to St. Teresa, remained a staunch Anglican till the end of his days. A surviving letter of Crashaw’s to a member of the Anglican religious community, founded by Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding (and celebrated by T.S. Eliot in the last of the Four Quartets) reveals the poet’s anguish and uncertainty about the prospect of conversion to Rome. Even the community at Little Gidding, where Crashaw had visited and had many friends, was firmly anti-Catholic despite being dismissed by Puritans as an “Arminian nunnery.” For Crashaw, becoming a Catholic meant estrangement from his friends and permanent exile from England. Finally, at least one of his poems, a verse epistle to the Countess of Denbigh urging her conversion, evinces the poet’s clear understanding of the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants on the issue of grace.

What deceives critics about the rigor of Crashaw’s understanding is the childlike innocence and joy of much of his most inspired devotional poetry. Although he deploys “metaphysical conceits” in the manner of Donne—witty, striking metaphors involving complex analogies—Crashaw’s tone is radiant and expansive rather than tense and introspective. His celebration of Christmas in the “Hymn in the Holy Nativity” manifests an awareness of the paradox of the Incarnation, but does not forget the Baby:
Proud world, said I; cease your contest
And let the MIGHTY BABE alone.
The Phoenix builds the Phoenix’ nest.
Love’s architecture is his own.
The BABE whose birth embraves this morn,
Built his own bed e’re he was born.

Although Donne’s religious poetry does not fail to acknowledge the role of the Blessed Virgin, one cannot imagine anything in his poetry like Crashaw’s tender depiction of the Virgin and Child:

No no, your King’s not yet to seek
Where to repose his Royal Head.
See see, how soon his new-bloomed Cheek
Twixt mother’s breasts is gone to bed.
Sweet choice, said we! No way but so
Not to lie cold, yet sleep in snow.

Where Donne’s most characteristic religious poems dramatize anxiety about the poetic speaker’s sinfulness and his longing for grace, Crashaw’s trademark theme is self-abandonment to mystical rapture as in this astonishing apostrophe to St. Teresa at the close of “The Flaming Heart”:

O thou undaunted daughter of desires!
By all thy dower of Lights and Fires;
By all the eagle in thee, all the dove;
By all thy lives and deaths of love;
By thy large draughts of intellectual day,
And by thy thirsts of love more large than they;
By all thy brim-filled Bowls of fierce desire
By thy last Morning’s draught of liquid fire;
By the full kingdom of that final kiss
That seized by parting Soul, and sealed thee His;
By all the heavens thou hast in Him
(Fair sister of the Seraphim!)
By all of Him we have in Thee;
Leave nothing of my Self in me.
Let me so read thy life, that I
Unto all life of mine may die.

Merely reading the saint’s autobiography is sufficient inspiration for the poet likewise to throw himself into the arms of Christ.

Richard Crashaw spent his last years in exile on the Continent in very straitened circumstances. He died of a fever on the way to take up his duties as a canon of the Santa Casa at Loreto, reputed to be the house in which the Blessed Virgin was born, transported to Italy by angels. His last poetry, all religious in theme, expresses devotional fervor, firm conviction, and humble assurance of the favor of Christ. For him, death was a longed-for joining with his Savior. At the time of his death, John Donne was the eminent Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, apparently on the short list of candidates for the next vacant bishopric in the Church of England. His final and most famous sermon, Death’s Duel, in which he preached, according to his first biographer, Isaac Walton, his own funeral sermon, is a meditation on the terrors of death. “Make no ill conclusions,” Donne urges, “upon any man’s loathness to die, for the mercies of God work momentarily in minutes, and many times insensibly to bystanders or any other than the party departing.” And of course, he is right: we have neither means nor authorization to judge the spiritual state of another man. We may infer, however, that Crashaw was far more at ease in his conscience than Donne upon departing this world, without presuming to speculate about the eternal destiny of either. Donne is undoubtedly the greater poet, and his intensely dramatic, anxiously fearful religious poetry probably speaks more directly to the spiritual experience of most of us than the paradoxical tranquility of Crashaw’s passionate rapture. Yet one would more readily envy the profound serenity lying behind Crashaw’s poetry than the melancholy anguish that motivated Donne.

R.V. Young is Professor of English at North Carolina State University, and co-founder and co-editor of the John Donne Journal. His most recent book is Doctrine and Devotion in 17th-Century Poetry, which provides detailed discussions of the religious poetry of Donne and Crashaw.

Back to Catholic Dossier March/April 2002 Table of Contents

Back to Catholic Information Center's Periodicals