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La Mesure et l'excès

Vehement Poetry: The Literary Sources of John Donne’s Ecclesiastical Via Media

Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise
p. 193-208


Cet article se propose de mettre en lumière les lignes de continuité inattendues qui rattachent les élégies formelles et les satires, rédigées par le jeune poète de coterie, à la définition ultérieure que donnera John Donne de la Via Media de l’Église d’Angleterre. Le poète iconoclaste des premiers temps était attiré par la poésie latine en raison de son esthétique de l’excès. En entrant dans les ordres et en devenant l’un des meilleurs défenseurs de la voie médiane de son Église nationale, Donne ne devait pas pour autant se détourner de ces formes littéraires véhémentes qui l’avaient auparavant inspiré. Au contraire, elles lui ont vraisemblablement fourni parmi ses meilleurs outils rhétoriques et théologiques. Le monde éminemment sexuel, la langue hyperbolique et l’esprit sceptique de la satire et de l’élégie romaines lui ont paradoxalement servi d’instrument pour formuler une conception audacieuse du juste milieu ecclésial, qui dépasse de loin la notion d’un simple point d’équilibre entre deux extrêmes.

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  • 1 Each of the 30 prebendaries of St Paul’s cathedral was responsible for reciting five Psalms daily a (...)

1In his May 8, 1625 Prebend Sermon, John Donne reflects on a verse from the first of the chapters of the Psalms assigned to him as prebendary of Chiswick,1 Ps. 62.9: “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie; to bee laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity.” Like the biblical verse itself, Donne quickly shifts from mere social considerations to a broader discourse on human vanity. He reminds his auditors of the commonly celebrated moral rule of “mediocrity” – a term he uses in its positive sense of “golden mean”:

From our first Themes at Schoole, to our Texts in the pulpit, we continue our praysing and perswading of this mediocrity. A man may have too much of any thing; Anima satura, A full soule will tread hony under his feet; He may take in knowledge till he be ignorant; Let the Prophet Ieremy give the Rule, Stultus factus est omnis homo a scientia, Every man becomes a foole by knowledge, by over-weening, and over-valuing his knowledge; And let Adam be the example of this Rule, His eyes were opened by eating the fruit, and he knew so much, as he was ashamed of it. Let the Apostle be the Physitian, the moderator, Sapere ad sobrietatem, not to dive into secrets and unrevealed mysteries. There is enough of this doctrine involved in the fable, Acteon saw more than he should have seene, and perished, There is abundantly enough expressed in the Oracle of Truth, Vzza was over-zealous in an office that appertained not to him, in assisting the Arke, and suffered for that. (VI, 307)

Though this sermon does not develop, as much as others by the Dean of St Paul’s and prebendary of Chiswick, into a clear defence of the Church of England’s Via Media, understood as the mean between Roman Catholicism and Separatism, Donne does however attack the Roman Catholic Church, with its “rich” and “poor” Orders, as a locus of extremes:

In the Hierarchy of the Roman Church they never thought of this mediocrity; they go very high, and very low, but there is no meane station; I meane no denomination of any Order from meannesse, from mediocrity. In one degree you finde embroidered shooes, for Kings to kisse, and in another degree bare feet; we finde an Order of the Society of Jesus; and that is very high, for, Society implies community, partnership; And wee finde low descents, Minorits, men less than others, and Minims, least of all men; and lower then all them, Nullans, men that call themselves, Nothing; And truly, this Order, best of all others hath answered and justified the name, for very soone, they came to nothing. Wee finde all extreames amongst them, even in their names, but none denominated from this mediocrity. (VI, 308)

2As opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England stands as an institution that does not value such high and low degrees as much as each man’s exact “competency” or vocation. In its rejection of extremes, the first Prebend Sermon strangely echoes one of Donne’s poetical pieces written some years earlier, his love elegy commonly entitled “The Autumnal.” Musing on the mature beauty of the face of a woman commonly accepted to be Lady Magdalene Danvers, the poet expresses his admiration for “this house” “where still evening is; not noon, nor night” and declares that he “hate[s] extremes” (20-21, 45). Interestingly, in the commemoration sermon Donne was to preach later for the same Lady Danvers at her death (1627), Magdalene is described as a model of mediocrity – “Her rule was mediocrity” (VIII, 89) –, that is, an exemplary spiritual figure and an embodiment of the British Church’s own middle ground theology of salvation, as conceived of by Donne:

Shee never diverted towards the Papist, in undervaluing the Scripture; nor towards the Seperatist, in undervaluing the Church. But in the doctrine, and discipline of that Church, in which God seal’d her, to himself, in Baptisme, shee brought up her children, shee assisted her family, she dedicated her soule to God […]. (VIII, 90)

3Donne’s forceful appeal for “mediocrity” or “the mean” seems to be a strain running through his earlier profane, elegiac poetry as well as his later sermons. Yet, looking back at the 1625 Prebend Sermon, and the way in which Donne insists on the term “mediocrity,” making it the pivotal point of the later part of the first quote, one can only be struck by his concomitant taste for rhetorical figures of amplification, such as synonimia, exergasia and correction. The repetitions doubtlessly function as pedagogical tools in a text that was first designed to be listened to – Donne is making sure his point can be heard and understood. However, they may also reflect a deeper turn of mind and perhaps even a distinctive understanding of the Via Media of the Church of England. One may note, in particular, Donne’s recurring use of compound adjectives built on the preposition “over,” in constructions that are reminiscent of the use of the Latin super, to the point where it is no longer the enumeration of the particular excesses being criticized that stands out for the listeners. Instead, the auditors are taken under the sway of a general and subsuming sense of verbal excess. Donne’s sermon denounces extremeness in a rather extreme fashion, by an accumulation of comparatives, superlatives, and a lexis of plentiful if not over-abundant quantity: “too much,” “A full soule,” “over-weening,” “over-valuing,” “so much,” “over-zealous.” These terms are only partially counterbalanced by others denoting a sense of the advocated moderation for which the “apostle,” referred to precisely as “the moderator,” stands. Quite strikingly, two of the three terms that seem to express a sense of balance are quite ambivalent in meaning. They could just as well be listed as referring to the notion of excess – “enough,” and even more so, Donne’s oxymoronic “abundantly enough” (“enough” being simultaneously employed here in the two senses of a “correct quantity of” and “a lot of”). Donne’s sense of measure (the measure of the rhetorical process of illustration and moral exemplum) and his sense of profusion (the paradoxical use of copia in denouncing excess) are ironically made to fuse.

4In his general study of Excess and the Mean in Early Modern Literature, Joshua Scodel, too, seems to have been particularly struck by the ambivalence at work in Donne’s Prebend Sermon as he chooses to open his monograph with another sentence from the same predication, one that comes as a direct sequel to our own first quote: “We may quickly exceed a mediocrity, even in the praise of Mediocrity” (VI, 307). The statement could almost be read as a self-reflexive comment of the preacher on his own art. For Scodel, Donne’s assertion on the dangers of extremeness even in the praise of mediocrity illustrates, rather, the critic’s idea that the “mean-extremes polarity” corresponds to a more complex relation than a mere opposition between the two antithetical notions. He explains that, in the early modern period, “the mean was not only a cultural commonplace but also a source of controversy” (Scodel 1). Scodel uses Donne in the first chapter of his study to show the way in which the poet refashions the classical mean to promote personal freedom. I wish to head in a slightly different direction here, suggesting that the potential for excess Donne finds in classical and especially Roman poetry, helps him to later shape a forceful, energetic understanding of the Via Media, which can be defined in much more hyperbolic and daring terms than a mere state of balanced in-betweenness. When looking at Donne’s career as a whole and remembering his irreverent and erotic poetry as a young coterie poet during his years at the Inns of Court, it is difficult to take his later commendation of the mean and condemnation of excess completely at face value. Of course, one could argue with a long (and now out-dated) critical tradition largely derived from Izaak Walton’s hagiographic biography that there are two Donnes, Jack and John, the coterie poet and the later churchman. What I would like to stress here, however, is not just the forms of continuity in the modes of thought and perception that exist between the earlier and later Donne (a point brilliantly brought out by Robert Ellrodt’s study of Donne), but how Donne’s later theology and specific understanding of the Via Media is perhaps based, in part, on literary structures he found in the poetry of Horace, Ovid and other Roman Poets. Donne’s early taste for elegiac and satirical poetry, or “vehement” poetical modes, reverberates in his later thought and oeuvre. His, I will argue, is a Via Media in which measure and excess are articulated in ingenious ways, making for an ecclesiastical institution that is at once “politically” efficient, adaptable, and welcoming in the image of God’s grace.

Jack Donne and the Forms of Roman Poetry

5The 1590s witnessed an explosion of new literary forms and the disintegration (or at least the transformation) of the Petrarchan model which had conveniently connected for the Christian poet the love for an unattainable lady to a quest for higher, divine forms of beauty. As a resident at the Inns of Court in the 1590s, Donne belonged to a generation of young, provocative poets who sought to upset commonly received ideas on poetical suitability (both formally and contents-wise) and the hierarchy of genres. They looked towards a “new” set of models from Ancient and especially Roman literature, or rather, by reading them and imitating them in fresh ways. Francis Davison’s efforts to get copies of “Satyres, Elegies, Epigrams, &c. by John Don” for publication in his 1602 anthology of poetry, A Poetical Rhapsody (Marotti 16), shows that Donne, the young poet, was best known by his contemporaries, even beyond the immediate circle where he circulated his works, as the author of these typically “Roman” forms rather than of his now more commonly read lyric poems. My interest here will be for his formal satires and elegies. Why should Donne, along with other poets of his generation, have shown a particular taste for these two forms? Can they be called, as I have suggested in my title, examples of “vehement” poetry? And how do they paradoxically relate later on to Donne’s conception of the Via Media?

  • 2 This loss of a foot in the second line had been elegantly dramatized by Ovid himself in his first l (...)

6English theorists of the generation preceding Donne’s have little to say on these two forms of poetry. In looking back to ancient Greek and Roman models, both Philip Sidney and George Puttenham focus on the traditional hierarchy of poetical genres: first come the Heroick, Tragic, Comic and Lyrick, and then the more minor Satiric, Elegiac, and Epigrammatic (Puttenham 20). Puttenham looks down on satire, which he deems less effective in its reproving of vice than comedy and tragedy. He reduces satire to the primitive, “rusticall and naked Sylvanes” (27), a rough dramatic form that precedes the existence of the theatre and that was uttered “in hallow places within the woods” (28). As for Sidney, he says near to nothing on satire, which he defines in a few, less biased words as the form used by the ancients to laugh at the folly of men in general as well as at oneself (27). At first sight, the two definitions of elegy appear to have little in common. Puttenham, focusing only on the technical, metrical definition of the elegy, explains that it is written in couplets made up of a heroic hexameter followed by a shorter pentameter: it is “a piteous manner of meetre, placing a limping Pentameter after a lusty Exameter, which made it go dolourously more then any other meeter” (39).2 It was thus particularly well suited to the purposes of Roman poets “who sought the fauors of faire ladies, and coueted to bemone their estates at large, & the perplexities of love” (20). Sidney, voicing rather the moral aim of poetry, succinctly defines elegiac poetry as that “which in a kind heart would move rather pity than blame, who bewaileth with the great philosopher Heraclitus the weakness of mankind, the wretchedness of the world” as well as the “passions of wofulness” (27) and “the want of his mistress” (37). In Sidney’s definition, we interestingly find an inkling of how satire and elegy may be related. They are both forms of reproving, though the first makes you laugh and the second cry. Technically speaking, the elegy is a form apparently characterized by the lack of a measure or foot rather than excess. However, as Horace – who was in fact being critical of the form – explains in his Ars Poetica, the imbalance created by the missing measure in turn becomes a mode of resolution: the hexameter allows for the expression of a complaint and the following pentameter for the (wishful) fulfilment of desire (Clark 2).

7Donne and the poets of his generation seeking to disrupt Petrarchan codes and looking for new forms to emulate proceeded to fresher and more alert readings of Roman elegies and satires than Sidney and Puttenham had before them. These two forms, however unrelated at first sight, soon became extremely fashionable in the growing, competitive literary milieu of London in the 1590s. Satires in the Horatian pedestrian mode had already been in practice for some time (as by Wyatt, for instance), reproducing in their mode of social criticism the Latin poet’s auras mediocritas, that is his “stylistic middle course under the high flight of epic but above the low vulgarity of comedy” (Kneidel 125). In the 1590s, however, in a context of heightened rivalry within the educated elite, of uncertainty concerning the end of Queen Elizabeth’s rule, of fragmentation of England’s religious culture, and of the re-emergence of classical scepticism calling into question the claims of Humanism (Kneidel 126), Donne and his contemporaries chose to turn instead towards the satirical art of Juvenal and Persius. These young, ambitious and iconoclastic authors of the very end of the century were attracted to Juvenal for the distinctive, savage indignation of his early satires and his later ironic detachment. Persius appealed to them for his moral preaching as well as his cramped, obscure style (a trait Dryden was later to criticize when translating Persius). The turn to Ovidian amatory, erotic elegy is simultaneous with this new practice of a rougher art of satire. Though Ovid is often perceived as the author of a “gentle” poetry of love to be contrasted with the celebration of war, the eroticism and self-reflexive quality of his Amores make for a cynical art of love that was shocking to Donne’s contemporaries and, when imitated, became a form of criticism of standard views on love, marriage, and Christian chastity. Thomas Campion claimed to be the first Englishman to publish a collection of amatory elegies in his 1595 Elegiarum Liber. Marlowe, for his part, was the first author to translate Ovid’s Amores into English early in the 1590s. His translation was published in 1599 in two versions: first Certain of Ovid’s Elegies appeared, followed the same year by All of Ovid’s Elegies. The initial selection was appended to Sir John Davies Epigrammes, which could be read as a sort of moral frame to the elegies. Stapleton notes that Ovid / Marlowe’s speaker comes to embody or bring to life the moral defects previously thrown into relief in the volume by Davies’s epigrams (143). This first edition was censored and burned, proving how licentious Ovidian elegies were taken to be, especially when written by such a man as Marlowe and affixed to mordant epigrams revealing the shamelessness of the elegiac persona or desultor amoris.

8Turning more specifically to Donne’s poetry in the 1590s, we see that both elegy and satire become tools for expressing cynical, sceptical views on society or love as articulated through modes of poetic excess. Donne finds in the looseness of satire the appropriate form to vent his anxieties about entering or not entering professional service, his disappointment with Elizabeth’s government, and his disenchantment with religious dissention. He builds on the model of the dactylic hexameter line “hijacked from its epic features” (Kneidel 125), adapting it to the English pentameter. His satires are made to limp and stumble with abrupt transitions, disjointed dialogue, compressed and distorted syntax, exotic, obscure or vulgar word choice. Some of his enjambments even split words in two, as in his third satire: “As women do in divers countries go / In divers habits, yet are still one kind, / So doth, so is religion; and this blind- / ness too much light breeds” (66-69). In his elegies, he resorts to excess and lack of measure to cynically explore a variety of attitudes toward disillusioned or disappointed love – hardly ever to work towards the fulfilment of a wish. Here too, the lines move on limpingly and jaggedly, hesitating between the rhythm of poetry and colloquial prose. The reader is made to stutter over apparently regular iambic pentameters because of the accumulation of harsh-sounding phonemes, as is the case in the sixth and seventh lines of “Jealousy”: “The nimblest crocheting musician / Ready with loathsome vomiting to spew.”

9Both elegy and satire become with Donne forms of vigorous expression. His vehemence materializes in many ways. One may note, for instance, the poet’s distinctive use of compound adjectives built this time on the prefix “out” in Satire 2, a diatribe against Coscus, an unskilled poet who has turned into a despicable lawyer. In lines 30-33, the speaker of the satire criticizes the menial work of copyists in relation to his own poetry, reaching out beyond his attack of the sole Coscus’s “insolence” and forewarning his readers against the temptation of textual piracy:

For if one eat my meat, though it be known
The meat was mine, th’excrement is his own.
But these do me no harm, nor they which use
To outdo dildoes, and out-usure Jews;
To out-drink the sea, to outswear the Litany. (29-33)

10The excess that is inherent to the construction of compound adjectives is furthered by the choice of vulgar, scatological or sexual vocabulary (“excrement,” “dildoes”) and the violence of common, early modern anti-Semitic attitudes. Another example could be Donne’s taste for images of swollenness – social, physiological, and sexual – which run through the elegies: the deceiving, swelling lips of the mistress on which lovers will anchor in “Love’s Progress”; the “swollen sins” of the man who finds and keeps the bracelet the speaker had given his mistress and which, so the speaker hopes, will lead the “thief” to damnation in “The Bracelet”; the mistress’s husband in “Jealousy,” swollen with pride and whom the speaker wishes instead swollen with poison; the swollen belly of the speaker’s mistress which might arouse the suspicion of her parents in “The Perfume.” In his elegies and satires, Donne is very free and innovative in his use of metrics, syntax, tone and image. Such unrestrained poetry quite logically seems to serve the purpose of a new form of personal freedom, as evidenced by Joshua Scodel’s study. But it is also paradoxically linked to the never-ending task of weighing things up, a characteristic feature of a sceptical attitude.

The Mean and Vehement Religious Scepticism

11A fair amount of criticism has been devoted to Donne’s early religious scepticism as overtly expressed in his third satire where he depicts various religious attitudes in the guise of a series of lovers seeking in erroneous ways for their mistress “faire” or “true religion”:

Seek true religion. O where? Mirreus,
Thinking her unhous’d here, and fled from us,
Seeks her at Rome; there, because he doth know
That she was there a thousand years ago,
He loves her rags so, as we here obey
The statecloth where the Prince sate yesterday.
Crants to such brave loves will not be enthrall’d,
But loves her only, who at Geneva is call’d
Religion, plain, simple, sullen, young,
Contemptuous, yet unhandsome; as among
Lecherous humours, there is one that judges
No wenches wholesome, but coarse country drudges.
Graius stays still at home here, and because
Some preachers, vile ambitious bawds, and laws
Still new like fashions, bid him think that she
Which dwells with us is only perfect, he
Embraceth her whom his godfathers will
Tender to him, being tender, as wards still
Take such wives as their guardians offer, or
Pay values. Careless Phrygius doth abhor
All, because all cannot be good, as one
Knowing some women whores, dares marry none.
Gracchus loves all as one […]. (43-65)

12In his satirical portraiture of Mirreus, Crants, Graius, Phrygius and Gracchus, Donne dismisses not only the extremes of Roman Catholicism (a faith he had probably only just relinquished) and radical Calvinism, of atheism and religious relativism, but also the excessive or conceited faith of a number of members of the Church of England that are led to believe that “she / Which dwells with us is only perfect.” Donne thus includes as one of his targets England’s national Church and its vain belief in its own “perfect” “mediocrity.” All of the religious stances under criticism are described in terms of the dubious, corrupt sexual attitudes to be found in what could be called the satire’s oversexed world. Throughout, Donne uses this same “inordinateness in […] manner,” this same “vehemence” he attributed to Job’s way of speaking in his 1630 Lenten sermon. In the end, the wise doubts of scepticism and infinite, never-ending self-enquiry are opposed to the blind certainties of religious extremes as well as to the illusory beliefs in a “perfect” middle way:

To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so;
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night. (76-84)

13Though the third satire has been commonly analysed as addressing the question of religious extremism, critics have less often noted the way in which Donne in fact prepares for this defence of the mean understood more sceptically as the individual’s freedom of thought and speech already at the end of his second satire. At the beginning of Satire 2, the satirist ironically rejoices when considering the excessive faults of Coscus because these make the poetasters’ blemishes small in comparison. At the end of his satire, the poet launches his final attack on the greedy Coscus who has become a lawyer only to accumulate riches:

Where are those spread woods which clothed heretofore
Those bought lands? not built, not burnt within door.
Where’s th’old landlord’s troops, and alms? In great halls
Carthusian fasts, and fulsome bacchanals
Equally I hate; means bless, in rich men’s homes
I bid kill some beasts, but no hecatombs,
None starve, none surfeit so; but oh we allow,
Good works as good, but out of fashion new,
Like old rich wardrobes; but my words none draws
Within the vast reach of the huge statute laws. (103-12)

14The conclusion to this satire is equivocal. Donne plays on the double definition of “means” (107) as financial wealth and as the mean, suggesting at once that riches are a blessing only when properly used and that temperance is always preferable to the excessive attitudes of abstemiousness and surfeit. And yet, he finishes off his lampoon by reasserting his unbounded freedom of speech. However, this confident stance may also be undermined in part by a more sceptical suggestion: though Donne’s attack is virulent and his own free words eschew law, they are never themselves endowed with the force of law. The conclusion of the poem can be read as the work of a Catholic-bred author, criticizing the state’s confiscation of Church property, depriving old landlords (or simply Catholics) of a social (or theological) system founded on the theological virtue of charity. “Good works” becomes an “outdated” notion, as would a piece of clothing. Though the country has changed faiths as one changes clothes, Donne may be suggesting, in the end, that he, at least, has not lost his freedom of speech and consciousness whatever direction the Church of England may go, and however little power he may have over his country’s laws. He, modestly – however forcefully – opens a space for his own action, defined in accordance to his personal conscience.

15Though Donne’s use of religious imagery in his elegies, as in much of his lyric, amatory poetry, is well-documented, less critical attention has been devoted to the ways in which the elegies may in effect also address questions of religious toleration and freedom of thought or belief. R. V. Young has brought to light a number of interesting allusions in the early elegies to Roman Catholic ritual and persecution of Catholic recusants in the 1580s and 1590s. He suggests, for example, that the scent that finally betrays the secret lover to his mistress’s parents in “The Perfume” may be linked to the use of incense in the Catholic liturgy. The mother’s quest on her daughter’s body for the marks of a secret sexual relationship are construed as marks of secret Catholic worship and masses in great houses. Similarly, the arrogant adulterous persona of “Jealousy,” who recommends to his mistress that they elude her husband’s suspicions by going into “exile” from his “house,” is reminiscent of Catholic recusants’ and Protestant dissidents’ attitudes in the face of religious persecution: “There we will scorn his household policies, / His silly plots, and pensionary spies, / As the inhabitants of Thames’ right side / Do London’s Mayor; or Germans, the Pope’s pride” (30-34). It seems then that Donne would be using the vehement and oversexed language of the erotic elegy, just as that of the satire, to question both extreme religious attitudes and the tyrannical imposition of the British Church’s rule of “Mediocrity” on these minorities. As is apparent in the first Prebend Sermon, the Church should instead act in good conscience, as all individual persons do. Donne seems to extend the principle of self-scrutiny to the ecclesiastical institution, reminding his own flock that “[w]e may exceed a mediocrity, even in the praise of Mediocrity” and warns against forms of “imagined mediocrity” which “induc[e] a confidence in ourselves” and that amount to nothing else but “a lye” (VI, 308).

Donne’s Forceful and Imperfect Via Media

16In a sermon preached at Whitehall on April 1, 1627 before Charles I, and in which Donne intended to speak up for the king even though his attempt backfired because of allusions to Henrietta Maria’s Catholicism, Donne may be understood to have relinquished much of the freedom of conscience he had advocated earlier on in his vehement poems of religious scepticism. He warns his audience against libel in these days of religious tension: “Doe not thou pronounce, that whatsoever thou dislikest, cannot consist with a good conscience; never make thy private conscience the rule of publique actions; for to constitute a Rectitude, or an Obliquity in any public action, there enter more circumstances, then can have fallen in thy knowledge” (VII, 408). Donne does not dismiss individual conscience altogether, but by separating it from the field of “public action” he seems to be considerably limiting its scope. However, Charles and Laud’s dislike of the sermon may itself hint at the fact that Donne was not voicing a conviction which was entirely removed from his earlier praise of freedom of conscience.

17In many of his sermons, Donne continues to defend his Church’s Via Media in ways that accommodate personal freedom as well as individual blemishes. In his 1626/7 Candlemas sermon preached on Matthew 5.8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” he speaks out against extreme, and therefore false, ideas of purity. Once more, the satirical vein of the sermon is directed against Separatists and Roman Catholics to whom he gives the more cryptic names, reminiscent of primitive “puritan” sects, of the “Catharists,” “Cathari,” and “Super-cathari.” In the coining of the latter name, which Donne attributes to members of the “Romane Church, that think these men as pure, as Saints, who are in possession of the sight of God in heaven” (VII, 334), that is to say the followers of Neri, we see the characteristic use of the Latin prefix “super” crop up again. As opposed to all “illusory purities,” those of the Catharists “that think no things pure,” those of the Cathari “that think no men pure but themselves,” and of the “Super-cathari,” the Dean of St Paul’s proposes that “there is a true purity, which will not serve our turns, which is a partiall purity.” In the rhetorical design of his sermon, Donne demonstrates once again his ability to combine the vehement language of satire and polemical literature with a form of scepticism that could this time be labelled “Christian scepticism.” This art culminates in the oxymoronic idea that “true” purity becomes synonymous, not with the expected “absolute” purity, but instead with “partiall” purity. Partial purity can be understood as the modest virtue of the members of the Church of England, who are called upon to constantly strive to look within their own consciences. However partial its purity, the Church to which Donne belongs is no less beautiful. On the contrary her purity of heart and conscience turns her into “the fairest amongst women.” Yet, this beauty is not to be mistaken for that of a heavenly state:

[A]s S. Bernard notes, when the Church is highest extolled for her Beauty, yet it is but Pulcherrima inter murieles, The fairest amongst women, that is, saies he, Inter animas terrenas, non autem inter Angelicas beatitudines, She is not compared with her owne state in Heaven, she shall have a better state in that State, then she hath here […] (VII, 340-41)

18The subtlety of Donne’s rhetorics here rests upon the combination of the superlative “fairest” and the limitation: “but […] amongst women.” This partially, and therefore truly, pure as well as fair British Church is also the subject of one of Donne’s later Holy Sonnets, written contrary to most of his Divine Meditations, after he had entered orders. In “Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse,” Donne quite logically uses the Petrarchan form – he had elsewhere sought to debunk – and some of its codes for its congeniality with Christian understandings of love. However, he simultaneously imports in his piece the Ovidian licence and vehemence of some of his earlier elegies and the satirical strain that had served his former religious scepticism:

Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What, is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray kind husband thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true, and pleasing to thee, then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

  • 3 “Love’s Progress,” considered as one of the most licentious of all of Donne’s elegies, was not publ (...)

19The end of the sonnet brings together the measure of Donne’s Via Media with Christ’s “mild dove” and the positive excesses of a Church that is implicitly compared to a very free mistress, “open to most men.” This extreme openness, I believe, echoes some of Donne’s most licentious elegies, those very pieces that remained censored for several decades out of fear, perhaps, that they would tarnish the hagiographic posthumous portraits of John Donne, such as “Love’s Progress.”3 In this erotic elegy the poet describes the movement of his hand and gaze running down from his mistress’s head and then up from her feet, searching her map-like body not for one or seven hills, but for this “desired place,” which is also “the centric part”:

Although we see celestial bodies move
Above the earth, the earth we till and love:
So we her airs contemplate, words and heart,
And virtues; but we love the centric part. (33-36)

20In “Love’s Progress” as in his sonnet, Donne warns against Petrarchan and Christian misleading understandings of purity, calling lovers to look beneath the surface of a woman’s virtues to the woman herself:

They love them for that, by which they’are not they?
Makes virtue woman? Must I cool my blood
Till I both be, and find one, wise and good?
May barren angels love so. But if we
Make love to woman, virtue is not she,
As beauty’s not, nor wealth. He that strays thus
From her to hers, is more adulterous
Than if he took her maid. (20-27)

21However far removed the elegy may seem from the great preacher’s later praise of the Via Media of the Church of England, his fervent quest for the “centric part” of his mistress contributes to enlighten our understanding of what the ecclesiastical mean was to Donne. His definition of the Church’s middle way as a tolerant, “centric,” but also superlative space, “open to most men” – that is to say a space inclusive of all those who do not exclude themselves by a pretence to illusory forms of purity – may well have been in part inspired to him by the combination of eccentric licence and scepticism he found at work in Roman Latin elegies and satires. When superimposed, the openness and imperfection of the mistress of “Love’s Progress,” as well as those of Christ’s spouse in the later sonnet, offer a striking image of the Church as an institution able to mirror the specific modes in which God’s grace operates, accommodating the blemishes of the pure of heart, their all too human beauty, and therefore extending to the greatest number. Donne’s Via Media is not one of a tame in-betweenness, it is one that forcefully expands the boundaries of the “centric part,” described in the elegy as no less “infinite” than the soul.

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Primary Sources

Donne, John. Sermons of John Donne. Ed. George Potter and Evelyn Simpson. 10 vols. Berkeley CA: U of California P, 1953-62.

Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A. J. Smith. 1971. London: Penguin, 1996.

Ovid. All Ouids Elegies 3. Bookes. By C. M. Epigrams by I. D. London, 1602.

Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. [1569]. Scolar Press facsimile of 1st ed. Menston: Scolar Press, 1968.

Sidney, Sir Philip. The Defense of Poesy, Otherwise Known as An Apology for Poetry. 1595. Boston: Ginn, 1890.

Secondary Sources

Clark, Mark Edward. “Horace’s Ars Poetica 75-78: The Origin and Worth of Elegy.” The Classical World 77.1 (1983): 1-5.

Ellrodt, Robert. Seven Metaphysical Poets. A Structural Study of the Unchanging Self. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.

Kneidel, Gregory. “The Formal Verse Satire.” The Oxford Handbook of John Donne. Ed. Jeanne Shami et al. Oxford: OUP, 2011.

Marotti, Arthur F. John Donne, Coterie Poet. Madison WI: U of Wisconsin P, 1986.

Stapleton, M. L. “Marlowe’s First Ovid: Certaine of Ovids Elegies.” Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman: Lives, Stage, and Page. Ed. Sarah K. Scott and M. L. Stapleton. Burlington: Ashgate, 2010. 137-48.

Scodel, Joshua. Excess and the Mean in Early Modern Literature. Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 2002.

Young, R. V. “The Elegy.” The Oxford Handbook of John Donne. Ed. Jeanne Shami et al. Oxford: OUP, 2011.

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1 Each of the 30 prebendaries of St Paul’s cathedral was responsible for reciting five Psalms daily and making them special subjects of meditation. John Donne was granted the prebend of Chiswick in August 1622, nine months after being elected Dean of St Paul’s. His were Ps. 62 to 66, both included.

2 This loss of a foot in the second line had been elegantly dramatized by Ovid himself in his first love Elegy: “With Muse upreard I meane to sing of armes, / Choosing a subject fit for feirce alarmes. / Both verses were alike till love (men say) / Began to smile and take one foot away” (I.1, f. E2).

3 “Love’s Progress,” considered as one of the most licentious of all of Donne’s elegies, was not published in a collection of Donne’s poetry until 1669. It was first printed in a miscellany, The Harmony of the Muses: or, The Gentlemans and Ladies Choicest Recreation, in 1654.

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Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise, « Vehement Poetry: The Literary Sources of John Donne’s Ecclesiastical Via Media »XVII-XVIII, 71 | 2014, 193-208.

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Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise, « Vehement Poetry: The Literary Sources of John Donne’s Ecclesiastical Via Media »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 71 | 2014, mis en ligne le 17 mai 2016, consulté le 22 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Anne-Marie Miller-Blaise

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3

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