Popery and Poetry

Some years ago I was invited to join a gathering at our church where we would seek to gain further understanding of our Christianity and renew our faith by reviewing the works of the metaphysical poets. I’m not sure whether the incumbent parson saw me as in need of spiritual revelation through poetry or perhaps viewed me as a potential source of conflict and therefore likely to encourage discussion.

Those of you who know me will appreciate that on the first poem – Milton’s Paradise Lost – I had little insight to provide. I have yet to get a grip on Milton… He’s not my style 🙂

Coleridge followed – The Rime of The Ancient Mariner and a poem for which I have much love. The tale of how a single bird’s death holds in its compass the fate of many sailors has a unique ability to chill the soul. I had a small input on this – did the Albatross symbolise the sins of the human race and a guardian that, like Pandora’s box, keeps us safe from our own errors? There were many other thoughts suggested by others present more scholarly than me.

Then, on the third evening, we met John Donne. I love the works of Donne – his poems challenge both the Human condition and what we believe in the spiritual sense. In his day his poetry must have been seen as both confrontational and, simultaneously, inspirational (at least for those who could read). But, and this was my input, it’s important to witness his poetry as that of one who is walking the fine line between belief and treason. It’s fair to say that this assessment of Donne’s work was definitely not what the scholarly souls wanted to hear at our ‘Faith Renewal’ meeting. Sorry all, I misunderstood what we were here for – Mea Culpa 🙂

John Donne

I pointed out that John Donne was born a Catholic into Elizabethan England. A highly dangerous position to be in given the ongoing work of Lord Walsingham and his network of spies that sought to defend the protestant Queen Elizabeth against her Catholic foes, abroad and within the fabric of the English hierarchy, and that his poetry should always be treated with a cautious eye to that driving force. Donne’s poetry often seems, at least to my uneducated intellect, to push forward his ‘Church of England’ credentials in both obvious and subliminal statements. It seems to be a means of showing those who had imprisoned his brother for harbouring a Catholic Priest that he had reviewed his faith and concluded that the Roman Catholic Church was, after all, not the right path of Christian faith – and that he belonged within the English political establishment. He wouldn’t be the first and he certainly wasn’t the last to use a redirection of faith for political safety. After all, his Brother died in Newgate Prison of Bubonic Plague whilst awaiting trial and the Catholic priest he had harboured was hanged and disembowelled – something guaranteed to get Donne’s attention and encourage a swift change of religious conviction!

But who am I to judge? I can choose to be Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim (or any other number of faiths) in the UK today. Perhaps John Donne’s legacy was to open this possibility to the many whilst providing some of the greatest poetry that an Englishman has ever written. Who can forget once read the words of ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ or the divine meditation ‘Death be not Proud’.



  1. one of my favourites from my youth when i loved the anglican high church chapel at the boarding school i attended, glad he survived those dangerous times!

    • Hi Christine – I think we should be glad indeed. I wonder how many others that might have written great works perished for their faith. Interestingly, one of our great composers survived becoming more and more Catholic whilst being very close to the Queen – William Byrd of the Chapel Royal. I have a vision of Walsingham standing in the shadows behind the stage looking like a Crow with head cocked to one side listening for treason in the words of each motet… 😉

      • so funny, but they must have been very scary times, i just read a book on the Cathars, who were persecuted at the time of the Inquisition because they were not Catholic enough

      • I’ve been to the Cathar area of France a few times and love the Languedoc wines Christine – perhaps the Pope wasn’t getting his share of the Corbieres 😉 The Cathars left their mark in their simple church designs and the walled city of Carcassonne (though the current incarnation of the walls is probably nothing like it was in their day!) What book did you read – I must give it a try 🙂

  2. Fascinating, Martin!
    Although I suspect this kind of thing is WAY beyond my pay-grade (what is the keyboard shortcut for that ’embarrassed’ smiley again?)! :$

    • LoL – I guess we’d better have a Teamsters meeting Bob cos my pay grade is also affected 😀 I like to bowl the occasional Curve Ball to see who’s reading. I think some of John Donne’s poetry might give you some artistic ideas (although I believe you’ve got plenty of those already) and don’t tell me you haven’t read any Walt Whitman! 😉

  3. It’s been a very long time since I’ve contemplated Donne’s circumstances or the context of his poetry, but I always read his works with great appreciation. I tend to agree with you on Milton. In college, circa 1970, I enrolled in a metaphysical poetry class naively thinking it was going to be some form of “psychedelic” poetry–flower child style. Imagine my shock when the first class was all about Paradise Lost. I would be willing to examine Donne again in light of what you’ve hypothesized. You have much more knowledge of his life than I do, but I’m now interested in knowing more! Good work here, Martin!

    • Hi Debra – LoL about the Psychadelic poetry… That was wishful thinking 😉 I never went to college – starting work straight from school at the age of 16 – so I missed out on some of the finer points of English Literature. But I did like poetry having been given a basic grounding in the subject by our Welsh English teacher. He introduced me to the likes of W.W.Gibson (Flannan Isle), B.S.Johnson (Song of the Wagondriver), A.E.Houseman (Is My Team Ploughing) and Roger McGough (Icarus Allsorts) 🙂 Since then I’ve always enjoyed some poetry amongst my reading and, as you know, I occasionally write some myself though it’s not particularly brilliant – Old Mr.Evans has a lot to answer for 😉

  4. Not to mention, “Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.” (The beginning is almost as famous: No man is an island…)
    In the Eighties I was poised to embark on a doctoral dissertation on Donne (with whom I was more than a little bit in love at the time). Circumstances interfered, however. The portrait you chose for your post is the young and handsome and jaunty Donne; I’d forgotten about it!
    One thing unique about Donne was his shocking use of intense eroticism and love imagery as part of his sacred poetry. Quite quite different from John Milton — whom, frankly, I couldn’t abide.
    I gather you enjoyed the gathering! And were indeed a great asset to the discussion —

    P.S. You may know this poetic comment from an anonymous non-Milton lover:
    Malt does more than Milton can
    To justify God’s ways to man.

    • Wow Judith – Doctoral dissertations – I’m with Bob (SIG) on this one… that’s way beyond my pay grade 😉 Did you get to complete your dissertation? It must have been a fascinating and enjoyable piece of study.

      I chose that image of Donne because it is the same as the one on the cover of my ‘Complete works’. I understand that he was a bit of a ‘dandy’ as a young man but I suspect his experiences may have aged him somewhat. Even his love life seems to have been a trial of the sort that John Bunyan might have brought to life in prose! He was clearly a man of real conviction who perhaps saw that both the Anglican and Catholic Christian churches worshipped the same god when others around him could not. Sadly, the schism of Henry VIII’s day is still with us – what a shame that more people in this day and age can’t understand what I believe Donne did! Perhaps we wouldn’t have so much trouble in the world if they could 🙂

      • Began and abandoned three dissertations — am now an A.B.D. (All But Dissertation), so common here people know what the initials mean! 😉 It wasn’t for me — I wrote two books instead.

        Interesting your take on Donne as ecumenically minded, something I didn’t see at the time I was studying. Curiously, my own life has become a study in ecumenism as we met and became very close with some of the brothers of the Taize Community (Google will bring it up; it’s widely known in Europe and England). Their mission is reconciliation, and their distinctive services include a great deal of silence and a great deal of music, kind of modern Gregorian chants. You might find it interesting in both aspects. (Or not, of course.)

      • I’m not sure that I was making an Ecumenical assessment, just one of Donne as a human being in a given set of circumstances that were beyond his control. Maybe Ecumenical equates to humanistic? And maybe this was just my dissertation 😉 Debate is about individual views and it’s great to discuss our interpretations of what Donne was feeling / thinking. The only shame is that we can’t ask him!

        We are a mixed faith family – my wife is Roman Catholic and I am Church of England. We have had no real difficulties integrating our beliefs because we also see the fact that the two branches of Christianity represented within our family worship the same god. We now worship at our local CofE church through choice – the best nearest Catholic church is in Golders Green and the Priest at the nearest Catholic church is rude (my Wife’s assessment). Our Church, Holy Trinity, makes all welcome regardless of specific faith. They even accept my belief that Darwin and Einstein are right 😉 A Broad Church 🙂

        Ps – I love a bit of Gregorian chant from time to time (not too often but it is appreciated when I hear it). I also enjoyed the 1980’s band Enigma who used Gregorian chant in some of their ‘club’ work. Don’t forget to listen to some William Byrd Judith (see my reply to Christine above) – such a gateway to a time when Her Majesty’s spies moved at a slower pace and James Bond would have been bored to tears! 😉

        thanks very much for a great discussion 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: