Image Source: Oil Painting, John Donne (1573-1631), at the age of 49. Anon. British School, 1622. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Twice every Sunday for 16 years from 1615 to 1631 John Donne gave a sermon.
He was unpractised as a public speaker before this time.
Something of a courtier and yet an outsider, who tried but often failed to secure the sinecure he needed to sustain his status.
He only became a priest, when he abandoned hope of other offices, and sought an income.
His religiosity was not in doubt.
But he was a reformed soul, so the biography by John Stubbs labels him.
He was reformed since he converted from Catholicism, if ambivalently.
He was reformed since he gave up the life of a courtly ladies man to marry for love.
He was reformed too since he adopted the religious life late in life, and so anchored his writing in a discipline of communing with his flock.
Before then he was known more as a wit than a poet.
His renown is now for his poetry, especially for “No man is an island.”
Among poets and the religious he is known for his holy sonnets, of which one at least “Death, be not proud” speaks to our immortal fears.
Yet his poetry was passed around as private wit; perhaps only for money did he publish Songs and Sonnets and then with reservations.
It was his sermons for which he was best known.
One sermon that praised the king, the king eagerly sought publication.
These sermons now continue to live in the luminarium, and a vast project of Oxford University Press that seeks to publish again every sermon’s text, restored lovingly from Donne’s own manuscripts. There is even a project that recreates in a digital and virtual world the acoustics and the appearance of Donne giving his lectures at St Paul’s cathedral.
It is his practice, and his discipline that registers most with me.
He spoke with subtlety before romantic confession.
The sermon itself is a genre that I do not know, and which is today perhaps a dead form.
His sermons are offered as bible study, and I barely know a single text from that book.
A sermon begins with a text, and so goes on to draw the lesson that John Donne chose.
His model inspires me to begin essays anew.
Yet can I know in my civil tongue the sounds of his holy words?
They say – the critics – that he was a master of paradox, using it to strip well-known certainties to replace them with deeper faiths.
It was a device he trained in as a young poet, with Renaissance conceit, even though Montaigne knew it as a fencer’s trick.
In the sermons he travelled through his own perplexed spirit, accompanied by learning and wit.
Did his sermons promulgate faith, or did they exhibit doubt?
Today, I can search them by date, occasion, location, audience and source text.
His last sermon was delivered in the beginning of Lent 1631 and was titled Death’s Duel or a consolation to the soule against the dying Life and living death of the body. It was styled his own funeral sermon, delivered a few days before his death, and having been spoken, left the audience the impression that the speaker now had nothing left to do but to die.
His texts themselves escape my comprehension – faith, religion, the Renaissance mind, the biblical texts, the literary references – stand as hurdles for me to know them.
Yet his model urges me on to write my own secular sermons each week.
To secure an office in which the duty is only to speak of the creation of the meaning of the soul in both its eternal search and its daily duties.
No temporary things, but yes polemic and the engagement of all parts of the mind and spirit.
So I commit to secular sermons of the spirit of our times.