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North and South of the River

north and south of the river

presentation by philip harvey  in the ‘poetry for the soul’ series at the carmelite centre in middle park, on the poetry of william shakespeare and john donne, in june 2012, text presented by philip harvey and poems read by five different voices, including that of the presenter

William Shakespeare (baptised 26 April 1564; died 23 April 1616)
John Donne (between 24 January and 19 June 1572 – 31 March 1631)

[sonnet 116]

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
   If this be error and upon me proved,
   I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

notice the word ‘error’, which at this time was used as a term meaning heresy

this is a time when accusations of ‘error’ were going in all directions, and so understood in this way the sonnet is asking if love itself be heresy

this is a brave jest, for all christians hold to the teaching on love and none would call it ‘error’

and if this is a valid reading of the sonnet, then the poet is drawing attention to the damage caused by heretical conflict by all of those who preach in the name of love

when william shakespeare was born queen elizabeth had been protestant queen of england for six years

he was born into a world that had experienced serious religious change and change again for most of the century

a catholic king who assisted in the writing of a treatise attacking martin luther and was awarded by the pope the title defender of the faith in turn became a protestant king who rejected rome and used the title in his role as head of the new church of england

his heir was a boy king who took protesting protestation protestantism to new levels

he was succeeded by a catholic queen who tried to reinstate catholic roman practice in the kingdom, with sometimes bloody consequences

all of these monarchs tried and executed those who weren't part of their religious worldview

it was very important to know what you believed and everybody had religion, meaning everybody was a christian

catholic and protestant did not mean what they meant in a later time when the divisions had become set

everybody understood catholic practice and belief, which went on whether the monarch gave recognition to the pope, or not

william shakespeare and john donne were born into this world, where catholic protestant and reformed were not neat divisions

to understand their poetry it is necessary to know that queen elizabeth their ruler prayed like a catholic governed like a protestant argued like a reformer and had to keep the full spectrum of religious belief under control, everyone from papists to puritans

what to do, if you are queen elizabeth

[“Fear no more the heat of the sun …”]

Fear no more the heat o' the sun;
Nor the furious winter's rages,
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust.

Fear no more the frown of the great,
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dread thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renowned be thy grave!

shakespeare’s father was a recusant, that is he refused to attend services of the new church of England, as prescribed by law

who killed hamlet’s father?

that shakespeare came from a catholic family in warwickshire means he carried a catholic imagination

but in this respect he is really little different from everyone else in england at the time, educated or uneducated

it is important to appreciate that choosing to be a protestant in england did not mean a wholesale rejection of catholic Christian faith

the only people who did that were the total radicals who became known, disparagingly, as puritans

we meet them in the person of malvolio, in twelfth night

indeed to be a member of the established church of england was to hold to most of the beliefs and practices of catholic faith

what is crucial here is that there were certain things no longer acceptable, one was the authority of the bishop of rome (politics), another was the entrenched cult of the saints, still another was the use of latin only in the worship

the use of english in all worship was a revolution in thinking, which was part of the language revolution in England in which Shakespeare himself played no small acting part

in the church of england the clergy could now marry

was shakespeare a closet catholic?

I think the only honest answer to this is, we don’t know

was shakespeare a closet catholic?

this is not the main question about his spirituality

the question is, where is christianity to be found in shakespeare, and what are we to make of it?

spirituality is not a common renaissance word

it comes from the french esprit

shakespeare, his actors and his audiences would not have understood what was meant by a spiritual life in the way we talk about it, nor was it treated as some special part of your life, e.g. jogging on the beach is part of my spiritual life

virtually all adults except recusants went to church where they would hear about ‘life in the spirit’

‘life in the spirit’ is what saint paul means by staying alive in christ

the elizabethan english knew that this did not mean jogging on the beach

‘life in the spirit’ is “a series of very direct and simple challenges about the kind of humanity we are going to live out” (rowan williams)

paul spells out these fruits of the spirit to the galatian church

the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control

much of shakespeare’s attention in the poetry is taken up with what happens when this way of the spirit is transgressed

[sonnet 129]

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind a dream.
   All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
   To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

just getting into the pace of these words takes us into the midst of the action of his dramas

but interestingly, his dramas no matter how extreme push for resolution, for correction, the poetry itself pushes for some equalising balance that answers the manoeuvring and passions that set the drama in play

manoeuvring and passions, what in the general confession in the anglican book of common prayer are called ‘the devices and desires of our own hearts’, a prayer of cranmer’s that shakespeare would have heard

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control

Shakespeare is highly tuned to the contradictions of virtue and goodness

in twelfth night viola talks of olivia who sat like patience on a monument, smiling at grief
it is lady macbeth who speaks of the milk of human kindness
hamlet says there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

or as the playwright says in all’s well that ends well: “the web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not : and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.”

and yet the reality of the life of the spirit is at work in the drama

mercy, pre-eminently, is an action of supreme value in shakespeare’s world, as we learn from portia in the merchant of Venice

[“the quality of mercy is not strained …”]
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.
rowan williams in a recent lecture asks the question ‘what keeps you human?’ and asks this in the context of the fruits of the spirit

rowan selects four subjects for consideration in answer to this question: self-awareness, stillness and silence, growth, and the overflow of joy


[sonnet 146]

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
These rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
   So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
   And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.

stillness and silence, and here is a speech from prospero that may not at first seem anything but still, yet notice how the whole course of this speech moves toward stillness, out of a need for stillness and silence

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay'd: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex'd;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb'd with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I'll walk,
To still my beating mind.

an exercise worth trying is this: try telling william shakespeare to relax

and yet here in this speech prospero retires to his cell, going back into stillness and silence

the globe here is not only the globe that londoners now knew to be the massive form of our earth, it is the globe theatre, situated on the south side of the river thames, where shakespeare performed most of his plays

when we turn to growth of the person we find in the plays many speeches where the speaker knows they are in a different place than before, due to choice and experience

one grim example is in macbeth

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

but an optimistic discovery of personal growth comes from theseus in a midsummer night’s dream

[“more strange than true …”]

'Tis strange my Theseus, that these
lovers speak of.
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
and here we find that imagination, which it might be thought has set everything upsidedown, in fact is the vehicle of change and growth

what is important is that reconciliation is achieved, which throughout shakespeare is one driving force of the action, sometimes with comic results, sometimes not

and to return to prospero in the tempest, here is his sign-off speech at the end of the play

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

the theatre, globe, rose by any other name, was where the new worlds of imagination came into being

the theatre was where the unconscious awarenesses of its christian audience could have the disputes of the realm, church and state, played out in code through poetry and story

which is why it is breath-taking, the breath of the spirit indeed, that prospero thus closes the tempest

for prospero is saying that in fact the entire illusion of the theatre, and by extension the entire illusion of society that it describes, comes to an end

and that all that either he or anyone has left after that is prayer

and two remarkable words appear when he says that “my ending is despair / unless I be relieved by prayer”

the first word is, once again, mercy

the mercy that is the first request of those going to holy communion, or mass, call it what you will, in churches all over europe

and the second word is indulgence: “let your indulgence set me free”

for even though the indulgence of the audience is a first and final request of medieval actors in a play

indulgences are also one of the prime triggers of the religious division of Europe in the hundred years before the tempest was written, papal indulgences I mean

so that anyone in the audience, catholic, anglican, calvinist, can equally make meaning of these words and recognise themselves in prospero’s place

the tempest was performed in the year of first publication of king james’s bible, 1611

it is possible that the poet john donne saw the tempest

he would certainly have seen many of shakespeare’s plays with shakespeare in them, as he was a regular playgoer

and just as Shakespeare used the trope of the theatre as a signifier of our life, “all the world is a stage”, so donne in one of his sermons says

“The whole frame of the world is the Theatre, and every creature the stage, the medium, the glass in which we may see God.”

and it is quite likely they knew each other, though we have no firsthand proof

the fourth of rowan williams’ signs of what is it that keeps us human: the overflow of joy

when we listen to shakespeare surprise contrast is a constant trick of the trade

conjecture over who is addressed in his sonnets continues to be a game alive with theory

some must be written to his family, anne hathaway his wife and his son hamnet who died at eleven, clearly some of them are addressed to a male, and we are in doubt that a dark lady is on the scene

but in some of the sonnets it is not difficult, given the language games of the period and the manners of speech in poetry, to believe that the lover in sonnet 29 is actually God

[sonnet 29]

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
   For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
   That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

shakespeare is someone who literally knew and wrote for kings, so this is no throwaway claim at the conclusion

but interesting is shakespeare’s shift in just a couple of lines from despair to joyous singing at heaven’s gate itself

while john donne, in one of his sermons, describes the state of being in eternity, the experience after having entered the gate of heaven

“And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darknesse nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and Identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity.”

Father of Heaven, and him, by whom
It, and us for it, and all else, for us
Thou madest, and govern'st ever, come
And re-create mee, now growne ruinous:
My heart is by dejection, clay,
And by selfe-murder, red.
From this red earth, O Father, purge away
All vicious tinctures, that new fashioned
I may rise from death, before I'm dead.

O Sonne of God, who seeing two things,
Sinne, and death crept in, which were never made,
By bearing one, tryed'st with what stings
The other could thy heritage invade;
O be thou nail'd unto my heart,
And crucified againe,
Part not from it, though it from thee would part,
But let it be, by applying so thy paine,
Drown'd in thy blood, and in thy passion slaine.

O Holy Ghost, whose temple I
Am, but of mudde walls, and condensed dust,
And being sacrilegiously
Halfe wasted with youths fires, of pride and lust,
Must with new stormes be weatherbeat;
Double in my heart thy flame,
Which let devout sad teares intend; and let
(Though this glasse lanthorne, flesh, do suffer maime)
Fire, Sacrifice, Priest, Altar be the same.

O Blessed glorious Trinity,
Bones to Philosophy, but milke to faith,
Which, as wise serpents, diversly
Most slipperinesse, yet most entanglings hath,
As you distinguish'd undistinct
By power, love, knowledge bee,
Give mee a such selfe different instinct
Of these; let all mee elemented bee,
Of power, to love, to know, you unnumbred three.

this poem, Father of Heaven, is the first four sections of john donne’s litany

notice ‘red earth’, hebrew for adam, which is what adam means, the person john donne (or us) made from red earth

so in the second verse it is christ who may redeem this red earth

john donne was born eight years after the birth of william shakespeare

his family was also catholic

the poem I have just read could only have been written by a catholic, but by a catholic who is a member of the church of england

his mother elizabeth was a great-niece of sir thomas more, the catholic martyr

it is common to explain the politics of the time as driven by religion and the divide in christianity, about what was regarded as the correct version of christian tradition

john donne’s writing is alive with those arguments

“The church loves the name of Catholique; and it is a glorious, and an harmonious name; Love thou those things wherein she is Catholique, and wherein she is harmonious, that is … Those universal, and fundamental doctrines, which in all Christian ages, and in all Christian Churches, have been agreed by all to be necessary to salvation; and then thou art a true Catholique.”

“Peace in this world, is a precious Earnest, and a fair and lovely Type of the everlasting peace of the world to come; And war in this world, is a shrewd and fearful Emblem of the everlasting discord and tumult, and orment of the world to come: And therefore, our Blessed God, bless us with this external, and this internal, and make that lead us to an eternal peace.”

‘a precious earnest’, by which donne means, the most serious thing we can talk about, peace in this world is the most serious thing that we can be on about

but as well as religion, the politics of the time was also being driven by the ambitions of many nations to conquer the new land discoveries across atlantic and pacific, and to start building empires

the destruction of the armada when shakespeare was 24 and donne was 16 opened up such chances for the english

shakespeare’s last play, the tempest, is located on an island, probably based on descriptions of bermudas in the west indies, where brave new worlds are both physical and imaginative possibilities

and we notice these new worlds often in john donne as well, as for example in the good-morrow

I WONDER by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved ? were we not wean'd till then ?
But suck'd on country pleasures, childishly ?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers' den ?
'Twas so ; but this, all pleasures fancies be ;
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.

And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear ;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone ;
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown ;
Let us possess one world ; each hath one, and is one.

My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest ;
Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west ?
Whatever dies, was not mix'd equally ;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none can slacken, none can die.

london in the period is often described as a hotbed of this and a hotbed of that, but when we read john donne we know what sort of hotbed he is talking about

  BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
        Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?
        Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
        Late school-boys and sour prentices,
    Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
    Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

        Thy beams so reverend, and strong
        Why shouldst thou think ?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long.
        If her eyes have not blinded thine,
        Look, and to-morrow late tell me,
    Whether both th' Indias of spice and mine
    Be where thou left'st them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw'st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, "All here in one bed lay."

        She's all states, and all princes I ;
        Nothing else is ;
Princes do but play us ; compared to this,
All honour's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
        Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
        In that the world's contracted thus ;
    Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
    To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere ;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.

that the intimacy of the world of the lovers is all there is, or needs to be, is itself an assertion of this love as self-sufficient

this expression of the binding ecstasy and pleasure of the lovers is itself both a proclamation and an image of spiritual fulfilment

I wish though to draw attention to some small details of this poem

when donne exults that ‘she is all states, and all princes I, nothing else is.’ it is said in the context of the question to the sun ‘must to thy motions lovers seasons run?’

it is a question that contains its own answer, because indeed the world goes on and the lovers will rejoin the world, this state will pass

after the ecstasy, the laundry

but returning to the motions of the world in general is also part of the spiritual life, one that donne writes of a great deal

I wonder if donne knew jacques’ speech in as you like it where he describes ‘the whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school’ as in this poem we find that the morning sun should ‘chide late school boys, and sowre prentices.’

this is not an idle observation, as both these men were once schoolboys who enjoyed an education in english and generalist knowledge unprecedented in the history of the country, the Elizabethan heritage of learning

and this drive to work with the English language is at the heart of reformation thinking

when we think about donne’s allegiances, it is arresting to notice how the sun may ‘call country ants to harvest offices’

where ‘offices’ may be construed as getting on with the job, but also as the benedictine offices of the church, which a reader of the time would have known had not been practised in their catholic form for over 60 years, but which were translated into the only official public prayerbook, the book of common prayer

it is extraordinary to hear how the lovers’ state is one in which nothing else is, when we know that donne’s career was almost destroyed because of his secret marriage to anne more


CARCE believe my love to be so pure
                As I had thought it was,
                Because it doth endure
Vicissitude, and season, as the grass ;
Methinks I lied all winter, when I swore
My love was infinite, if spring make it more.

But if this medicine, love, which cures all sorrow
    With more, not only be no quintessence,
    But mix'd of all stuffs, vexing soul, or sense,
And of the sun his active vigour borrow,
Love’s not so pure, and abstract as they use
To say, which have no mistress but their Muse ;
But as all else, being elemented too,
Love sometimes would contemplate, sometimes do.

And yet no greater, but more eminent,
                Love by the spring is grown ;
                As in the firmament
Stars by the sun are not enlarged, but shown,
Gentle love deeds, as blossoms on a bough,
From love's awakened root do bud out now.

If, as in water stirr'd more circles be
    Produced by one, love such additions take,
    Those like so many spheres but one heaven make,
For they are all concentric unto thee ;
And though each spring do add to love new heat,
As princes do in times of action get
New taxes, and remit them not in peace,
No winter shall abate this spring’s increase.

john donne and anne more had twelve children, one every year, so we can see why john would eventually have to be accepted as a member of the more family

the mature understanding of love expressed here is earned, and the more so this holy sonnet of donne’s composed in his grief at her death

it is holy sonnet 17: “since she whom I loved …”

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.
Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers offering all thine:
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea, devil put thee out.

in donne’s life and thought is to be found in his hymn, where the pun on his own surname and that of his wife’s signifies both the parting from his former life and the choice to seek forgiveness of sin, so important in his new life


WILT Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
    Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
    And do run still, though still I do deplore?
        When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
                    For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
    Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
    A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
        When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
                    For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
    My last thread, I shall perish on the shore ;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
    Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore ;
        And having done that, Thou hast done ;
                    I fear no more.

as we are aware, England under Elizabeth inherited a reform of religion inspired by the humanism of renaissance thinking

both shakespeare and john donne are of a highly educated generation that were asked in school and church and home to think about the divine, that is questions of ultimate meaning, and the human, what is it to be a human being

one result of the religious settlement, in which the medieval catholicism of rome was effectively made illegal, was that it left men like this with a conundrum

what if both sides are right?

“Beloved, there are some things in which all religions agree; the worship of God, the holiness of life; and therefore, if when I study this holiness of life, and fast, and pray, and submit my self to discreet, and medicinal mortifications, for the subduing of my body, any man will say, this is Papistical, papists do this, it is a blessed Protestation, and no man is less a Protestant, nor the worse a Protestant for making it, men and brethren, I am a Papist, that is, I will fast and pray as much as any Papist, and enable my self for the service of my God, as seriously, a sedulously, as laboriously as any papist. So, if when I startle and am affected at a blasphemous oath, as at a wound upon my Saviour, if when I avoid the conversation of those men, that prophane the Lords day, any other will say to me, this is Puritanical, Puritans do this, it is a blessed Protestation, and no man is the less a Protestant, nor the worse a Protestant for making it, men and brethren, I am a Puritan, that is, I will endeavour to be pure, as my Father in heaven is pure, as far as any Puritan.”

why is donne saying these things? because we must conclude that he knows that in his congregation are every kind of practising christian, including those who would be called papists and those who would be puritans, and everyone in between

he comes close to what we today would call inclusiveness

it is hard now to appreciate how outrageous it was at this time to stand in a pulpit and say “I am a papist”, because papists were persecuted and run underground, but catholics were not

likewise, to say in the one breath that he is a papist and a puritan is a challenge to his congregation, because there are both papists and puritans, and those who would be papists or puritans, all listening to him at the same time

all are being validated, but what is really being validated is christian identity

donne is working through the dilemma, what if both sides are right?

and this is one of the central keys to appreciating Shakespeare: what if both sides are right?

in fact, what do you do if all sides are right? what if there is right on all sides of the dispute? there is not a play of shakespeare’s in which this question is not in our minds somewhere, it drives the action and is at the forefront of motive

if the source of poetry is a wound then what do we make of donne and shakespeare, two men brought up in the social certainty of catholic faith, who then have that certainty removed, officially

they find ways of talking the divine and the human that speak to the reader without breaking the law

in shakespeare’s case, that means using the theatre as a testing ground for arguments about the soul, while for donne it means reconciling difference and asserting what is essential

shakespeare in the globe and the rose theatres on the south side of the river, donne from the pulpit of old st paul’s cathedral, on the north side of the river

shakespeare with his language forever fixed in the dramatic present, attentive to the psychological individualism of his characters, wrapped up in the forces that drive them and the contrariness of human thinking

donne with his language alive to the theatre of speech as enacted, highly sensitive to individual states of being and to psychological connections, driven to say tightly and clearly the truths of God and his creation

both men working with a spectacular range of poetic devices unheard and often unused previously in english

and both men write openly and shockingly for the first time of the taboo subject of suicide, donne in his treatise on the subject called biathanatos and Shakespeare through the fraught character of hamlet

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? 
what is he talking about? is this person just stuck undeciding?
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd.
I mean is he just copping out of further worry? or is he in fact choosing to escape the pain by self-destruction? further on he asks 
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? 
in short order hamlet asks what is the point of all of this, then gives the clearest clue to his thoughts by ending it all in a very messy way indeed with a bare bodkin, i.e. a dagger, and remember it is dangerous to talk publicly in this way about suicide, and would be condemned by the church, then hamlet goes further with this dilemma
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
for heroism and cowardice are troubling factors in any discussion of this situation, while Donne at the same time is reasoning thus on self-destruction
“No law is so primary and simple, but it fore-imagines a reason upon which it was founded: and scarce any reason is so constant, but that circumstances alter it. In which case a private man is Emperor of himself … And he whose conscience well tempered and dispassioned, assures him that the reason of self-preservation ceases in him, may also presume that the law ceases too, and may do that then which otherwise were against that law.”
but both poets take the course requested in deuteronomy, arguably the single most important imperative of the hebrew bible: choose life

donne’s passionate nature is as devoted toward God as it is when younger toward his lover, as we find in holy sonnet 14

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

and this use of metaphor, what they called conceit, is found in many places, here for example in a sermon where the centre of the poet’s universe is no longer just the lover’s bed

“If you carry a line from the Circumference, to the Circumference again, as a Diameter, it passes the Centre, it flows from the Centre, it looks to the Center both ways. God is the Center; the Lines above, and the Lines below, still respect and regard the Center; whether I do any action honest in the sight of men, or any action acceptable to God, whether I do things belonging to this life, or to the next, still I must pass all through the Center, and direct all to the glory of God, and keep my heart right, without variation towards him.”

when john donne enters holy orders he is required to preach in church, and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of his words on the fruits of the spirit as spelled out in galatians

imagine if you will sitting in st paul’s cathedral in London in the 1620s, the old medieval st paul’s before the great fire, listening to lines like these from the dean on how to live a spiritual life

of love he says simply, “all divinity is love or wonder”

and consider this beside his saying “never propose to thyself such a God, as thou wert not bound to imitate”, for if divinity is love or wonder then this is the divinity that here donne says we are bound to imitate

such a God is a long way from a judgemental and retributive God

of joy he preaches:

“The wise-men of the East, by a less light, found a greater, by a Star, they found the Son of glory, Christ Jesus: but by darkness, nothing; by the beams of comfort in this life, we come to the body of the Sun, by the Rivers, to the Ocean, by the cheerfulness of heart here, to the brightness, to the fullness of joy hereafter. For, beloved, Salvation it self being so often presented to us in the names of Glory, and of Joy, we cannot think that the way to that glory is a sordid life affected here, an obscure, a beggarly, a negligent abandoning of all ways of preferment, or riches, or estimation in this world, for the glory of Heaven shines down in these beams hither; neither can men think, that the way to the joys of Heaven, is a joyless severeness, a rigid austerity; for as God loves a cheerful giver, so he loves a cheerful taker, that takes hold of his mercies and his comforts with a cheerful hert, not only without grudging, that they are no more, but without jealousy and suspicion, that they are not so much, or not enough.”

and again further along

“Go cheerfully, and joyfully forward, in the works of your callings. Rejoice in the blessings of God without murmuring, or comparing with others. And establish thy joy so, in an honest, and religious manner of getting, that thy joy may descend to thine heir, as well as to thy land. No land is so well fenced, no house so well furnished, as that, which hath this joy, this testimony of being well gotten.”

of peace

“Peace in this world, is a precious Earnest, and a fair and lovely Type of the everlasting peace of the world to come: And war in this world, is a shrewd and fearful Emblem of the everlasting discord and tumult, and torment of the world to come: And therefore, our Blessed God, bless us with this external,and this internal, and make that lead us to an eternal peace.”

notice ‘precious earnest’, meaning that there is nothing more serious that we have to talk about than the peace from God

“There is nothing good but God, there is nothing but goodness in God.”

“There is nothing good in this life, nothing in the next, without God, that is, without sight and fruition of the face, and presence of God.”

“There is a spiritual fullness in this life … in which the more we eat, the more temperate we are, and the more we drink, the more sober.”

and if this is the way to self-awareness, consider this saying of donne’s: “When a man sees his small sins, there is not so much danger of great.”

and how may this be achieved anyway except through humility, the benedictine virtue taught through the washing of feet at Maundy Thursday, so that here when donne says ‘humiliation’ he is using the word in its Jacobean sense of humilty

“humiliation is the beginning of sanctification; and as without this, without holiness, no man shall see God, though he pore whole nights upon the Bible; so without that, without humility, no man shall hear God speak to his soul, though he hear three two hour sermons every day. But if God bring thee to that humiliation of soul and body here, he will improve and advance thy sanctification … more abundantly, and when he hath brought it to the best perfection, that this life is capable of, he will provide … another manner of abundance in the life to come.”

three two hour sermons every day, that certainly is a lot to sit through for no gain, and just maybe donne is having a go at the more extensive of the puritan preachers in the city

in last week’s age newspaper morag fraser wrote an appreciation of peter steele in which she described the sermons of john donne as ‘hectic’

‘hectic’ is an impression we get from reading donne at leisure, his excitement at building an argument, loading up the information by degrees, or fashioning a new and remarkable saying that sums up an idea

but I doubt if ‘hectic’ is the feeling he would have left with his congregation

when I hear these passages from one of his most famous sermons I am impressed by the slow care with which he prepares his congregation for the main message of the day

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.

As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? but who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? but who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

so to conclude, of the many poems we could hear before question time, I have chosen this one

A Hymn To Christ At The Author's Last Going Into Germany

In what torn ship soever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem of thy Ark;
What sea soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood;
Though thou with clouds of anger do disguise
Thy face, yet through that mask I know those eyes,
Which, though they turn away sometimes,
They never will despise.

I sacrifice this Island unto thee,
And all whom I loved there, and who loved me;
When I have put our seas 'twixt them and me,
Put thou thy sea betwixt my sins and thee.
As the tree's sap doth seek the root below
In winter, in my winter now I go,
Where none but thee, th' Eternal root
Of true Love, I may know.

Nor thou nor thy religion dost control
The amorousness of an harmonious Soul,
But thou wouldst have that love thyself: as thou
Art jealous, Lord, so I am jealous now,
Thou lov'st not, till from loving more, Thou free
My soul: who ever gives, takes liberty:
O, if thou car'st not whom I love
Alas, thou lov'st not me.

Seal then this bill of my Divorce to All,
On whom those fainter beams of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scattered be
On Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.
Churches are best for Prayer, that have least light:
To see God only, I go out of sight:
And to 'scape stormy days, I choose
An Everlasting night.


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