Thursday, 6 September 2012

One Equal Light (John Donne)


John Donne

Published in The Melbourne Anglican, 2004
One Equall Light : an anthology of the writings of John Donne, compiled
and edited and with introductory essays by John Moses. Foreword by Rowan
Williams. Canterbury Press, 2003. 1-85311- 540-1 RRP $74.95
 
Review by Philip Harvey
 
The rediscovery of John Donne in the 20th century reminds us that his
reputation for nearly three hundred years was almost non-existent; Dr
Johnson dismissed his poetry in a sentence. Donne's powerful imaginative
compression and meaningful wordplay have ensured his name as one of the
greatest English poets, ‘The Sunne Rising' and ‘The Good-Morrow' amongst
his indispensible gifts to modern consciousness.
 
Donne's name has become synonymous with the sacred and the profane, a
line he would have questioned himself. Yet it remains true that the
general reader knows the love poetry best and has not ventured much
beyond the Holy Sonnets. This collection helps restore Donne's spiritual
and theological imagination to centre-stage; of the nearly one thousand
entries, 800 are from the sermons. The present Dean of St Paul's London
has listened closely to a former Dean of St Paul's. The resulting
extracts from Donne's vast output make up the best systematic collection
one could hope for. John Moses has divided the anthology not into
Profane and Sacred, but two more helpful headings: Humanity and
Divinity.
 
Sermons themselves are not common reading these days, and Jacobean
sermons perhaps less so. Moses helps us by drawing from these prose
marvels, passages or single lines with the power to
arrest us with their artistry, insight, and brilliant originality. There
are unexpected and fascinating concentrations of thought. Consider this
one line summation of Revelation: "Prophecy is but antidated Gospell,
and Gospell but postdated Prophecy." His evangelical agenda is heard
forcefully: "We must preach in the Mountaine, and preach in the plaine
too; preach to the learned, and preach to the simple too; preach to the
Court, and preach to the Country too." The centrality of sacraments is
put with equal meaning: "The sacraments exhibit and convey grace; and
grace is such a light, such a torch, such a beacon, as where it is, it
is easily seen ... whosoever receives this sacrament worthily, sees
evidently an entrance, and a growth of grace in himself." The
seriousness of his position is summarised in this climactic simile:
"They are a powerful thunder, and lightning, that go together: Preaching
is the thunder, that clears the air, disperses all clouds of ignorance;
and then the Sacrament is the lightning, the glorious light, and
presence of Christ Jesus himself." It's no wonder that Donne's star rose
again in an age needful of concision, playfulness and contrast in its
language. Many passages here could be used again in sermons, or as forms
of prayer and meditation.
 
One conclusion we reach from reading this book is that Donne's
congregations were not only intelligent and educated lay theologians,
they held what their Dean said in common. Part of the enjoyment of his
poems is their knowing delivery of unusual, even outlandish, analogies
and ideas in direct speech. Donne's diction is instantly understood,
even if the content is complex. This poetic gift is brought to the
pulpit with results that must have been electrifying to hear. For Donne,
the sermon is such an essential part of community life that he asserts
confidently, "Good life it self is but a commentary, an exposition upon
our preaching." How many clergy could say that today without hesitation?
And it doesn't stop there. "A good hearer becomes a good Preacher, that
is, able to edifie others." Throughout though, Donne shows himself to be
a true heir of English Christianity: Word and Sacrament are inseparable.
This is theology written in the native tongue, one generation after the
Elizabethan Reformation took effect. Donne's world is one fraught with
the knowledge of sin, and where his belief in a forgiving God is
everywhere proclaimed. Credal cogency meets imaginative daring, with
results that are striking when they are not stunning.  Most of the
quotes will be new to anyone who has not read the ten volumes of
sermons. As a means of discovering the John Donne you only half knew,
this collection is ideal.
 
John Moses has written a superb introduction. He is sensitive to the
aphoristic and dramatic intentions of Donne's writing, his sensational
extended metaphors and ranging vocabulary. Moses has also taken the
unusual step of eliding titles and citations from the main text, all
references kept till the end. Thus the Dean's spoken voice, his
rivetting personality, come directly to us. There is a seamless quality,
as we follow the strengths and variances of his mind. He is never less
than different, which makes him an enjoyable challenge at a time when
doctrine is often expressed in platitudes and religion is made to sound
like an added extra.
 
Asked to name the person with the most lasting effect on her own work,
the poet Gwen Harwood was unequivocal: "John Donne: I find him
inexhaustible after a lifetime of delighted reading. He has what Newman
called ‘The carelessness of genius'. It has always done me good to read
him and experience the original form of his language."  Anyone in
possession of this volume will soon learn what Harwood was talking
about.
 
 


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