Joseph William Perry

Thoughts on John Donne's Writings

The writings of John Donne appeal to me most strongly through my emotions. Although he was very strong intellectually he had a way of communicating that transcends reason, going straight to the heart. In this "Holy Sonnet" he opens his spiritual struggle to us, revealing the war in his soul. He carries us with him in this psalm-like prayer as he escalates the symbolic intensity, culminating in a last couplet as memorable as it is paradoxical.
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,
Labor to'admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd 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.

John Donne, 1633.

Donne's most widely known passage is this meditation upon the sickness and/or the death of a neighbor. I resorted to it for inspiration and exhortation on the Friday following the attack on the World Trade Center. As I watched the memorial service being broadcast from the National Cathedral in Washington the tolling of the bells brought it into my heart.
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. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbours. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did, for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion, or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current money, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell, that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
From "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions", Part XVII, Meditation.

The benediction from his sermon "Death's Duel" went like an arrow to my soul the first time I saw it. Because it came at the end of the last sermon he preached before his final sickness and death, it became the benediction of the message that was his very life. The admonitions contained in it may be graphic and repelling to the ears of some, but to me they invite the hearer to a spiritual reality that is beyond metaphor and simile, beyond intellect and emotion. John Donne invites us into the very Kingdom of God and not only that, he invites us to enter through the door: the Son of God, Jesus Christ crucified.
There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.
Find more of John Donne's poetry and writings at:
Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Copyright © 2003 Joseph Perry, Greyfort Publishing

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