In the seventeenth century, the poet’s reliance on patrons and favour at the court of the newly crowned James was paramount to achieving advancement. For Donne, born to an ironmonger and raised by a physician, his placement in any prominent position in the rising form of metaphysical poetry would have to rely not only on his talent, but in associating with equally prominent patrons, and appeasing the dictats of King James’ court.
Despite the radical lengths to which Donne was prepared to go in order to satisfy the terms of his patronage, his conversion and subsequent ecclesiastical career in the Church of England, I believe that the mechanical and strict religious tone set down in James’ own poetry did not force Donne to limit the breadth of his work. Certainly the poetry that Donne produce was designed to appeal to the audience at court, the holy sonnets written mostly during the course of his absence from society, but there appears to be more to it than mere talented sycophancy.
Donne’s religious poetry often contains elements of monologue directed at God, and whilst this often fulfilled James’ requirements, it has such a close correlation with Donne’s life, and is performed in such a bold and innovative style, that it prevents us from dismissing his the work as blatant conformism. Donne was obviously aware of the importance of acquiring patronage, since his upbringing forestalled direct introductions at court, and his work with Essex in The Azores led to his position as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton.
Following his illicit marriage to Egerton’s niece, Anne More, Donne was left without a powerful ally at court to defend him. It is not until after the marriage was accepted and he was instilled in the house of his friend Francis Wooley, that the possibility of a return to court arrived. It is between 1607 and 1609 that we assume Donne penned most of his Holy Sonnets, written in letters to possible patrons such as Mrs Herbert and the Earl of D, a reference to either Doncaster or Dorset, in an effort to restore his social standing in light of the harsh condemnation that he had received.
For this audience then, were the sonnets primarily written, a collection of influential persons at court, but also in the case of Mrs Herbert, an excellent friend of his father-in-law. As such, there is a strong case for taking them as conciliatory texts in order to restore the faith that Egerton, subsequently Lord Ellesmere, had initially shown in Donne.
If those people to whom the poems were directed were able to completely reverse his fortunes, then it is possible that there is no more to the poems than a simple desire to show both repentance and a hope for absolution in the eyes of those close to the King. Of course there are many critics that would argue on each side, for Donne as a radical, and as an impressive conformist. I would say that through the necessity of conformism that was imposed upon him, he was able to bring out his acts of rebellion.
That the strictures enforced in the nature of his poetry were the tools used as an expression of his dissatisfaction and his despair at the choices he made. Take line three of the sonnet; “But black sin hath betrayed to endless night/My world’s both parts”. This acknowledgement of sin is graphic when placed in a supposed religious poem, and could be taken as a sign of repentance from his Catholic upbringing, thus favouring the righteous nature of King James’ court.
Alternatively it could easily be seen as a symbol of his penance to God for having converted from his original faith, as he was compelled to. As such, the audience’s significance is severely reduced, possibly to the point of ridicule, as it is their mistake to overhear the private conversation of between the poet and his God. Or course these poems were designed to be read or performed, so any such intrusion is necessary, yet the force of Donne’s language and tone in these religious poems is a indicator of the emotions implied.
Such vehement term as “Drown my world with weeping earnestly”, “But O, it must be burned”, are clear indications of strong and ardently expressed religious fervour, yet as to which ecclesiastical misdemeanour they are attributed, we are left in some doubt. This divide between Donne’s convictions and the path that was determined by self-interest left it’s mark on much of his poetry and since it is so frequent, we must ask whether the audience are intended as the receivers of his prayers, r merely the witnesses of them. he poet’s #desire for his righteous suicide, borne of his tears of remorse, is only abated by the acknowledgement that it is God’s will for there to never again be a flood, and so it is impious to think of it; “Or wash it if it may be drowned no more”. This level of worship and ecclesiastical comprehension puts a great deal of power and respect into Donne’s hands, since he is able to converse so freely and equally with God. Despite his prostrate position as sinner and repenter, he manages to summon the courage to give God commands, “and burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal/Of thee and in thy house”.
I don’t mean by this that the poet is exactly ranking himself as the equal of God, but it is interesting that he assumes the different roles of subordinate and commander, implying a relationship with God that is personal to him alone. This separates the poet from his audience, and I think we can assume that Donne, so fond of ostentatiously displaying his intelligence and wit in the arguments that we observe in The Flea and Elegy 19, separates himself similarly by identifying with the poet of the sonnets.
Donne’s blend of the traditional and the contemporary afforded him a power in his writing, since his style of violent and often dark imagery within a discourse with a strongly Calvinist personal god gave him free rein to experiment whilst still appearing subservient to the will of the court. In line 1, “I am a little world” we have an example of the microcosmic view of the human body held by learned society at the time, however the “You which beyond that…
Have found new spheres” is praise of astronomers, whose very mandate it is to investigate the new and the undiscovered. This is echoed in his poem A Valediction Forbidding Mourning, where the separation of two lovers’ souls is described as the arms of a compass, relating their relationship to the role and duties of a cartographer mapping out a new frontier. Donne’s writing is perfect for his time, since the spirit of new exploration in the Americas gave rise to admiration for pioneers and the search for new horizon.
Donne’s works reveres these explorers as his audience might expect and, even more, his own style is so revolutionary that he can be seen to be breaking new ground of his own accord. The fact that the field of exploration centred around religion and were always powerful acts of contrition, he was able to extend the boundaries of his art without being considered dangerous or subversive. This is not to say that this was the only intention, but it certainly made Donne’s innovation more palatable to the authorities that might prevent it’s publication or reduce it’s audience.
When we view Donne’s poetry, we see more deeply into the content and form when we acknowledge the importance of the history surrounding it. The struggle between the religion Donne accepts, and faith he was raised to believe in and must reject, is affected by our knowledge that part of reason for this rejection may have been as the means for personal advancement. However this knowledge must be tempered by the understanding that any place in society was denied to Catholics, that as a faith they were denied both standing and responsibility.
When viewed in this light, we cannot simply state that it was greed or excessive ambition which led to his conversion, especially since the love of his wife evidently overcame his self-interest to the extent that he was prepared to accept such condemnation for marrying her. Also, when looking at the background to his poetry, and the themes that arise in it, we can see that Donne writes very much for the time, drawing on contemporary issues to describe traditional feelings, such as in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.
In Holy Sonnet No. 5, Donne seeks redemption, and that can only be achieved through his burning, a Catholic sentiment of purgatory, yet perfectly placed in this poem of Calvinist entreaty. The audience was vital to ensure Donne’s continued progress and the respect of his peers and his need for advancement is only a part f Donne’s poetry, A part that I feel actually allowed for more innovation despite it’s the limits it supposedly placed on his work.