The Cultural Significance of Donne's Sermons



This paper is part of a Literature Compass panel cluster arising from the The Texas A&M John Donne Collection: A Symposium and Exhibition. Comprising an introduction by Gary Stringer and three of the papers presented at the symposium, this cluster seeks to examine the current state of Donne Studies and aims to provide a snapshot of the field. The symposium was held April 6–7, 2006.

The cluster is made up of the following articles:

‘Introduction: Three Papers from The Texas A&M John Donne Collection: A Symposium and Exhibition,’ Gary A. Stringer, Literature Compass 4 (2007), 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00420.x.

‘Donne and Disbelief: The Early Prose,’ Ernest W. Sullivan, Literature Compass 4 (2007), 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00421.x.

‘The Cultural Significance of Donne's Sermons,’ Jeanne Shami, Literature Compass 4 (2007), 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00422.x.

‘T. R. O’Flahertie's Copy of Donne's Letters,’ Donald R. Dickson, Literature Compass 4 (2007), 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00423.x.

Donne's sermons are a lens through which to understand his culture, not because he is representative but because he is unique. This is because his sermons reveal clearly the hotly contested matters of his day, and, paradoxically, because they are in no way typical, they articulate the crises on which they comment in their most complex forms and expose the fault lines of their religious and political contexts. Donne is so helpful in understanding his culture's anxieties because he brings all of these to the forefront, often engaging his hearers in a self-conscious reflection on matters of interpretation. In him, we encounter a passionate intellect, prompted by the crises threatening religion and the state, to great efforts of moderation and negotiation between hard-line extremes. His capacious imagination envisioned – and then modelled – ways of dealing with these crises, ways that resisted the pressure to radicalise, although his sermons bear all the marks of the stress of remaining whole. In his sermons, Donne developed a professional and personal identity that confronts in all its complexity the contentious temper of both the Renaissance and the post-modern worlds. While other preachers were using the pulpit to deliver ‘position papers’, then, Donne the preacher, like the poet, saw its potential as a place of conversion. Through his emphasis on teaching the processes of moral decision-making rather than enforcing blind obedience or dogma, Donne links the most private of arbiters – conscience – to the most public of media – the sermon. Among many contributors to this discourse, Donne's exercises in interpretation stand out for the inclusiveness of their reach, the accommodation of his rhetorical gestures and the imagination of their ability to renovate controversial words. His sermons present him as an ethical model of integrity and a force of cohesion in an institution – the English Church – that was fractured by religious debate and polemic. While many used sermons to preach extremist views, Donne opted instead to moderate the heated religious and political debates of his day, and to do so without sacrificing conscience or integrity.