The John Donne Society once again enjoyed a rich program of papers in its 30th annual conference recently. Below are some notes on some of the papers that focused especially on Donne's prose. See also our tweets in the channel on our home page touching on other proceedings of the conference. Any faults in what follows belongs to the note-taker, not the presenter.
Seeing Double in Donne’s Devotions: Two Serpents, Two Adams and Two Interpretations of Station 10
Robert Reeder, Providence College
In the expostulation of station ten, Donne associates the threat of the subtle serpent of Genesis with the redemptive snake of the exodus (Numbers 21): one serpent wounds while the other heals, contraries meeting in one. In this emblem Donne finds consolation for the problem of sins that remain undetected owing to the serpent becoming ever more crafty and stealthy: how can we confess the sins of which we are not aware? In the prayer to this devotion, Donne’s answer is that Christ pardons him for all the sins that Christ died for, not only the ones he has committed. He confesses in effect every possible sin. This is a preventing grace. But even then there is a subtle pitfall: in taking all sins upon himself, is he guilty of presumptuous self-display, itself a hidden sin? Without acknowledging this problem, is Donne perhaps performing a hidden sin? Or, does he see this sort of confession as an appropriate expression of the phenomenon of original sin? After all, the serpent has become ever more stealthy over time since Eden.
Contributing "to the verdure, and freshnesse thereof": Donne's use of parenthesis
Hugh Adlington, University of Birmingham
Adlington's study of Donne's use of parentheses arises from one of the editorial principles of the Oxford Sermons project, a desire to get as close as possible to the sermon as originally delivered. Parentheses are some of the most helpful indicators of the immediacy of Donne's preaching moment. An example in Potter and Simpson IV.13.621-6 is typical of Donne's use of parenthesis: self-reflexive, evaluative, literary, and critical. Some of the questions that need to be asked about Donne's use of parenthesis are:
• What information do they impart about the context of the sermonic moment?
• How were these parentheses received?
• Were they typical of early modern preaching?
• How do parentheses in the sermon document relate to what was actually preached?
• How did they function?
In answer to the last point, they had various uses:
• to elaborate, clarify, and qualify
• to allow audiences to catch up in their thought
• to create a sense of immediacy and imitate the act of thought
• to convey of tone and emotion, tending toward the melancholic
Fertile Waters: "Gods Conversation with Man" in the Preaching of Donne
Sonia Pernet, Université de Lausanne
In Donne’s sermons, water serves as a metaphor for understanding the difficult concept of the receiving of the Holy Spirit. In two Whitsunday sermons—one on Acts 10:44 preached at Lincoln's Inn (P&S 5:1), and another on Genesis 1:2 at St. Paul's (P&S 9:3)—, water in its three states serves as an emblem of the Trinity, where the Holy Spirit is associated with the liquid state. Donne also explores the water metaphor in the christening sermons. In this context, water resonates with generative significance (womb-like) in the creation, a feminized event (9:99). Notions of fertility and generation are also present in the Lincoln's Inn sermon (5:51-52), where water is seen as a conduit of the Holy Spirit entering into the believer through the hearing of the word preached.
"Dangerous Vomit" or "Fulnesse": Incarnation, Ecumenism, & Political Critique in the 1629 Christmas Sermon
Bryan A. Hampton, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Hampton finds in this sermon on John 10:10 (P&S 9:5) evidence that Donne was growing tired of the relentless ecclesiastical-factionalism of the time, which he characterizes as a dangerous vomit, in contrast to the fullness and hospitality of God's communication in the incarnation. Donne's representation of the incarnation falls between apaphatic theology (silence in the face of God's transcendent and radically otherness) and cataphatic theology (congress made possible through anthropocentric immanence): the incarnation is a moment of divine abundance accessible to all, pleroma in the corporate preaching of the word. It is God's fleshly communication of himself in abundance (John 10:10) which contrast with the vomiting of sin. The sermon concludes on the importance of contrition and humility in all who approach this Christmas service, so that they might be able to receive the pleroma of the church. This sermon on the communicableness of God is Donne's (very) implicit critique of Charles I's nascent absolutism and failure to communicate with his people.
"all parts are play'd, and all play parts": Donne’s Dramatic Apology for Past and Present Kingship
Maria Salenius, University of Helskini
In his 1617 sermon at St. Paul's Cross on anniversary of the King's ascension, Donne preaches on the relation of subjects to kings. Donne's language for characterizing good and bad rulers resonates with the language of Shakespeare's depictions of Richard III and Queen Elizabeth and Cornwallis's Encomium on Richard III. Donne takes up the role of Archbishop Cranmer in the closing scene of Shakespeare's Henry VIII as an admirer and promoter of the regime that spanned from Queen Elizabeth and into the realm of King James. Richard III, in contrast, serves as an emblem of treason and tyranny. Cornwallis's treatment in his Encomium (dedicated to Donne) is more charitable to this "defamed prince," characterizing him as a dutiful king. Donne similarly emphasizes the king's love consonant with Cornwallis's characterization. Donne's characterization of the opposite kind of ruler (subtle, false, and treacherous) is also consonant with Shakespeare's Richard III. Conversely, Donne associates Queen Elizabeth and King James with the gracious version of ruler, similar to Cranmer's characterization of Queen Elizabeth in Henry VIII. Donne is seeking in a monarch a balance between religion and prudent fulfillment of calling, but he also emphasizes the importance of charity in the subject's interpretation of the monarch. The sermon bears many elements of dramatic presentation and employs the dramatic metaphor of playing a part socially.
The 2015 Presidential Address: "John Donne: How and Why to Love the Ordinary."
Kate Narveson, Luther College
A couple of questions arise from Donne’s representation of the “ordinary” laity in his Easter sermon 1622: What was an ordinary layman? How should we take Donne's subordination of the private to the public? Donne’s depiction of the laity is based on his sense of the "ordinary" means of God's work.
1) The ordinary laity. In the love poetry, the laity are clueless and unaware of high matter of the speaker's love. In contrast, the laity receive much more respect in the sermons. In 4.371, Donne asserts there is a leveling of clergy and laity with respect to the redemption. Donne expresses respect for the private piety and leadership of the laity in their households and respect for the capacity and learnedness of the laity in doctrinal and biblical matters (5.42-3). Lay practices of piety were indeed expected by Donne.
2) The ordinary means. Donne has a rich and complex sense of the "ordinary" as it applies to God means, participation in formal, corporate worship. The ordinary means are God's accommodation of his ways to the human condition, the ordinary. The ordinary is the best way to take care of the everyday, regular course of things. The ordinary is nonetheless imbued with private inwardness. In part, Donne was responding to a pendulum swing toward the new emphasis on private piety to the point that, for some, it sometimes replaced corporate worship. He espoused conformance in balancing of bible-based with publicly authorized forms of practice. Despite this valuing of private spirituality, the "public ordinance" is the ordinary way, and the lay piety needs to be understood in relation to the public. In his second sermon preached at St. Dunstan's, Donne emphasizes the need to respect for the pastor, as children respect their parents, but at the same time the laity must come to the ministry of the pastor with considerable personal, private preparation (6.100). Donne recognizes the tendency for laity to put too much stock in their independent initiatives in piety and to presume too much. The “ordinary” lay person is high-functioning but humble. Donne collapses the binary of the "benighted" former piety and the new reformed piety with respect to matters of piety: papistry becomes the turning of habitual sins into idols.