Category Archives: John Donne

Sunday Short: The Variorum Edition of Donne’s Satires at the Digital Nexus?

The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne

It has been over thirty years since Jerome McGann, D.F. McKenzine, and others catalyzed a shift in literary studies (1) to recenter the field as one unavoidably and necessarily linked to textual history and editorial presentation. Due to the turbulent nature of Donne’s source material, Donne scholars have long been at the forefront of this shift to textual studies. The Variorum series is a staple and testament to the value of this critical shift. Assembled by the leading scholars in Donne studies including Gary Stringer, Donald Dickson, Dennis Flynn, Ernie Sullivan, M. Thomas Hester, and others over a period of eight years, the resulting Variorum is undoubtedly an essential tool for aspiring Donne scholars. Yet, McGann and McKenzie’s critique of W.W. Greg and Fredson Bowers’ mid-century editorial practice is nearly banal in the era of Digital Humanities, and the evasive referential nature of the Donne Variorum must be understood, as McGann would counsel us, as a text in time. As Robert H. Hume argues (2), perhaps the pendulum of textual studies has swung too far against “best text” 20th century iterations in the era immediately before Digital Humanities, resulting in a conservative, inactive editorial product. The Digital Donne accompanying website to the Variorum series has the potential to remedy many of the insufficiencies of a text like this in the era of constant digital editorializing and updating, but the text itself owns a discernable dialectical tension between radical honesty and necessary editorial censure.

The presented text of the Satires in this edition of the Variorum is without doubt the best scholarly edition to date and offers significant value to both graduate students and scholars in the field. The editorial team exhaustively cataloged all textual differences in the three manuscript groups that comprise the source material for the Satires. Every textual deviation is denoted and sourced, much like the recent Oxford Editions of Milton and Sidney (the latter of which, usefully, is available online and constantly evolving(3)). The scholarly version of the Satires represented here makes the Variorum a necessary scholarly tool for critics of the Satires, and underlines the enduring significance of McGann and McKenzie’s project for a radically honest paratext surrounding collectively discerned copy-texts.

The pendulum swings the other way in the Variorum’s “Commentary” section. The brief summary of all critical interactions with the text on a line-by-line basis is useful for beginning students of the Satires, but is problematically and essentially cut off in 2009. New Critical readings of the Satires from the early 20th century which have limited  value for modern critics appear in the collection, but contemporary criticism on the political and religious nature of the Satires (of which there has been a significant growth) is missing. This is not an error by the editors, but reflective of the troubled place of 1160 page referential texts in the era of Digital Humanities. This collected commentary will be outdated in five years, and arguably already is.

With such an advanced and essential representation of the text of Donne’s Satires, the Variorum represents a significant opportunity for Donne scholars. Yet as Robert Hume argued, we should not let the postmodern notion of authorial ambiguity limit editorial practice and mire this opportunity. A text like the Donne Variorum has the potential to enter aspiring Donne scholars into the most contemporary readings of Donne, an essential facet of all effective and meaningful scholarship. But the fixed, physical form of the Variorum limits its ability to do this. The Donne Variorum is thus a text interestingly sitting at the nexus point of late-20th century editorial revisionism and the emergence of constantly evolving digital projects. In our current moment, it is essential. As digital humanities projects continue to dominate Early Modern literary circles at conferences and in seminars, it will likely become a relic.

(1) The Textual Condition and A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism by McGann and Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts by McKenzie are the texts I’m thinking of here.
(2) “The Aims and Uses of ‘Textual Studies,’” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 99 [June 2005]: 205

Leave a comment

Filed under John Donne

John Donne, Erasmus, and Religious Warfare


he work of John Donne has traditionally been subdivided into that of “Jack” and “Doctor” Donne, based in the topical breach that occurs over Donne’s career from the bedroom to the pulpit. Yet as Richard Strier remarks in his article “Radical Donne: ‘Satire III,’” critics have recently sought to find the underlying themes that find vitality in Donne’s work from early to late. One such theme is religion and religious conflict. Donne’s conversion experience is the autobiographical catalyst in the distinction between Jack and Doctor Donne, yet critics such as Strier seek the shared anxiety, tension, and ambition in Donne’s religious thinking throughout his career. Strier makes a compelling case in “Radical Donne” that Donne’s early Satire III (composed at the end of the 16th century) shows a radical coexistence of Catholic and Protestant theology and scholarship. In this essay I want to suggest further that not only does “Satire III” show the marks of an author versed in both Erasmus and Luther as Strier suggests; it also shows a radical desire for peace on a continent fraying and eventually breaking at the seams over the course of Donne’s life, a peace evoked in “Satire III,” the Holy Sonnets, and the Meditations in opposition to the imagery of war. Thus, another critical facet of Donne’s “radicalism” is his desire for peace forged in dialogue with chivalric and classical militarism, Erasmus’ calls for peace, and contemporary martyrology. Donne argues throughout his poetry and satires for a  Christian valiance in opposition to bravery, war, and corrupt princes.

The nature of Donne’s radicalism as defined by Empson and Strier is worth considering further in the context of the language of war and peace in the Satire itself and Donne’s later poems and poetry. For Empson, Donne was a rung in the ladder up to modern political thought, an author that “-[gives] an inherent argument for freedom of conscience” (Empson). Strier is right to suggest that this concept alone was hardly radical for the time period, at least in itself; and Empson’s rendering does suggest a mechanistic view of the relationship between literary project and history that is less prevalent in contemporary criticism.  Empson’s argument is Strier’s springboard though, and the latter does base his own project on the general desire to read Donne as aspiring religiously and politically for a radical harmony between Protestant and Catholic. Strier elucidates, “Donne can be seen to have shown…the perhaps surprising compatibility of three of the most radical notions of the European sixteenth-century: Erasmus’ “Philosophy of Christ,” Castellio’s vindication of doubt, and Luther’s conception of conscience” (Strier 312-3). For Strier, Donne’s radicalism is markedly his own in that it is constructed of conflicting Catholic and Protestant theologies. Such tolerance was a radical notion in the period leading up to the Thirty Years War, an era historian C.V. Wedgewood described as “thick with the apprehension of conflict” (Wedgewood 12).  Strier convincingly makes the case that Donne seeks to synthesize these contradictions in the Satire. Yet there is some merit in Empson’s original critical project to seek not only the hermeneutical, epistemological, theological, and philosophical in Donne’s Satire but also the historical. The historical threat and reality of religious war emerges again and again in the text, making the conclusion of Donne’s Satire not only a call for theological and philosophical coexistence but also an anxious interaction with the threat of religious war.

From the very first lines of the Satire, Donne invokes the language of martial battle and then vanquishes its value with a rhetorical equivalency between Protestant and Catholic that Strier highlights. Donne begins, “Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids / Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids” (ll. 1-2) It is disquieting that we begin this Satire that so ardently argues for radical tolerance with imagery of paralysis. Pity chokes, while “brave” scorn forbids (like a King) tears to flow from his eyes. Catholic and Protestant talking points are immediately invoked in these opening lines. Donne summons the physical, the source of Protestant anxiety, and suggests that kind pity emerges from his body and mind (the spleen representing both) (Strier 286) as well as despair. Such a description complicates a more radical Protestant reading of the body as an instrument of declination and corruption, a complication the early Donne pursues in several of his love poems. With the next stroke of his pen, Donne rejects the notion that authority may assuage the moisture that rises to our eyes, a markedly Protestant critique of Catholic bureaucracy. Authority forbids us only from visibly crying and cannot vanquish the tears “which swell my eyelids.” This is much in line with Strier’s project to find coexistence in the Satire, but I think Donne’s use of the concept of bravery in these opening lines is also significant. Brave scorn, that which prevents us from “weep[ing] sins,” has decidedly martial social connotation to it. Bravery and honor, cornerstones of chivalric nationalism (and what Donne famously attacks in “Death Be Not Proud”), are what enable sin through “forbidding” the poet from ridding himself of that sin.

Only a few lines later, Donne pursues the inability of the martial to absolve sin and the theological differences of the day. Donne continues, “Is not our mistress, fair Religion, / As worth of all our souls’ devotion / As virtue was to the first blinded age? / Are not heaven’s joys as valiant to assuage / Lusts, as earth’s honor was to them” (ll. 5-9)? Donne asks a provocative question that seeks to challenge contemporary readers with a historical equivalency between the classical and the present. Strier is right to suggest that this is not a condemnation of the classical by Donne. Donne questions, as Strier states, how “faire religion” has failed to inspire similar devotion (Strier 288). Yet that very question as Donne has constructed it seeks to blend these eras and to see the tendrils of influence between them. What Donne invokes from the classical is markedly martial – bravery and virtue (the latter word rooted in the Latin vir, which Donne plays with in “Death Be Not Proud”). Donne offers an alternative to that bravery, virtue, and honor that defined the classics and that now prevent the poet from ridding himself of sin. He suggests that to seek the synthesized, general Christian project is true valiance, a surely martial concept. But the rhetorical necessity of the question denotes the anxiety that underlies much of the Satire. Donne desires a radical valiance for peace, but his era is steeped instead in the martial bravery and honor of the classical age. Both sides are accused in this opening section, the “Spanish fire,” and the “courage of straw” that serves as kindling. There is certainly a desire here for religious synthesis, but there is also a profound anxiety over the martial realities of these questions. When Donne writes lines later, “O, if thou dar’st, fear this; / This fear great courage and high valor is” (ll. 16), he is interacting with the martial reality of the day at the turn of the 17th century, where bravery and honor prevent reconciliation and actively push Protestants and Catholics towards war. For Donne, fear is the truly valorous and courageous act, fear of a culture of martial courage, and fear to follow “tyrannous rage” (ll. 105) towards disastrous ends.

The ending of the Satire incorporates much of this martial imagery and the nature of the ending in light of this imagery divides critics. Strier, for example, reads the end as a positively ambivalent one. Strier writes in the conclusion to his own piece, “The integral soul, standing still, refusing to be bound, waiting for a personal revelation that may or may not come, is the final positive image of Satire III” (Strier 312). For Strier, the poet is ultimately not tied down with “fetters,” and the end of the Satire expresses an ideology of coexistence. The martial imagery here, as it does in the opening sections, evokes an underlying anxiety that needs further exploration. In concluding, Donne writes,

“As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell / At the rough stream’s calm head, thrive and prove well, / But having left their roots, and themselves given / To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven / Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost / Consumed in going, in the sea are lost. / So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust / Power from God claim’d, than God himself to trust” (ll. 103-108).

Donne’s conclusion complements the poem’s opening emphasis on tears with Christian imagery of water. It is now tyrannous rage (instead of bravery or honor) that drives the water with haste away from less destructive paths. The image of consumption through a process of movement is undeniably militaristic. Like a war, the river courses through the countryside and destroys as it moves through. This destruction is tied on the sentence level to an abandonment of “roots” located in a “calmer” section, a section without tyrannous rage and “unjust Power.” I think Strier is right to suggest that these roots are not specifically Catholic (as could be inferred by an abandonment of tradition). Donne is instead suggesting a more general Christian ancestry, an ancestry he endeavors in the opening of the Satire to describe as valiant. But here as before in the face of that valiant cause is the threat of tyranny and incorrect choice. Donne’s inclusion of choice in these final lines complicates Strier’s claim that the ending optimistically looks to religious coexistence. Donne undeniably desires such an accomplishment amid the commingled worlds of religion and politics in the late sixteenth century, but the idea remains just that:  a desire. Like the kind pity and deeply felt sorrow of the introduction, this ultimate desire remains challenged by the threat of religious conflict rooted in classical notions of bravery, courage, and anti-tyrannical rebellion.

Before turning to Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Meditations, I want to explore further the nature of Donne’s peace and the intellectual influences and precedents for Donne’s interaction with the threat of religious warfare. Strier cogently argues that a main facet of the religious synthesis at the heart of Satire III, that I argue is put into crisis by the threat of war, is the work of  Erasmus. Erasmus, as critic Robert Allen suggests in his book The Better Part f Valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vivies, on Humanism, War, and Peace, 1496-1535, wrote at great length on what Strier terms “pacifism” (Strier 291). I will argue, though, that Donne’s utilization of Erasmus is not merely one that invokes Erasmus’ universal pacifism but rather a pointed political, historical critique of the religious warfare of the 16th and 17th century – a distinction that can be found in Erasmus’ own critique of corrupt government and chivalric courage. Erasmus’ philosophy of Christ is fundamentally a reaction to the secular, warring, and political machinations of the late Medieval church, and the dialectical and often directly involved shadow of the threat of war in Erasmus is reflected repeatedly in Donne’s Satires and later poetry. Adams describes Erasmus’ conception of war in the following terms, which is a useful entry point to the influence of Erasmus on Donne’s poetic depiction of peace: “His (Erasmus) practical proposal is that leaders on both sides, as rational men pursuing self-interest , should count in advance all war’s costs. When this is done, wisdom will dictate settling disputes quietly by arbitration… when full accounting is made of costs, all military triumphs turn out to be Cadmean: everyone suffers ruin” (Adams 101). Donne’s thesis in Satire III is markedly similar to Adam’s summation of Erasmus’ objection to war. Donne brings the cost of war repeatedly to the center of the Satire, and the central moment of contrast between mistress and faire religion relies on the imagery of chivalric idealism and religious persecution (the courage of straw and fires of spain, for example). While Erasmus, like Donne, ultimately does make a transcendent conclusion that war is anti-Christian and ruinous for all participants, the avenue through which Erasmus makes this meta-critique is specifically late Medieval and Renaissance religious strife. Like Donne, Erasmus aims not only at the abolition of all conflict but also a specific political and historical peace. Donne and Erasmus share a Humanist desire to reform the social and cultural ills (often associated with ignorance in Humanist discourses) towards the end of manifesting a more just society. The consummate Humanist, Erasmus spends much of Erasmus Against War making a an argument that relies on this rhetoric of moving from social ills to transcendent, spiritual solutions and conclusions.

Erasmus’ rhetorical structure in Erasmus Against War strongly mirrors Donne’s own in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations and it is a structure that suggests the connection between Erasmusian peace and the political origination of Donne’s own peace. In the opening argument of the treatise, Erasmus asserts the following about war, “War, what other thing is it than a common manslaughter of many men together, and a robbery, to which, the farther it sprawleth abroad, the more mischievous it is? But many gross gentlemen nowadays laugh merrily at these things, as though they were the dreams and dotings of schoolmen, the which, saving the shape, have no point of manhood, yet seem they in their own conceit to be Gods” (Erasmus 23-24). The last part of the quoted section strikingly mirrors the end of Satire III and Sonnet 10, and the general rhetorical thrust of Erasmus’ description demands further exploration. He begins with a general reflection on the sinful nature of killing, but then returns to the secular in the middle section with his allusion to the chivalric gentleman of the age before ultimately returning to the fact that war makes men conceive of themselves as God. This stop on the secular in the median of a rhetorical thrust towards transcendental synthesis is one that Donne will repeatedly do in his Holy Sonnets and Meditations, and it introduces an anxiety that I highlighted in Satire III and that is at play in Donne’s later work. Resting rhetorically between theological condemnations of religious violence is the anxious rendering (if only to attempt to vanquish the threat with a final, universal coup de grâce) of chivalric bravery and martial courage that Adams is right to suggest is the subject of many early 16th century humanist projects. Like Donne in Satire III, Erasmus must reckon the threat of secular, martial culture in his generalizing rhetoric against war. This rhetorical structure is the one I will highlight in Donne’s later work, and its a rhetorical structure that is for Donne further contextualized with the question of martyrdom in a period of religious war.

The concept of martyrdom for both Erasmus and Donne played a significant role in the way religious warfare was understood, and Donne’s specific interaction with the concept of martyrdom lends further context to the nature of peace in the Holy Sonnets and Meditations. Critic Susannah Monta in her article “When the Truth Hurts: Suffering and the Question of Religious Confidence” usefully places Donne in the environment of 16th and 17th century martyrology in response to religious persecution and war. Monta begins, “Donne’s preordination prose questions common martyrological assumptions, arguments, and rhetoric. His poetry explores the psychological effects of the notion that suffering could confer religious confidence, while his sermons postulate alternative, spiritualized forms of agonistic struggle that both honor intense spiritual quests and confer the benefits of religious confidence without the actual shedding of blood” (Monta 118). As I have argued before, Donne’s alternative agonists are not merely spiritual or escapist theology but rather a specifically political and historical reaction to religious war. Yet, Monta gives a provocative further vocabulary for Donne’s interaction with the threat of spilt blood. Religious confidence, a confidence in election in Monta’s argument, could be conferred without martial struggle. This is a passivity that we found in Erasmus and Donne’s rejection of men who would be gods. Donne’s opposition to Martyrdom, as Monta cogently summarizes, is one that opposes agonizing one’s own death. This is something Donne will satirize and interact with in Pseudo-Martyr and Biathanatos, and it is a central concern that finds life in Donne’s sonnets and meditations. War for Donne is institutionalized martyrdom, the replacement of a valiant faith with a courageous death – a break from providence towards grim, rushing waters.

Monta makes a second important distinction in Donne’s reaction to emergent martyrology. Donne, as the evasive rhetoric of Satire III suggests, is ultimately unwilling to ascribe himself to either Catholic or Protestant notions of martyrdom in the period. Monta writes, “But rather than simply celebrating Protestant and/or Foxean versions of martyrdom instead –  Donne often posits alternative forms of interior, spiritualized suffering and argues that those forms of suffering may confer all of martyrdom benefits – Donne’s persistent engagements with martyrdom undergird his reconciliation of his conformity to the Church of England with his family’s sufferings for Catholicism” (Monta 119). Donne rejects throughout his career the martyrdom of Foxe and Southwell, instead offering a nominally Protestant third partyism in opposition to martyrdom. Yet the autobiographical criticism often offered in response to Donne’s religious experience hampers our readings of Donne’s interaction with historical and political circumstance. Donne’s ambivalence towards martyrdom shares many of the themes outlined in Satire III in his critique of martial valor. Monta accurately suggests that Donne’s discomfort with martyrdom is rooted in his ambition to procure the benefits of martyrdom without violence – to, put differently, have a peaceful martyrdom. I argue that the ambivalence of Donne to Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, when rendered next to his invocation of Erasmus’ commentary on war, is rooted more significantly in a desire for peace between the two splitting religious factions rather than Donne’s personal experience with conversion. It is a hegemony of two currents that are undeniably connected in Donne’s thought, yet that former fear of religious war hampering transcendent peace is represented to a significant degree in the poetry and prose in Donne’s later work. In the Holy Sonnets and Meditations, we find a markedly similar rhetorical structure to that of Erasmus in response to war and Donne in response to martyrdom, and it is a rhetorical structure based not merely in the theological and autobiographical respectively, but also in the historical and political.

Donne’s tenth Holy Sonnet is perhaps his most canonical poem, and has long been read as a reflection on the temporary death associated with chivalric courage and the permanent life associated with “faire religion.” Yet Donne also implements a rhetorical structure found in Erasmus of interrupting a transcendent image with war and chivalric ideology, leading to an ultimate vanquishing of temporary martiality with transcendent spirituality at the end of the rhetorical arc. Donne begins the poem, “Death, be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreaful, for thou art not so; / For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow / Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 1-4). The poem begins with a spondee (in opposition to its generally iambic form) that calls attention to the declarative nature of the poem, and the stresses then hit “proud”, “some”, and “call(éd),” all words that undermine the addressee. The metric form remains important in Donne’s effort to undermine death and establish a dichotomy in the poem between true religion and false “pictures” (ll. 5). Importantly, though, Donne begins with a general retort against death; one that seeks to vanquish the power of death just as Erasmus sought to diminish war to institutionalized petty crime (“manslaughter”). Like Erasmus in Erasmus Against War, the poet differentiates himself from those who would ascribe a greater meaning to death or war. Though others might “call” death powerful, he is not, and the main conceit of the poem is undermining death’s power in this way. Donne’s own rhetoric, though, continues to mirror Erasmus’ as the specter of those would “call” death powerful emerges to the narrative center of the poem.

In separating himself from those he is rhetorically opposing himself to, Donne invokes the threat of religious warfare in the minds of those who call death powerful, and like Erasmus, he must address this issue before getting to his transcendent anti-war conclusion. Donne reflects of the men who march off to war, as he once did, “And soonest our best men with thee do go, / Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, / And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 7-9). The stresses in this section are also critical, as Donne includes a spondaic section where “slave, fate, chance, kings, men, poison, war, and sickness” are all stressed. The section is not simply a rejection of martial courage or soldiers who go to war. Instead, Donne ambivalently suggests that England’s “best men” go off to war and are led astray and ultimately killed by the string of stressed syllables. Like it was for Erasmus, the problem for Donne is that class of “gentleman” who fancy themselves “to be gods” in “dreams and dotings” (Erasmus 24). The poem heavily mirrors Erasmus’ focus on the fraudulent narrative of death, and here, Donne movingly suggests the costs of that narrative. Poison, sickness, and war itself are all images associated with the religious conflict on the continent in the late 16th and early 17th century, as pestilence specifically killed thousands in armies made up frequently of men who were travelling for the first time (Wedgewood 28). Critically, Donne, like Erasmus, interrupts his narrative on the fraudulency of death to discourse with the very real allure of war to the “best men” of Europe. Led by corrupt princes, the topic of much of Erasmus’ writing, good men in Sonnet 10 could empower death to be that which Donne says it is not. It is a very real threat, represented in this section on the metrical and linguistic level. Donne interrupts his rhetorical thrust towards God with a narrative on those who would see themselves as God. This rhetorical construction is a direct mirror of Erasmus’ language in Erasmus Against War, and Donne’s synthetic and triumphant ending section strives for the same transcendent, though textured, peace Erasmus describes in that text.

Donne’s 10th Holy Sonnet ends in a provocative way that mirrors the rhetorical structure outlined in Erasmus. Donne concludes after his interaction with men who would be gods, “One short sleep past, we wake eternally / And death shall be no more Death, thou shalt die” (“Sonnet 10” ll. 13-14). Like Erasmus, Donne concludes by returning to divinity and a transcendent spirituality. The section, though, has divided critics. The nature of the inversion at the end does cast a shadow of ambivalence over the poem specifically in the context of the previously outlined passage on war. In the rhetoric of the poem, chivalric courage and corrupt kings empower death and in doing so die themselves. In the imagery, then, death and its earthly messengers (those kings and wars) are conflated. Thus, when Donne says “death, thou shalt die,” is the aim only the death he originally addressed himself to? Indeed, that original invocation of death is followed in the very opening couplet by those who would call it powerful. The ending puts into center view the crisis of the Humanist project for Erasmus, More, and Donne in this poem. Erasmus renders in Erasmus Against War that corrupt princes can lead men to disastrous ends, as Donne suggests in Sonnet 10, yet Erasmus spends much of the treatise suggesting ways to fix the problem. As with the issue of martyrdom, Donne remains evasive in the Sonnets and even in the Meditations as to what can catalyze the death of death. The necessity of the death of chivalric virtue and martyrdom was evident to Donne and Erasmus before him, yet at the turn of the 17th century the humanist project of More and Erasmus was becoming increasingly estranged from the reality of religious conflict. Certainly the difference can be attributed to genre (between treatise and poem), but in the ending of Sonnet 10 there is a peculiar ambivalence in subject and outcome. Donne movingly establishes the cost of war in that section that interrupts his rhetorical arc (the same rhetorical structure Erasmus uses in calling for peace), and knows it must end in peace, but is ultimately unsure as to how to secure it in this realm. He settles instead for supplicating such concerns to God, and not be a man who fancies himself as God. Yet, the poem is catalyzed by that section that opposes such a transcendental and spiritual conclusion to the very real secular threat of religious war.

The very next sonnet in the Holy Sonnet sequence deals intimately with the question of martyrdom, secular rule, and solutions. In the middle of Sonnet 11, Donne reflects of the crucifixion, “They killed once an inglorious man, but I / Crucify him daily, being now glorified. Oh let me then, his strange love still admire. / Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment” (“Sonnet 11” ll. 7-9). Donne’s description of Jesus as an “inglorious man” is telling to the countercultural persona at work in the Sonnets. Like the persona in Sonnet 10, Donne in Sonnet 11 opposes himself immediately to prevailing notions of “glory,” a central facet of contemporary martyrology. Donne establishes Jesus in this passage in opposition to those forces he had put in death’s party, and it is a distinction that is a very expected one coming after Sonner 10. Importantly for Monta’s context on Donne’s ambivalence to the question of both Catholic and Protestant martyrdom, Donne further enters into the question of kingly punishment. Very much in line with Erasmus’ description of those who seek war as men who think themselves God, Donne describes the pardoning of Kings as fraudulently conflated with true sacrifice. Donne undermines this notion by asserting instead that Jesus himself bore the punishment of mankind. This difference between active sacrifice and secular violence mirrors the distinction Donne drew between “brave men” and “kings” in Sonnet 10, and gives a provocative context to Donne’s views on martyrdom. As in Satire III, Donne evades a dogmatic condemnation of solely secular kingship or anti-tyrannical protestant martyrdom. Instead Donne suggests a third position, a position for political peace and spiritual supplication to providence.

Donne’s famous “Meditation 17,” written at the end of his life, is a suitable text to finish a discussion on the question of political and historical peace in Donne’s greater interaction with war on the continent. In it, many of the anxieties hitherto outlined come to the fore of Donne’s interaction with warfare. The question of Humanist potential to reform the chivalric, militaristic culture of the day that drove Europe actively to war as he wrote the Meditation is central, as is the general Erasmusian desire for peace in response to secular division. In perhaps his most famous written words, Donne urges the reader, “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 bell tolls; it tolls for thee” (“Meditation 17” 1305). As with the Sonnets and is Erasmus’ Erasmus Against War, Donne begins with a transcendent ambition and then interrupts it with this narrative on the threat of religious war. But the threat in the early 1620s, well into the crisis of the Holy Roman Empire that devolved into the Thirty Years War, is markedly less chivalric and classical (as it was in Satire III). Instead, we get a tenor that is thematically kindred with Erasmus in Erasmus Against War. Donne urges his reader, as Adams summarized of Erasmus, to consider the whole cost of war on estates personal and non. The lynch pin upon which he constructs this urge to reason is Europe itself, and provocatively, the water imagery of Satire III. Donne now does not address the general crisis of poor kingship and chivalric courage, but rather the immense human cost that began to soar as the 1620s advanced and Denmark and Sweden entered the war in Germany. Donne no longer wishes to differentiate himself from the militaristic other, he now writes for a radical peace begotten of a radical homogeneity amongst human beings. The influence of Erasmus on this most memorable of Donne’s passages cannot be overstated, and while the variables shift slightly away from a direct opposition to courage and war and towards a universal human kindred there is a shared rhetorical construct at play in the Meditation. Like in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets, Donne interrupts his narrative that seeks a transcendent spiritual peace with the very real threat of war. Erasmus had precedented the rhetorical move in his own treatise against war, and Donne reinvokes the rhetoric in Meditation 17 not only to argue ultimately for a transcendent spiritual supplication but also to render the very real and tragic nature of the wars in Europe as they unfolded. War had gone from a Dutch problem during the period of the Satire’s and Sonnet’s authorship to a generalized, destructive, and irresistible torrent over all of Central Europe. Donne interrupts his ambition in Meditation 17 with this mournful narrative, before ultimately framing his synthesis with the looming threat of war.

In the conclusion to the Meditation, Donne offers a provocative if/then statement on the ambition he has for the written word. Donne reflects, “-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” (“Meditation 17” 1306). I had suggested earlier that Donne is often evasive as to real solutions to the problem of war he so intimately deals with in the Satires and Sonnets, but here Donne reveals the fundamentally Humanist and Erasmusian ambition to fight war with rhetoric. Donne the Englishmen, a nation still only liminally involved in the war, urges his readers to partake in his process of reckoning the danger of others to proof against that danger spreading. I argue that we see this ideology at play in Satire III and the Holy Sonnets. Donne has an ambition for his poetry to interact with and counter war as it developed on the continent in the early 17th century. As before, Donne reckons a supplication as the only truly knowable solution to the problem. But as in the Satire and Sonnets, he comes to this conclusion after a rhetorical construction interrupted by religious warfare.

Following in Erasmus’ footsteps, Donne ultimately argues for political peace through a rhetorical trajectory that ends in religious transcendence. In Satire III there is a profound ambivalence at play over the question of religious war and its interference in the procurement of the religious synthesis Donne undeniably desires and as Strier highlights. In the Sonnets, I argue that this rhetoric is enacted, with inspiration from Erasmus, in the way Sonnets 10 and 11 are interrupted by the threat of  war before ultimately finishing with an ambivalent inversion of death. In “Meditation 17,” Donne is less ambivalent about his opposition to war through poetry, and specifically hopes in a Humanist fashion for the reason and reckoning of another’s grave, mortal danger to reform the world around him as it collapsed into war. Throughout Donne’s later work, though, I argue that the religious synthesis Strier is apt to highlight in Satire III is in every case placed consciously next to the threat of war by Donne. The synthesis is thus never truly complete for Donne in his poetry and prose. Donne and his poetry may very well declare that death will die, but Donne never forgets the “brave men” who perish by their thousands in following kings who may never take their own danger into contemplation.

*Note: I do not include works cited pages to impede academic plagiarism.  Let me know via email or a comment if you want the works cited entry for the articles and books cited here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Early Modern, John Donne, Literary Criticism, Literature, Thirty Years War, Uncategorized

The Importance of the Thirty Years War in Literature and Politics

The Spanish tercio stands depleted during their defeat at the hands of the French at the Battle of Rocroi, 1643

Few sometimes may know, when thousands err. – John Milton, Paradise Lost

hen a young John Milton sat down to write Latin poetry in his dormitory at Cambridge in the mid 17th century, many themes catalyzed his pen to put words to paper. Yet a preeminent anxiety in the formative Latin poetry of the young puritan was  the cataclysm he observed from across the English Channel (1). As his own government meandered in defending its supposed Protestant allies and advocated for peace, the Protestant armies of Denmark, Bohemia, and Sweden were progressively turned back and crushed by the catholic powers in Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. James I even failed to send troops to save his own son-in-law, Frederick V, when a catholic host annihilated his dwindling host at the Battle of White Mountain.  All of this impressed deeply on Milton and his revolutionary generation; the feudal order had waged war against the estates (the growing middle class) in light of a failing legal system in the Holy Roman Empire, leaving millions dead and the core rivalries and contradictions of society unsolved. It was but years after this era that the axe fell on Charles I and a transatlantic tradition of republican resistance to monarchism was born.

In a time before Cromwell, Paine, and Robespierre, there was this most unfortunate era; where the dying feudal order rife with contradiction brought on the wings of political paralysis the deaths of millions. An era where the core contradictions of society where not dealt with but subverted by emergent nationalism (secular and non) and imperial ambition. The damage was worst in Germany, where the population would vote the war as the most devastating in the country’s history in the 1960s (2*). In many ways, the roots of 19th and 20th century German nationalism were first sewed in the disastrous fragmentation of Germany after the Peace that ended the Thirty Years War (the Peace of Westphalia).

Despite these long reaching consequences, the war is but an afterthought for even scholars of the early modern period. Like World War I, the Thirty Years War draws less attention than its more substantive ancestors. As James Joyce proved in Dubliners (perhaps too well for some readers), paralysis can be just as meaningful as great leaps forwards and backwards. In the perilously fixed limbs of German society in the mid 17th century we find precedent for the keenly militant tone of many of our most treasured early modern authors such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton; and I will argue that to ignore the Thirty Years War is to shut out a major avenue for understanding their work. What’s more, in the history of the Thirty Years War we find remarkable similarities to our own time (some of which I will cover below) and equally remarkable warnings against the problems of imperialism, abstraction, and dedication to aged constitutional provisos.

It it for this latter reason that I have taken a break from writing my thesis (fleeing like Frederick V from the Catholic League, in other words) to write this on the 2nd anniversary (to the day) of Waiting for Putney. In that time, we’ve reached over 110 countries and collected tens of thousands of unique readers. I certainly did not expect the late night, caffeine-induced sermons about Cuba and Milton that began this blog to lead where it has, and I thank each and every reader for their attention and thought. Like a good puritan, I will celebrate this milestone by ruminating on the near collapse of western civilization and the ways in which said collapse mirrors our own time.

The Thirty Years War in Literature:

John Donne

Literary scholars of 17th century British literature find themselves in the uncomfortable position of reading literature only years apart that is rapturously different. This has resulted in the quite awkward “long 18th century” which includes the literature written during the rule of Charles II and James II. This rapture in literature was caused chiefly by the English Revolution, but the war that ravaged Europe in the time leading up that fateful struggle left indelible marks on the literature of canonical writers from Donne to Bunyan. In many ways, the necessity of the awkward “long 18th century” was brought about by the militancy and violence that loomed in the fearful caverns of British thought leading up to the English Revolution, and the Restoration’s delightful (or utterly repulsive, as it is for this author) flight from themes of religious ideology, the question of legitimate political violence, and the prospect of universal truth is a direct response to these themes transported from Europe’s tragedy to all the kingdoms of Christendom. Here, we will look at the work of John Donne to find the threads of war that separate so profoundly early and late 17th century British literature.

The specter of war in British literature can perhaps be seen most profoundly in the work of John Donne. Writing well before the English Revolution, John Donne put pen to paper in those troubling years in which the German crisis became generalized to include all the powers of Europe (the late 16th and early 17th centuries). Throughout Donne’s work we find repeated attempts to synthesize the two ever-splitting protestant and catholic factions. Scholars have justifiably attached this theme to Donne’s own struggle with conversion from Catholicism to Anglicanism but his textual attempts to bring together these factions reflects a more generalized reflection on their failure to do so as Europe descended into war. “Death, Be Not Proud” and “Meditation XVII,” two of his most famous works, both reflect a desire that extends beyond the merely personal or national  to unite the warring churches of Christ. Both are written after his conversion to Anglicanism (the former a Holy Sonnet, the latter part of his much celebrated Devotions upon Emergent Occassions) (3), and both are written (~1620 and ~1623 respectively)( 4) right as the Thirty Years War emerged as a major international conflict. Let us first look at “Death, Be Not Proud” as it was written right as the Thirty Years War broke out. The poem ends,

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. (Death, Be Not Proud)

The all-important “we” in the second to last line anticipates Donne’s later focus on depicting the universality of Christians and humans in general. Of note, this universality is built here on the back of a condemnation of martial force and the chivalric nationalism that accompanies wars to this day. This general fear of war created by the temporary truce between the Dutch and Spanish was a tinder box in the minds of Europeans – and Donne here remarks that Death is itself a slave to fate that dwells in war and sickness. This idea of slavery to fate and war reflects the writings of thinking men across Europe at the time, highlighted in great detail in the opening chapters of C.V. Wedegewood’s chronicle of the war. War seemed inevitable, but all wanted to avoid it. This is repeated in Spanish, German, and English literary circles. In 1620, a year after top catholic officials had been thrown out of a three story window into a pile of crap (literally), Donne here strives for reconciliation and warns against the appeal of religious war. Donne hopefully declares that death and war will die in the face of an eternal life given by Christ. It is a hope he will quickly lose as the war in Germany became more violent.

By the year 1623, the Bohemian protestant state had been crushed by the Hapsburgs and in the very year Christian the Younger (a protestant) was defeated at the cost of nearly 13,000 casualties at the Battle of Stadtlohn. We see the events of the exponentially multiplying war on Donne in his famous Meditations. In one of his most famous moments of prose, Donne writes in Meditation XVII,

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. (Meditation XVII)

Far from the confident declarations of the previously cited sonnet, Donne here replaces hopefulness with a universal sorrow. Ever clever with his language, Donne even fits in the term “continent,” almost certainly a reference to the events occurring “on the continent.” He continues to assert that each and every death, the bodies washed away by the tens of thousands in Germany  make “Europe (the) less.” As the bell tolled for thousands of men fighting for religious freedom, profit, and nation, Donne defiantly, if not hopefully, asserts that the war that presently rocked Europe lessened all the parties involved. This change in Donne’s tone, from one of hopeful declaration and persuasion to defiant and universal sorrow at the loss of Catholic and Protestant alike is elucidated with greater detail by the events of the Thirty Years War. Donne’s dealings with Catholicism had certainly ended by this time, but he still found himself deeply entangled in the questions that tore Europe apart.

Donne’s interaction with these themes that were anathema to restoration writers is but an example of how the Thirty Years War fractured the short 17th and long 18th centuries. In our understanding of the literature of this time period, the importance of the Thirty Years War and the intellectual environment it created cannot be overstated. To read Donne, Marvell, Milton, Winstanley, and Bunyan without an understanding of their view of the European cataclysm from across the Chanel is to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald without rendering the effects of the First World War. Let us turn now to some of the similarities to be found between our era and this tragic one, and endeavor to point out some of the pedagogical remedies for that paralysis to be found in studying the history of the era.

Constitutions and the Abstraction of Conflict:

The Surrender of Jülich, by Jusepe Leonardo (1635).

One of the more striking qualities of both the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution is that the revolutionaries and warriors in each case attempted to hold to ancient constitutions and traditions while massacring each other in heinous numbers. When Ferdinand (the Holy Roman Emperor to be) infringed upon Protestant privileges in Bohemia, they had retaliated by throwing his officials out a window. When the Bohemians went to the Protestant Union (a group of protestant German princes put together for self-defense) to ask for money and support, the Union was horrified at the Bohemian’s violation of the ancient ways of the Holy Roman Empire. Ferdinand headed the state that supposedly was controlled by these various documents, but he cared less about its provisos than his supposed enemies. While liberal Lutherans condemned the actions of radical Calvinists in an effort buy clout with the catholic institutions of power, the Hapsburgs imprisoned and killed both groups.

This confusion and political moderation born of an attachment to aged documents originating in the era of Charlemagne certainly reflects similar developments in the United States. While constitutional rights are thrown out the window by a growing surveillance state and an increasingly violent police presence across the country, leftists and rightists alike urge a return to the Constitution’s promised rights. This idea that present failures in governance are due to a corruption of some core set of rights or national values (German and American, respectively) dominated 17th century German politics. The problem with this rendering in both eras was the supposition that this set of rights and values were born in universal time. “German Values” in the 17th century were the same as the values of Arminius (the Germanic general at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and Charlemagne; and “American values” in the 21st century are the same as the values of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. When new variables were introduced (the protestant reformation, and the derivatives economic collapse of 2008) , the aging legal documents of each country came under fire. In both cases, the battle was fought in the courts, and in both cases, the results were disastrously inconclusive. 

In Bohemia, the protestants urged Ferdinand to adhere to the “Letter of Majesty” in which Rudolf II (the former Holy Roman Emperor) had promised them equal rights to practice their religion. As the militantly catholic Ferdinand began his campaign to dissolve the provisos of this letter, the case was taken to several courts across the Empire. Different verdicts were given, allowing Ferdinand to continue with his campaign while legal confusion prevailed. This lead to the militant action in Bohemia (the aforementioned defenestration), which was in turn condemned by protestants as previously mentioned. So the courts of the Holy Roman Empire ensured both militant retaliation and the recreation of the conditions that would replicate violence through paralytic moderation and adherence to outdated legal codes.

In the United States, the failure of courts to convict those responsible for the economic collapse, the War in Iraq, and those responsible for police violence created a similar sense of militancy that erupted most notably in Ferguson and Baltimore. These acts of militancy, just like that of the Bohemians, was condemned by their supposed comrades on the left and right. These activists must seek legal recourse, claimed the moderates, to a problem rooted in legal ineptitude and paralysis. Thus we see a self-replicating cycle that spins on the axis of assuring violence by legal failure and then condemning it. German intellectual circles spun on this circle while thousands of men, women, and children were butchered on the battlefield and in besieged cities. This cycle is not self-sustaining, though, and as war escalated in the mid 1620s, leaders endeavored to obfuscate constitutional precedent by the abstraction of conflict to an almost ludicrous degree.

As war escalated and moderates hurried to justify it, governments and leaders needed the constitutional organs to raise money and armies. The Hapsburg dynasty had long tasked the emerging bourgeoisie with funding its armies against Ottoman invasions, and when the dynasty asked for money to fight protestants the burghers were less than willing to cooperate. To mitigate outrage, leaders used mercenaries to an unprecedented degree. Battles of the Thirty Years War were not uncommonly fought by Spaniards (ostensibly ruled by the Hapsburgs) fighting for the French against the Hapsburgs who fielded an army of Dutchmen. In the Jülich succession crisis of the 1610s, for example, France, Spain, and the Hapsburgs all fielded mercenary armies to secure a tiny parcel of land close to the ever-warring low countries all because the leader of the tiny nation of Jülich passed away and a quarrel over who was to succeed him (and what religion that person would be a part of) erupted. Just what each individual soldier was fighting for was deeply ambiguous. In reality, kings and emperors alike were using the funds of the state for personal empowerment and political maneuvering for themselves and their families. This was a fact not lost on the emergent bourgeoisie, and the enslavement of feudal aristocracy to this set of political principles would be paid back in part at Whitehall, Yorktown, and the Bastille.

Thus the supposed guardians of the ancient German values violated them consistently and hid it through the abstraction of conflict through mercenaries and feigned religious and national fervor. In our era, conflict is abstracted in numerous ways. Armies are relatively small in number, and mercenaries are commonly used by the US and its allies in the middle east. A physical abstraction is also a luxury afforded the american ruling class. In any case, a movement for a radical remaking of the German state textured with the realities of the day may have prevented thirty years of war. Instead, moderates clung to ancient traditions as the ruling class violated them for personal gain at the cost of millions of lives. This question of the ruling class being disparate from moderate elements that continually tried to court them brings us to perhaps our clearest lesson from the Thirty Years War.

Mitigation and Synthesis:

Mercenaries put civilians to the sword (that randomly adult looking baby isn’t going down without a fight) in Sebastian Vrancx’s “Soldiers Plundering a Farm During the Thirty Years War.”

The chief lesson of the Thirty Years War for us today is one that teaches us how we should construct our movements for change in systems paralyzed by unchecked ruling classes and failing justice systems. In Germany in the 17th century, much like 21st century America, political movements cling to constitutional precedence and endeavor to find ways to best mitigate the failures of the economic system of society. Coming to the end of the Thirty Years War should help us understand where such politics lead, and should also give us a gloomy warning that holds hope in its recognition.

The end of the Thirty Years War is perhaps why it is not studied to a great degree. The outcome of so much death was essentially total ruination and utter paralysis with almost no positive outcomes. Yet as I mentioned before, in the paralysis of Germany we find potential salves for that paralysis that as we have seen is so similar to our own. As Kings and Emperors sent thousands to their deaths, a growing sense of distrust in central government understandably blossomed in war-ravaged Germany. This lead to the utter fracturing of Germany in the Peace of Westphalia (5). Small principalities were split into several land grants the size of central park in New York City. This way, reasoned German intellectuals, the privileges promised to Protestants that started the war could be secured so long as they found a neck of the woods that was sympathetic to them or had a Protestant prince.

This desire for decentralization is extremely prevalent in modern american politics. After the economic bailouts and fraudulent wars in the middle east, a profound apathy underlies a distrust in governance that is matched only in the Civil War era in American history. This relationship of failed constitutions and the growth of a desire for decentralization is a dangerous one, as the history of the Thirty Years War can teach us. In the aftermath of disastrous decentralization, Germany became an economic backwater reversed only with the growth of nationalism and militarism in the early and mid 19th century. When Germany finally came together it partook in two World Wars and was the home of unprecedented nationalism and centralization.

The problem then as it is now is not with central government. It is instead, as it was then, rooted in the failure of resistance movements to seek synthesis and not merely mitigation. By shackling the protestant cause to aged documents, resistance movements in the Holy Roman Empire were unable to reach the universality John Donne so desired. Instead, protestants were stuck in a cycle of courts and alliances that continually failed them and lead to their utter destruction at the hands of the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. In the United States, topical activism attached perilously to appeals to the ethics of the government officials and the documents by which they rule prevents a more universal critique of the capitalist system.

Modern activists must not fall for the Hapsburg lie that courts and representative diets can fully amend the contradictions of society and must equally avoid the diffusion of ruling class “justice” systems. We must instead follow in the footsteps of the bourgeois revolutionaries who succeeded in dissolving the paralysis of late feudalism left in the wake of the Thirty Years War. In England, America, and France, revolutionaries changed the question from one of constitutional precedence to one of “cruel necessity” (6) and the new life of an unburdened, revolutionary state (7). Like them, we must seek the contradictions of our day and find syntheses, imperfect as they be, for them. By seeking synthesis and shifting the questions of political resistance away from aged constitutional precedent and legal mitigation, we can achieve what the Bohemians and Germans could not. We can finally declare with John Donne that “death,” the deaths Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and so many others, “thou shalt die.”


(1) Lewalski’s biography of Milton

(2) The general facts expressed in this post are taken from Peter Wilson and C.V. Wedgewood’s histories of the event. I recommend them both.

(3) The title itself suggests his interaction with something beyond the merely autobiographical.

(4) Dates for Donne’s work are disputed, but both of these dates I secured from my Norton Anthology. Generally, these dates seem to be in the ballpark from my outside research.
(5) Germany after the Thirty Years War is, in my scholarly opinion, the first example of splatter painting.

(6) By legend, Cromwell said this after seeing Charles I’s body

(7) I’m mirroring Robespierre’s language in his famous declaration that Louis must die so that we (France) can live.

Leave a comment

Filed under Andrew Marvell, Early Modern, History, History of the English Civil War, Horatian Ode, John Donne, Meditation XVII, Milton, Modern, Movements, Puritanism, Thirty Years War