Battered by Donne: A Personal Appreciation of the Religious Poetry of John Donne

If you have studied John Donne at university you probably know him for his early (and racy) love poetry. But Donne had a very different career later in life becoming an Anglican minister, Dean of St. Paul’s cathedral and a passionate evangelist. His Christian poems are humble, honest about his own sin and frailty; and unashamed in the confidence they express toward Christ and His atoning death. Donne’s poetry is full of biblical and theological allusions, igniting the imagination for God. Like a truly great commentary or theological work, Donne’s verse edifies by magnifying the Lord Jesus Christ as our only true source of comfort and peace.

If you have studied John Donne at university you probably know him for his early (and racy) love poetry. But Donne had a very different career later as an Anglican minister

John Donne: Evangelistic Preacher

Donne served as an Anglican minister in the Church of England during the reigns of James 1 and Charles, fighting (alongside the Puritans) to see a new English Translation of the Bible (KJV, 1611) in every church, and in the hands of every believer. Donne understood that the chief work of his life was to preach the gospel of Christ-crucified from Scripture with the goal of seeing men and women converted to a saving faith. He famously stated that his ambition and prayer was to die in the pulpit.

Of the Scriptures he writes:

‘As much as Paradise exceeded all the places of the earth, doe the Scriptures of God exceed Paradise. In the midst of Paradise grew the Tree of knowledge, and the Tree of life: in this Paradise, the Scripture, every word is both these Trees; there is Life and Knowledge in every Word of God.’[1]

And of preaching the Scriptures:

‘…to doe great works by small means, to bring men to heaven by Preaching in the Church, this is a miracle…Preaching must be a continuall application of all that Christ Jesus said and did, and suffered, to thee.’[2]

John Donne: Poet

Both as preacher and poet Donne is notable for his passionate, personal and direct style. His poetry is filled with the love of Christ, and deep assurance of the bond of love between the believer and Christ and Christ and His church.

Here are just three examples taken from the collection that came to be known as his ‘Holy Sonnets.’

Sonnet XIV
BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend,
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’ I love you,’ and would be loved faine,
But am bethroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’ untie or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’ enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

This poem is a prayer in which Donne begs God to ‘woo him’ away from the seductive idols of his heart and mind:

Divorce mee, [i.e. from his enemy the devil] ‘untie or breake that knot againe,
take mee to you.’

Donne yearns to be single-minded in his love for God; to love Him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength. Only by being enthralled—even ravished—by God’s love in Christ, will we be able to respond rightly to God with confident and obedient love.

Sonnet XV
WILT thou love God, as he thee? then digest,
My Soule, this wholsome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by Angels waited on
In heaven, doth make his Temple in thy brest.
The Father having begot a Sonne most blest,
And still begetting, (for he ne’r begonne)
Hath deign’d to chuse thee by adoption,
Coheire to’his glory,) and Sabbaths endlesse rest;
And as a robb’d man, which by search doth finde
His stolne stuffe sold, must lose or buy’it againe:
The Sonne of glory came downe, and was slaine,
Us whom he’had made, and Satan stolne, to unbinde.
’Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

Donne knows that our relationship with God depends on God and not us. God’s love for us is more faithful and true and powerful than ours could ever be. His love for us in Christ is the starting point for our love to God. Nowhere is this more clearly revealed than in the fact that the eternal Son of the Father became one of us so that He could die for us, and so share His glorious inheritance with us as God’s dearly loved children:

The Father having begot a Sonne most blest,
and still begetting, (for he ne’r begonne)
Hath deign’d to chuse thee by adoption,
Coheire to’his glory,) and Sabbath’s endless rest

By coming to die for our sin, the Son is ‘robbed’ of his glory; becoming poor to make us rich. For God to make man in His image is a great gift and privilege; but that God should become man to save sinful men is, for Donne, extraordinary beyond all imagining.

’Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

By coming to die for our sin, the Son is ‘robbed’ of his glory; becoming poor to make us rich. For God to make man in His image is a great gift and privilege; but that God should become man to save sinful men is, for Donne, extraordinary beyond all imagining.

Sonnet XVI
FATHER, part of his double interest
Unto thy kingdome, thy Sonne gives to mee,
His joynture in the knottie Trinitie
Hee keepes, and gives to me his deaths conquest.
This Lambe, whose death, with life the world hath blest,
Was from the worlds beginning slaine, and he
Hath made two Wills, which with the Legacie
Of his and thy kingdome, doe thy Sonnes invest.
Yet such are thy laws, that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfill;
None doth; but all-healing grace and spirit
Revive againe what law and letter kill.
Thy lawes abridgement, and thy last command
Is all but love; Oh let this last Will stand!

Here Donne rejoices in the central Biblical truth, that God gives us all things; every spiritual blessing in Christ (Romans 8:32; Ephesians 1:3). In Sonnet XVI, the eternal Son gives his people ‘a double share’ in his eternal inheritance. Despite our failure to fulfill God’s Law, God’s ‘last Will’—established through Christ ‘whose death, with life the world hath blest’—is ‘all but love.’

Donne cannot help but marvel at God’s extraordinary gift to us in the death of His Son. We share in the spoils of His glorious Kingdom! That we should be co-heirs with Christ in glory; that we be embraced by the love of God in Trinity from eternity to eternity; and that all that belongs to the Son should now belong to us in Him, leads Donne to prayer and praise.

With Donne Against the Flow

In the 1950’s and 60’s a number of ‘gospel singers’ became ‘soul singers’ when they replaced the Lord Jesus of the church songs of their youth, with the guy or girl of their dreams for the radio (e.g. Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin). Subsequent decades have shown the disappointing consequences of that romantic exchange.

But Donne’s life worked itself out in the opposition direction. He came to see that the true source of love which revolutionises all our relationships, is the eternal love of God in Trinity, which overflows to God’s creation and the church, through the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. God’s love reorders and transforms all our loves, and liberates us from destructive self-love and fruitless idolatry. What a great encouragement to a world of failed lovers.

‘Seale then this bill of my Divorce to All,
On whom those fainter beames of love did fall;
Marry those loves, which in youth scattered bee
On Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses) to thee.’[3]  


[1] Donne’s original spelling is maintained in all quotations. Quotation taken from Peter.J.H. Adam, ‘To Bring Men to Heaven by Preaching’: John Donne’s Evangelistic Sermons,’ in ed. Lee Gattiss, Preachers, Pastors, and Ambassadors: Puritan Wisdom for Today’s Church- St. Antholin Lectures Volume 2: 2001-2010, (London: The Latimer Trust, 2011), 264-5.

[2] Ibid, 277.

[3] From John Donne, ‘A Hymne to Christ.’

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