Holy Delight: Typology, Numerology, and Autobiograhy in Donne's

Holy Delight: Typology, Numerology, and Autobiograhy in Donne's "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions"

by Kate Gartner Frost

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Composed on the occasion of the poet's near-fatal bout with typhus in 1623, the Devotions contains the essential germ of John Donne's mature thought, embodied in obscurely structured verse/prose divisions. Because of its seeming digressiveness, critics have struggled to understand this most significant of Renaissance texts as a whole. Kate Gartner Frost, however,

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Composed on the occasion of the poet's near-fatal bout with typhus in 1623, the Devotions contains the essential germ of John Donne's mature thought, embodied in obscurely structured verse/prose divisions. Because of its seeming digressiveness, critics have struggled to understand this most significant of Renaissance texts as a whole. Kate Gartner Frost, however, shows that the Devotions, which combines odd bits of natural history, personal life-data, quotations from scripture, and descriptions of unpleasant medical nostrums with personal religious outpourings, is a unified work belonging to the tradition of English devotional literature and spiritual autobiography from Augustine onward. Frost examines how Donne patterned his work on models and structures that allowed the blending of chronology, experience, anecdote, and insight into the fullness of extended metaphor reflecting the human condition. Donne's use of biblical typology is treated, as well as his adherence to a poetics rooted in pre-Copernican cosmology, which relies on underlying spatial structures. Finally, Frost reveals the actual numerological structures present in the Devotions and addresses the problem of discursive reading in relation to spatially organized premodern works.

Originally published in 1991.

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"A comprehensive and detailed study of one of Donne's most complicated works."--Religion & Literature

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Holy Delight

Typology, Numerology, and Autobiography in Donne's Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

By Kate Gartner Frost


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06781-0



We Take into Our Meditation the Slippery Condition of Man

At the time of his bout with typhus in 1623, Donne, as dean of St. Paul's and royal chaplain to James I, was well established as a London preacher. His secular career and most of his major poetry lay some years behind him. Immersed in the duties of his ministry and the composition of the more than 150 sermons that form an important part of his literary legacy, he could be counted among the foremost divines of his day. The Devotions, composed during that illness and published immediately upon his recovery, displays his finest powers. Providing a remarkable index to the resources of Donne's memory and poetic invention, the individual segments of each Devotion differ radically in content, style, and tone, ranging from the agitated convolutions of the Meditations to the sonorously rolling periods of the Prayers. In the end, Donne turned an exhausting human experience into a complicated artifact.

But to the modern eye, the Devotions is a difficult book, one that merges such unlikely companions as odd bits of natural history, personal-life data, quotations from Scripture, and unpleasant medical nostrums with the most personal and inspired of religious outpourings. While it is difficult for me to agree with Gosse that "nothing like them had been noted down before," or even with R. C. Bald that the work is "unique in the annals of literature," it is not hard to acknowledge that the Devotions had no contemporary parallel. Yet it appeared at an optimal time.

After the unhappy lacuna proceeding from the sixteenth-century emphasis on religious polemic, the literary stage was prepared by the beginning of the seventeenth century for a renaissance of devotional literature. Thoroughly Protestant forms and conventions had been established, and a generation of great Anglican divines was waiting in the wings—among them, Joseph Hall, Bishop Morton, Lancelot Andrewes, and (not least among his brethren) Donne himself. William Crashaw and the Fletchers, Giles and Phineas, were about to take up their pens, and the Puritan thunder of Bayly and Dent was rumbling in the distance. Best of all, an avid reading public had formed, and weekly fair days at St. Paul's churchyard were thronged with citizenry who manifested strongly independent tastes.

The market was very competitive, and by the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the production of devotional literature was very healthy indeed. In the year 1620, for example, of the 130 books entered in the Stationers' Register, just over half were religious in intent: sermons, scriptural exegeses, polemics, sacred verse, prayers, hagiographies, martyrologies, and—these in large proportion—works of prayer and devotion.

By 1650, the devotional tradition had reached its literary zenith with the simultaneous publication of Richard Baxter's The Saints Everlasting Rest and, the masterpiece of the Protestant tradition, Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living, succeeded by Holy Dying the following year—which combined in two volumes the salient features of the prayer book, the meditative tract, the book of directions for the godly life, and the rules for the conduct of dying fostered by the ars moriendi tradition.

By virtue of its title, the Devotions seems to belong to this tradition, but even after the most superficial reading, its place therein is puzzling, for the book seems to fit, comfortably or uncomfortably, no easily recognized category of contemporary devotional literature, whether one examines prayer books, spiritual conduct books, manuals for the sick or the dying, or even popular meditative forms.

Some of these traditions have been examined for their pertinence to Donne's book. Jonathan Goldberg, for example, has drawn attention to the many commonplaces in the Devotions that are drawn from the manuals for the sick, such as M. M.'s An Ease for a Diseased Man (1625) and the "Order for the Visitación of the Sicke" from the Book of Common Prayer. But the Devotions is clearly not a manual for the sick: its intensely personal address and what Janel Mueller has called its "anguished intellection" belie the deepest conventions of that soothing genre. The language of the "Order for the Visitacion of the Sicke," however, seems to have informed the Devotions, Expostulation 2 especially, a natural enough phenomenon if one realizes that just such a visitation likely occurred (Donne was called upon almost daily by his friend Canon Henry King) and that as a priest, he was familiar with the rite and could easily call it to mind during his own sickness.

But Donne was not merely sick; he was, by contemporary witness, near death, and a recent editor of the Devotions, Sister Elizabeth Savage, maintains that the book, in "its content, tone, and basic method" and despite many noticeable differences, reflects its strong dependence on the ars moriendi tradition. But those differences, many of which Savage allows (the lack of a central emphasis on the novissima, the temptations and their remedies, and the conflict of devil and angel for the soul of Moriens; the traditional prayers for the dying; the fact that Donne, unlike Moriens, was not foredoomed) far outweigh the similarities, indicating that the Devotions does not really fulfill the generic purpose of the ars moriendi: to teach men to die well. Although the book shares so much thematically and stylistically with the ars moriendi—for example, its revulsion at what Louis Martz calls the depravity of "the feeble flesh" and the consequent fear and horror of judgment; its meditative structure, with the implicit expectation that the reader will participate actively as he goes along; the universality of its personal anguish; and finally, according to Savage, its stress "on the acceptance of death, the conquest of those things which could turn the soul from God in its last moments"—still, the Devotions is not simply a book on the art of dying. The ars moriendi makes formal demands that are not met by Donne's book. Much of the richness is there, but it is a contributory richness. Had Donne not been familiar with the tradition (and as a pastor, he almost certainly knew examples of the genre—probably at least Becon, Crashaw, and his old subject of study Bellarmine), the Devotions would be the less. At the same time, however, it is a work the main thrust of which lies elsewhere. It is something more.

The extent of Donne's debt to the meditative tradition has given rise to much controversy. Asserting that "the imprint of Jesuit methods of meditation stayed with Donne throughout ... his life," Louis Martz has attributed the emotional violence of the "Holy Sonnets" and "The First Anniversary" to Donne's having found a "fundamental affinity and satisfaction in the methods of the Jesuit exercises." Since Professor Martz's arguments are extremely persuasive, it has become rather the fashion in recent years to track down Donne, the closet Jesuit.

Although in her edition of The Divine Poems she agrees with some reservation that "both in meditation and in the writing of his sonnets [Donne] converts traditional [Jesuit] material to his own use," Helen Gardner concludes that "the influence of the formal meditation lies behind the 'Holy Sonnets,' not as a literary source, but as a way of thinking, a method of prayer." Janel Mueller, on the other hand, has identified the prototype of Donne's meditations not as the Ignatian meditation but as the series of sermons on the Penitential Psalms delivered early in the year of Donne's illness, and N.J.C. Andreasen has focused attention not on the Ignatian but the Protestant meditative tradition exemplified by Bishop Hall. Certainly Donne could have been influenced by the Spiritual Exercises, even aside from the meditational literature popular in his day and his own delving into theology and Jesuit lore. Bald, who examined Donne's boyhood connections with the order through his Jesuit uncles, admits a possibility that Donne as a youth visited the English College in Rome, where he may have known some who had undergone the rigors of an Ignatian retreat if he did not do so himself.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that Donne became a bitter and lifelong opponent of the Jesuits, as Ignatius His Conclave so amply testifies. Still, Jesuit training dies hard, and one must admit to certain parallels with Jesuit meditation in Donne's work. Unfortunately, most of those who seek to make a case for Donne's use of an Ignatian model have drawn upon his verse, ignoring the Devotions, the one work in which he deliberately set out a formal meditative mode. Enough similarities exist between Donne's book and the Spiritual Exercises to make their comparison fruitful: Both must be considered in their entirety; both are thematically and formally concerned with the passage of time and the imitatio Christi; and both are derived from a method of meditation which concentrates on the three powers of the soul. Yet I propose that examination of apparent similarities and close consideration of the formal differences between the two works will cast doubt on the extent to which Ignatian meditation influenced Donne's work in general.

Both the Devotions and the Spiritual Exercises are valid only as total entities; although both have been excerpted frequently, neither can be taken effectively in small doses. According to Jesuit historian Joseph De Guibert, the effectiveness of the Exercises "comes not so much from the value of each one of the exercises that make it up, taken one by one in isolation, but rather from the logical sequence that bends the single exercises into a whole and from the impact of that whole upon the soul of the exercitant." The Devotions also constitutes a long work, although fragmentary anthologizing unfortunately has led to its appreciation more for its prose style than its coherence.

Like the Spiritual Exercises, Donne's book is concerned with the passing from crisis to a state of election under conditions of abstinence and isolation within a particular time span. This inherent structure hinders any attempt to isolate fragments from either work. The passage of the soul through time is a significant factor in both books. In the case of the Exercises, the time span is mandatory and determines the work's very structure. The classic Ignatian retreat, given over the course of a month, falls into four thematic weeks; the first deals with man's sinfulness, the second with Christ as captain in the warfare against sin, the third with the Passion as a source of spiritual renewal and resolution, and the fourth with living with Christ in the Resurrection. The Devotions, on the other hand, covers a three-week time span at most, charting Donne's illness from its inception through its crisis and a short period thereafter. Although the progression is clear, it is a metaphorical rather than a mandatory one, one which concentrates on states of illness, crisis, and recovery elevated to a spiritual progress, which in no way attempts the rigid classification of the Ignatian model. In addition, although both books are informed by the imitatio Christi, the Spiritual Exercises is an overtly Christocentric work, stressing sensual experiencing of Christ, while the Devotions is Trinitarian, committed to an intellectuality that obviates emphasis on the senses. Donne's Christ is Son of God and Savior, but he is not the earthly Christ of Ignatius. His Trinitarian address is typified, for example, in the concluding passage of Prayer 9:

Yet take me again, into your Consultation, O blessed and glorious Trinitie; & thogh the Father know, that I haue defaced his Image receiued in my Creation; though the Son know, I haue neglected mine interest in the Redemption, yet, O blessed spirit, as thou art to my Conscience, so be to them a witnes, that at this minute, I accept that which I haue so often, so often, so rebelliously refused, thy blessed inspirations.

The question of the extent to which the Devotions partakes of the more formal content of the Exercises is a matter of debate. Helen Gardner has maintained that by meditation, "Donne meant something much more discursive, a less rigourous exercise than the Ignatian meditation." And the Ignatian model is indeed rigorous. The classic form of Ignatian meditation is found in the exercises of the first week, which employ the method of the three faculties of the soul. This is the quality which has been called most typically Ignatian—a movement from intellect to will, through a processive tripartite structure based upon the application of the senses. The meditations of this first week are generally divided into five parts: preparation, reading, meditation, thanksgiving, and petition. The exercitant first selects a limited topic and makes a short preparatory prayer for the grace to make all facets of his meditation to the honor and glory of God. Next he considers the two preludes, the famous composito loci and a request for particular benefits as the fruit of his exercise. Third is proposed a series of points, or aspects, of the topic for meditation and the application of the memory, understanding, and will to each. The exercise closes with a double prayer: the colloquy, in which the exercitant speaks in familiar tones to Christ, the Virgin, or the saints, and a formal prayer, usually the Pater Noster or Anima Christi.

Donne's book, on the other hand, exhibits little appeal to the senses and demonstrates a far less complicated structure. The poet's wit plays a considerable part in limiting any sensuality, a wit epitomized in the first Meditation:

So that now, we doe not onely die, but die vpon the Rack, die by the torment of sicknesse; nor that onely, but are pre-afflicted, super-afflicted, with these ielousies and suspitions, and apprehensions of Sicknes, before we can cal it a sicknes; we are not sure we are ill; one hand askes the other by the pulse, and our eye askes our own vrine, how we do.

The Devotions, moreover, offers no act of the presence of God, no attempt to present visualized scenes as matter for meditation, and no attempt to apply the senses to the matter as an aid to understanding. Each of its sections begins with a Meditation on the Book of the Creatures, followed by an Expostulation that draws heavily on Scripture, and ends with a formal Prayer.

Despite these apparent dissimilarities, Thomas F. Van Laan purports to have found direct structural parallels between the Ignatian model and the Devotions by an extended comparison of individual Devotions with individual Exercises. He finds the two identical—except that Donne has dropped Ignatius's preliminary prayer and the first prelude (the composition of place) and has moved the second prelude bodily to the end of the Exercise, where, as Donne's Prayer, it becomes in effect a postlude. The Pater Noster has also been discarded. This considerable reshuffling, according to Van Laan, has improved the Jesuit exercise by mitigating the abruptness of the Ignatian ending, thus preparing for the exercitant's return to normal routine, and by freeing the meditation so that his mind may "range with maximum possibilities." The missing, and crucial, composition of place can be found in Donne's Meditations and the colloquy in the Expostulations. Van Laan relates Donne's Latin verse tags to the memory, his Meditations to the understanding, and his Expostulations to the will. The function of the Prayers, other than as a general winding down, he ignores.

Much of this lopping of limbs from the Spiritual Exercises to fit Donne's procrustean bed stems from the confusion generated by the Devotions' three-part form, which seems to derive directly from the Ignatian appeal to memory, understanding, and will. Yet, tripartite structure was so common in the Renaissance as to obviate comparison to Ignatian or any other set form. The Ignatian Exercises themselves, admits Martz, were a new and exciting development of an older tradition—one stemming from the Victorines and the later Devotio Moderna of the fourteenth century, which stressed the three powers of the mind and offered a solid common ground among the many methods developed by the growing congregational movement of the sixteenth century: the Oratorians, the Minims, the Salesians, and the Jesuits. But, he adds, "it is important to remember that [they] do not stand alone in their kind, but represent a summary and synthesis of efforts since the twelfth century to reach a precise and widely accepted method of meditation. The older methods and treatises which underlie the Exercises continue to exert strong influence in their own right."


Excerpted from Holy Delight by Kate Gartner Frost. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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