Faith and the power of poetry

John Donne and religious authority in the reformed English church by Mark S. Sweetnam (Four Courts Press, €65.00 hb / £52.99 hb)

John F. Deane

Mr Sweetnam teaches in the School of English at Trinity College Dublin. This study focuses on Donne’s theology, how it finds purchase in the issues thrown up by the European Reformation. Works such as The Pseudo-Martyr and the Sermons are central to the study. The book is hugely informative, clearly and persuasively written, and offers an essential background to anyone interested in any aspect of Donne’s work.

Although the poems are not treated, save incidentally, the elucidation of Donne’s thinking and seriousness adds greatly to one’s understanding and love of the poems. Sweetnam treats of Donne’s reliance on the authority of Scripture, “in which the plain and simple man may hear God speaking to him in his own plain and familiar language”.

True authority, as the Reformation insisted, resides in the Scriptures and not in any additions any Church might wish to insist on. If the Scriptures are “for the plain man”, then the Sermon, too, takes on great importance. Donne approves the boundaries set for the reading of the Scriptures by the established church; for him the preacher’s task is to outline these boundaries.

Sweetnam goes on to write of Donne’s own scholarship, how essential it is for the interpretation of Scripture, remembering, however, that Donne was, first and foremost, a pastor. He valued edification above exegesis, urged devotion before argument, but took interpretation seriously. “The Scriptures are God’s Voyce: The Church is his Echo”, one of the sermons begins; the Church, then, is interpreter and not source, of truth, yet that echo is most important.

The book also clarifies Donne’s position regarding the Catholic Church and shows good reason why Donne turned to the Protestant Faith, thus doing away with the often-held notion that he converted for convenience sake. Sweetnam examines Satyre III as proof of Donne’s search for true religion.

The book also probes Donne’s definition of Christianity.  Donne looked beyond the Reformation and the corruptions of Rome, to the teaching of the apostles, the early councils and the primitive church. Sweetnam calls Donne’s final view as “an essentialist ecumenism”.

The book also examines the authority of the Church, of the preacher, and of the priesthood. Throughout this work there is ample and judicious quotation; the book follows a logical sequence that is clearly planned and carefully developed.

I have come away from reading Mark Sweetnam with a much greater appreciation of Donne’s prose work and that, inevitably, adds to my relishing of the poems.

It is a thoroughly worthwhile study.