restricted access The Prose of the Preacher: The Sermons of Donne
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[ 667 The Prose of the Preacher: The Sermons of Donne1 The Listener, 2 (3 July 1929) 22-23 In the classification of prose styles the theology of Hooker is nearer to the philosophy of Bacon than it is to the prose of Donne and other great preachers. The first represents an important step in the development of reasoning; the second represents a step in the development of oratory. However far apart in beliefs, the work of Bacon and Hooker brings us nearer to Hobbes and Berkeley and Locke and Hume; however different in style and subject matter, the sermons of Donne bring us nearer to the speeches of Burke and other great politicians. They have a relation, on the other hand, to the more “decorative” or “poetic” prose in English; to Jeremy Taylor, of course, but also to De Quincey. In Hooker and Bacon we find what we may call “reasoning in tranquility”; in Donne we find “reasoning in emotion.” Up to quite recent times the sermons of Donne were hardly read except by the specialist in seventeenth-century prose: most people, if they have the prejudice that sermons must be dull, suppose that their dullness increases in direct ratio to their age. This is not true, for the best sermons of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are not only among the most interesting sermons in the language, but among the best prose of any kind in the language. Even to-day very few people have the courage or interest to read through the many volumes of Donne. But we had, a few years ago, the admirable selection of passages from these sermons edited by Mr. Logan Pearsall Smith at the Clarendon Press.2 The chief defect in the introduction to this book, otherwise excellent, is that the editor did not appear sufficiently interested in the other preachers of the period; and the chief defect of the book is that the selections are all much too short, and give the impression that Donne in preaching was from time to time inspired to a paragraph or so of superb English between dreary wastes of antiquated theology.ThetruthisthatDonne’ssermonsarebrilliantlywrittenthroughout , and brilliantly constructed, with a beginning, a middle and an end. For this reason I prefer the selections, including one complete sermon, given by Mr. John Hayward in his recent volume of Donne’s poetry and selected prose published by the Nonesuch Press.3 1929 668 ] [About John Donne himself, it is only necessary to remind you that after having written some of the most beautiful lyrics and love poems in the English language, and acquiring a vast erudition in theology and law, he was induced by James I to take holy orders. He became quickly a Royal Chaplain, and eventually Dean of St. Paul’s. Many of his sermons were preached before King James – a considerable theologian himself – and others at St. Paul’s or out of doors at Paul’s Cross. At a time when preaching was popular, Donne became the most popular of all preachers. His success can only be compared with that of some popular evangelist in America; for we have recorded some astounding accounts of the effects of his oratory upon both populace and courtiers. People of all sorts crowded to hear him; and when he preached upon Damnation and the perils of the sinful, it was not out of the way for some of his auditors to swoon with terror.] To put ourselves into a mood to read one of Donne’s sermons, it is worth while reminding ourselves of the reasons for the popularity of preaching at that time. In the first place, theological questions were then taken very seriously by everyone but the most ribald. Theology was, indeed, a very important part of politics, and politics meant serious matters of peace or strife, prosperity or persecutions. The English Church had a dangerous position to defend, and the security of Church was then one question with the security of Crown and State. With all questions of foreign politics, the relations of England with France, Spain and the Empire, was inextricably involved the question of Canterbury versus Rome; and a priest from Rome was regarded with as much suspicion, and was indeed in much greater danger at times, than a Russian Communist emissary is now. With all questions of domestic politics was involved the question of Canterbury versus Geneva and Zurich: that is to say, the struggle which culminated in the Civil Wars and the assassination of...


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