restricted access 5. Donne’s Protestant Paradiso: The Johannine Vision of the Second Anniversary
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5 Donne’s Protestant Paradiso The Johannine Vision of the Second Anniversary Raymond-Jean Frontain ohn Donne’s familiarity with the Divine Comedy of medieval Italian poet Dante Alighieri is too often treated simply as a curiosity of literary history.1 But while the imaginative bases of his identification with Dante have received some comment,2 the extent of Donne’s experimentation with Dantean self-presentation has yet to be documented and explored. Donne’s Second Anniversary (SA)—one of two poems written in 1611–12 in response to the death of Elizabeth Drury, the daughter of Donne’s patron Sir Robert Drury—posits a Reformed alternative to Dante’s Paradiso, one that practices an “art of knowing Heaven” (SA 311) that Donne hopes is, unlike Dante’s, not too “pert” to be “beeleeved.”3 Like the pilgrim in Dante’s Paradiso, the speaker of Donne’s Second Anniversary witnesses a soul’s progress to heaven, watching it shoot like a bullet through the nine spheres and into the empyrean. But whereas it takes Dante the pilgrim nearly thirty-three cantos to reach the seat of God with Beatrice, Donne gets Elizabeth Drury’s soul to heaven in a scant thirty-seven lines. And while both poems model themselves upon the prophecy of vision enacted in the Revelation of Saint John the Divine, Dante fashions himself as the passive witness to a divine drama, whereas Donne emphasizes that his prophetic vision occurs in his mind’s eye, the result of his devotional meditation. By climbing his “watch-towre” (SA 294)—a traditional medieval image for the mind, but one that Donne invests with allusions to Isaiah and Habakkuk—Donne posits a new authority for the devotional poet as visionary prophet. 113 J Donne’s Second Anniversary, in short, posits a Reformed fiction of the poet’s spiritual authority, one designed specifically to undercut Marian “mis-deuotion” and put that “pert” Italian Dante in his place.4 Dante’s reliance in the Divine Comedy upon the mediation of the Blessed Virgin and a host of saints created and worshiped by the (for Donne) misguided Church of Rome is replaced as the primary source of spiritual authority in the Second Anniversary by the devout Christian’s meditative activity. While Dante’s vision depends upon saintly assistance, Donne’s poem models how the soul can achieve a progress independent of some mediating agency, through one’s own meditative powers. Dante’s Visionary Poetic In Paradiso 17 of the Divine Comedy, Dante, nearing the end of his journey, speaks with his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, who had come down from the giant cross of the Warriors of God as a shooting star in canto 15. After hearing his forebear’s prophecy that he eventually will be exiled from his beloved Florence, Dante admits his reluctance to return to the mortal realm and tell others what he has seen in the course of his journey lest it incite them against him. At the same time, he understands that failure actively to publish the truth that has been revealed to him may endanger his eternal soul. Down in the world of endless bitterness, and on the mountain from whose lovely peak I was drawn upward by my lady’s eyes, and afterward, from light to light in Heaven, I learned that which, if I retell it, must for many have a taste too sharp, too harsh; yet if I am a timid friend of truth, I fear that I may lose my life among those who will call this present, ancient times. (Par. 17:112–18) Cacciaguida resolves Dante’s dilemma by providing him with a mandate to sing his comedy. “A conscience that is dark— either through its or through another’s shame— indeed will find that what you speak is harsh. 114 · Raymond-Jean Frontain Nevertheless, all falsehood is set aside, let all that you have seen be manifest, and let them scratch wherever it may itch. For if, at the first taste, your words molest, they will, when they have been digested, end as living nourishment.” (124–32) Commenting on this scene, Marguerite Waller notes that “buried in this apparently figurative description of the responsibility borne by the reader of the poem to make good its ‘vision,’ there is an allusion which is virtually a quotation from Scripture. What appears at first to be a metaphorical elaboration, a movement away from plain speaking, actually draws us further inward toward the center...


Subject Headings

  • Donne, John, -- 1572-1631 -- Religion.
  • Christianity and literature -- England -- History -- 17th century.
  • Protestantism and literature -- History -- 17th century.
  • Christian literature, English -- History and criticism
  • Reformation -- England.
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