restricted access 10. Breaking Down the Walls That Divide: Anti-Polemicism in the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
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10 Breaking Down the Walls That Divide Anti-Polemicism in the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions elena levy-navarro iven the volatile history of Donne criticism, I worry that we might be entering a new era where we will now apply our new religio-political terminology to him. Should we import the new terms that recent revisionist history of the period has to offer— whether “avant-garde conformist,” “church papist,” or “conforming puritan ”?1 This essay explains why I answer “no” to this question. Such terms, coined to characterize the complex political atmosphere of Donne’s day, do not sufficiently describe his purposeful anti-polemicism. In my view, Donne reacted to growing divisions in the church, widening in the 1620s, by developing strategies to repair them. Consequently, these new terms are inappropriate because they make him part of a specific faction rather than the anti-polemicist I believe he is. In this essay, I consider the way that the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions , Donne’s account of his illness in late 1623 that he published in 1624, takes an anti-polemicist position in order to renew and revitalize “true Religion ” in England (Devotions 102). Much of his terminology, including the use of the words “true religion” itself, suggests that Donne was committed to the fundamentals of the Reformation heritage of the Church of England . Donne counters an emerging polemicism in the church, evident in the increase of inflammatory pamphlets and sermons in the 1620s, in order to conserve what he sees as the foundation of its Reformation heritage. In a 1624 Easter Day sermon, Donne makes it clear that England as a nation 273 G must preserve its Reformation heritage. He uses a strikingly unorthodox version of millenarianism as he describes the Reformation as bringing the second coming of Christ. Now that they have “raigned so with Christ, but 100. yeares,” they must “persist in a good use of it” so that their posterity will “make that 100.1000” (6:68). Donne’s millenarian account places considerable pressure on his contemporaries by insisting that the Church of England is required by God to remain true to what he conceives of as a doctrinally minimalistic Reformation heritage. In using terms like “true Religion” and even in implying, if not saying, that he is more “moderate” than his contemporaries, Donne undoubtedly participates in the polemics of his day.2 I am not arguing that Donne rises above politics, since, I believe, his masterful, innovative, and often beautiful imagery emerges as he reacts to what he considers the tense religiopolitical atmosphere of his day. Surely, Donne’s unorthodox version of millenarianism can be explained, for example, by his efforts to redefine the nature of the church settlement. In offering his own version of this church settlement, one that stops further reform in doctrine and discipline of the church, Donne is undoubtedly taking a political position. In fact, any person who wants to push for further reform in either doctrine or discipline is implicitly labeled an extremist. Donne attempts to stop the Reformation at some earlier self-consciously minimalistic settlement in order to prevent , for example, any further specification of Article 17, the controversial and vague article on predestination. Obviously, all such reformers would find Donne to be rather political, indeed. I use the term “anti-polemicist,” then, not so much to suggest that Donne is apolitical as to suggest the type of engagement he had with the polemical wars of the 1620s. Precisely because Donne writes in a purposefully anti-polemicist way in his sermons and the Devotions, we cannot define him by turning to any of the religio-political categories used to describe the emerging factions of his day. We can, however, follow the lead of a number of historians (e.g., Peter Lake, Lori Anne Ferrell, and Anthony Milton) to show how Donne responded to the religio-political milieu of his day in a complex and sometimes unexpected manner. In examining Donne in relation to his contemporaries, it becomes clear that he is one of those figures who quite purposefully seems to have refused to take sides in the polemical wars of his day; thus, although he draws on rhetoric used by polemicists, Donne does so in an effort to silence dissent and create a more devout and thus quiescent church membership. According to Donne’s unorthodox millenarian view of history, the present-day Church of England must actively work to persevere in its 274 · Elena...


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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