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JEANNE SHAM! Anatomy and Progress: The Drama of Conversion in Donne's Men of a 'Middle Nature' Anyone who studies Donne's entire career can readily observe his concernwith ordinary human doubts about the justiceofGod'sways. For the men ofa 'middle nature' who constitute his audience, Donne realizes, the greatestproblemis not a lack offaith butan inability to apply that faith to an increasingly uncertain, even incomprehensible seventeenthcenturyworld .1 Thequestion thatmost engagedhimwashow torouse the hearts ofsuchmen from theirlethargyand despair, how to transform their general sense ofGod's providence into a motive for personal response to him. And he becomes increasingly aware that the re-energizing effect he seeks is best achieved through the force of examples, both fictional and historical, of people resolving their doubts without losing sight of God's providential purposes in exercising them as he does.2 Accordingly, to achieve this 'commerce' between his hearers and their God, Donne chooses models ofa 'middle nature': the reluctant satiristof the satires, the world-renouncing speaker of the Anniversaries, David, Esther, Paul, Mrs Danvers, Elizabeth Drury, King James, people who are exemplary precisely because they are struggling to rectify God's image in themselvesandhave accepted theiradversitiesas partof thisregenerative process. Typically, Donne dramatizes imperfect people trying to make difficult Christian decisions and doubts the exemplary value of those cases that, despite other merits, are too 'singular' to be generally applicable. He is concerned to demonstrate that special cases (like the thief at the crucifixion, like Christ himself) are poor 'examples' precisely because their actions cannot evoke a general rule.3The examples that he uses, like Elizabeth Drury, are testimonies to God's ordinary Providence and are effective because they remind us that, like her, we can make 'this world in some proportion I A heaven' (P, 468-9)4 as much as our regenerate natures will allow. Apart from the kind ofexample he chooses, Donne also recognizes that hemust choose themost effective means ofapplyingthese examples tohis hearers. This awareness is reflected in his shift in vocation from poetry to preaching and in his growing certainty that his examples will challenge the complexities ofan unjustworld onlybybeingless obscure, more direct in themselves. The pointis made earlyin his career in Satyre IV where he claims that poetryis topreachingas the apocryphal to the canonicalbooks UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 53, NUMBER), SPRING 1984 222 JEANNE SHAMI of the Bible. As he later distinguishes in the Sermons, both can be used for the 'edification' oftheir audiences, for the finding offorceful illustrations. But only the 'canonical' books can be used for 'foundation,' for the solid and unquestionable bases of truth.5 Even the satirist recognizes, however , that his work is neither plain nor authoritative enough to convert most men. He knows that his examples are just, but he is equally aware that only the 'wise man' will recognize that his writs are 'Canonicall' (Iv, 243-4). This consideration explains, in part, why Donne moves from the indirection of his poetic personae, and the difficult distances between speaker and poet that they involve, to his relatively clear and authoritative use of examples in the Sermons. When we look at Donne's work as a whole, then, we can see that he teaches best by examples, particularly in a context where he can not only dramatize responses to God's ways (as in the Anniversaries) but interpret them as well (as in the Sermons). A useful way to consider the paradigmof religious experience that Donne dramatizes most often is to examine the pattern of 'anatomy and progres' that he develops, a label taken from the titles ofhis Anniversariesbutapplicable to many of his works includingthe satires, the Devotions, and many of the Sermons. In these works, it becomes apparent that Donne is imitating patterns of developing and corrected response to the moral disorder and the senseof uncorrespondence with which God exercises his people. This pattern of initial despair leading to transcendent escape and ultimately to acceptance and reconciliation, while indirect, seems to correct the inadequately extreme responses of his hearers by engaging them in the drama of their own relationship with their God. The large pattern remains fairly constant. A rational and analytic 'anatomy' of the situation dissects the problem and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 221-235
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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