Dean John Donne
For the first part of his life, poet John Donne (1572–1631) lead a libertine existence, romancing ladies at court and writing some of the most famous seduction poems in history. But, somewhere along the way, his views, and the views of others on him, changed. In spite of his previous rakish exploits, and in spite of his Catholic upbringing, Donne was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1615. In 1621, at the age of 49, Donne became the dean of St. Paul’s, "the last man in the country . . . who might have been expected to rise to that position" (Times 114). He occupied the deanery until his death.
At St. Paul’s, Donne composed and delivered sermons prolifically. His biographer, Isaak Walton, gives the following account:
The latter part of his life may be said to be a continued study; for as he usually preached once a week, if not oftner, so after his Sermon he never gave his eyes rest, till he had chosen out a new Text, and that night cast his Sermon into a form, and his Text into divisions; and the next day betook himself to consult the Fathers, and so commit his meditations to his memory, which was excellent.
(qtd. in Bald 406)
He delivered his sermons either inside the cathedral, on Christmas and various other holidays, or in the open-air pulpit at Paul’s Cross. There, he preached to hundreds of rapt listeners, sometimes for longer than two hours. Donne dazzled his congregations, both with his animated style of delivery and with the masterfully wrought poetry of his words. As Walton tells us, he was:
A Preacher in earnest; weeping sometimes for his Auditory, sometimes with them: alwayes preaching to himself, like an Angel from a cloud, but in none . . . inticing others by a sacred Art and Courtship to amend their lives . . . with a most particular grace and an unexpressible addition of comeliness.
(qtd. in Bald 408)
John Chamberlain, whose Letters offer an expansive contemporary record of London life, makes numerous approving mentions of Donne’s sermons. He offers this account of a sermon at Paul’s Cross, early in Donne’s religious career: "great men were at Paul’s Cross and heard Dr. Donne who made there a dainty sermon upon the eleventh verse of the 22nd of Proverbs, and was exceedingly well liked generally" (Thomson 141). In his letter of July 1, 1622, Chamberlain contrasts Donne with an inferior preacher, reporting an address given by the Bishop of London "so low that I think scant the third part was within hearing," which Donne followed with "a very good sermon in the Church as he hath done diverse of late, with great concourse" (Thomson 290). Indeed, Donne’s fame in his lifetime rested almost entirely on his preaching; his Poems were not published until 1633, two years after his death.
Donne’s preaching was not universally approved. The puritans especially found him suspect, not least of all because he often attacked them in his sermons (Bald 409). On one occasion in particular, Donne raised the eyebrows of his listeners with a sermon defending James I’s controversial "Direction for Preachers." The paper was released in 1622, in response to the growing debate surrounding the King’s dealings in Spain. In it, James forbade public discussion of controversial religious and political issues, and he chose Donne to defend him in a sermon at Paul’s Cross (Carey 103). Donne’s defense pleased the King greatly, but the citizens were not so appreciative. Even Chamberlain stood in disbelief as Donne "gave no great satisfaction--or as some say, spake as if himself were not so well satisfied" (Thomson 291).
The sermon defending James is famous not just for the controversy it raised, but also because it was the first of Donne’s sermons to be printed. In the coming years, Donne printed a number of his sermons. His final sermon, Death’s Duell, was published soon after his death. Donne made the decision to print selectively. He saw the publication of a sermon as being justified, as Bald suggests, only if "it contain[ed] something beyond mere homiletic instruction" and had "a special application to the problems of the day" (Bald 447). These printed sermons are significant to Donne’s relationhip with St. Paul’s, for even if they were not delivered at the cathedral itself, the printed copies would have been sold in one of the churchyard’s various book stalls.
Donne’s heroic devotion to his preaching, while dean of St. Paul’s, is truly remarkable. Furthermore, he carried out his administrative duties, such as the approval of appointments and grants, with "care and efficiency" (Bald 401). However, his performance of certain other duties did not live up to the same standard. While he was dean, the decrepit state of the cathedral was allowed to worsen. Furthermore, he resoundingly failed to control the din of visitors and tradespeople which rang through various parts of the cathedral. The noise was a great hindrance to the services preached from the choir in an adjacent area of the church, separated from the mob by a mere screen.
One story of Donne reprimanding an unruly visitor does survive. Christopher Ruddy, yeoman to Humphrey Smith, was sent to Newgate for failing to kneel when admonished. On Christmas Day of that year, Donne delivered a sermon concerning the necessity of kneeling at church, imploring the congregation, "Deus stetit, saies David, God standeth in the Congregation; does God stand there, and wilt thou sit? sit, and never kneele?" (qtd. in Bald 404). This was, it seems, an isolated instance of Donne reprimanding the unruly, for a commission inquiring into the profanation of the Cathedral was issued soon after his death, placing the blame on the dean and his chapter (Bald 403).
- Bald, R.C. John Donne: A Life. New York: Oxford, 1970. Print.
- Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind and Art. London: Faber, 1990. Print.
- Thomson, Elizabeth, ed. The Chamberlain Letters. New York: Putnam, 1965. Print.
- Times, The. The City of London: A Book Reprinted from the Special Number of the Times. London: Times, 1928. Print.
This project is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
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