Although he is best known for the poetry composed during the first half of his adult life and the sermons written in the latter half, John Donne also produced four collections of brief prose works in the essay and related genres as well as an essay and two characters intended to stand alone. These works are all marked with his characteristic cleverness of thought and expression, and the best reflect an attractive generosity of spirit.
The three uncollected pieces all date from the early part of his career. “An Essay of Valour,” probably written in the late 1590s, may reflect Donne’s service in two of the Earl of Essex’s expeditions. Written in the manner of Montaigne, it consists of a series of arguments proving “that nothinge is so potent eyther to procure, or merrit Love, As Valour.” It was first published in the 11th edition of Sir Thomas Overbury’s A Wife (1622). His “Character of a Dunce,” also first published in the same volume, is in the Theophrastan tradition characterizing vices. It lists unflattering attributes possessed by one who “Is a Soule drownd in a lump of flesh, Or a peece of earth that Prometheus put not halfe his proportion of fire into.” The equally derogatory “Description of a Scot at First Sight” probably dates from the early years of the reign of James I, when many poor Scots came to London to seek their fortunes. No doubt for political reasons it was left unpublished during Donne’s lifetime. Some modern editors have questioned Donne’s authorship of these works, but all three are included in authoritative manuscripts of his poetry and prose compiled during his lifetime.
The two earliest collections of Donne’s short prose pieces were first printed posthumously in an unauthorized edition as Juvenilia, or Certaine Paradoxes, and Problems (1633), which included eleven of the former and ten of the latter. An “authorized” edition of 1652, prepared by Donne’s son and namesake, added a twelfth paradox and seven additional problems. The younger Donne is not accurate in calling these collections “the entertainment of the Author’s Youth.” While the paradoxes were begun during Donne’s years at the Inns of Court in the 1590s and probably completed by 1600, the problems date from the first decade of the 17th century, when Donne was in his thirties.
Two kinds of literary paradoxes were written in the Renaissance, both tracing their roots to classical models: the mock encomium and the argument against received opinion.
Donne’s paradoxes are in the latter tradition, and they rejoice in their own cleverness, proving “That Nature is our worst Guide,” “That the guifts of the body are better then those of the Mind or of Fortune,” “That good is more common then evill,” and “That by Discord things increase.” Their wit resides in the framing of each premise in such a way as to disguise its outrageousness so that the conclusions drawn seem to follow logically.
For example, Donne begins the paradox “That a wise man is knowne by much Laughinge” with this premise: “…since the powers of discourse, and reason, and laughter, be equally proper to only man, why shall not he be most wise which hath most use of laughing, as well as he which hath most of reasoning and discoursing.”
The problem as a genre also had classical roots, in the problems posed by Aristotle as a method of education. In the Renaissance, the form found expression as a social diversion designed to entertain and to exercise wit. By Donne’s time, problems could be either brief, consisting of a few statements suggesting possible answers to the question posed, or lengthy, consisting of carefully wrought arguments with appeals to authority. Donne wrote both kinds. “Why doth Sir Walter Ralegh write the Historie of these times?” has three suggested answers; “Why doth not Gold soyle the fingers?” has four, all in question form. At the other extreme, “Why hath the common opinion affoorded woemen Soules?” is argued in approximately 270 words; “Why have Bastards best Fortune?” and “Why doth the Poxe so much affect to undermine the nose?” both extend to 380 words. Donne’s problems, apparently the earliest literary problems written in English, are as witty as his paradoxes, but they are much darker in tone, doubtless reflecting his straitened circumstances at the time of their composition.
The Essayes in Divinity, first published in 1651, were probably written in 1614, when Donne was preparing himself to enter Holy Orders in the Church of England. Described by his son as “Disquisitions, Interwoven with Meditations and Prayers,” the book contains true essays, in the sense of “attempts” to set down scattered thoughts provoked by the first verse each of Genesis and Exodus. Drawing on Donne’s extensive reading in theology and on his own experience, they explore such topics as “Of Genesis,” “Of the Name of God,” “Diversity in Names,” and “Of Number.” While they are not as polished as his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, the Essayes in Divinity present Donne in a most attractive light as he deplores the narrow sectarianism of his day and declares, “so Synagogue and Church is the same thing, and of the Church, Roman and Reformed, and all other distinctions of place, Discipline, or Person, but one Church, journying to one Hierusalem, and directed by one guide, Christ Jesus.”
Certainly the best known of Donne’s short prose works are the 23 “Meditations vpon our Humane Condition” included in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, written over the Winter of 1623, when Donne was gravely ill, and published in 1624. These meditations react to the stages of his illness, beginning with its onset, progressing to a state near death, and ending in recovery, though with a warning of relapse. The most famous of these meditations (no. 17) is a soaring declaration of the interdependence of humankind: “No Man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends, or of thine owne were; Any Mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.” The first clause of this passage, which has become as much identified with Donne as any of his poetry, is the most quoted nonbiblical prose passage in English.
See also Religious Essay
Born between January and June 1572. in London. Studied privately with Catholic tutors, and at Hart Hall (now Hertford College), Oxford, 1584–87; possibly studied at Cambridge University; Thavies Inn, London, 1591; Lincoln’s Inn, London (master of the revels, 1593–95), from 1591. Renounced his Catholicism, c. 1593. Volunteer on the Earl of Essex’s expeditions to Cadiz, 1596, and to the Azores, 1597. Private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper, London, 1598–1601; member of Parliament for Brackley, 1601. Secretly married Egerton’s niece Ann More, 1601 (died, 1617): 12 children (six died before his death); discovery of his marriage caused him to be dismissed from his post and briefly imprisoned, destroying his hopes for a political career. Lived in Pyrford, Surrey, 1602–06, and Mitcham, Surrey, 1606–11; traveled in Europe with Sir Walter Chute, 1605–06, and Sir Robert Drury, 1611–12. Ordained in the Church of England, 1615; chaplain-inordinary to James I at Cambridge; rector, Keyton, Hampshire, 1616– 2.1, and Sevenoaks, Kent, 1616; reader in divinity, Lincoln’s Inn, 1616–21; held various church positions, 1619–26, including dean of St. Paul’s, London, 1621. Justice of the peace, Kent and Bedfordshire, 1622, and Bedfordshire, 1626; served on the Court of Delegates, 1622–31. Awards: honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Died in London, 31 March 1631.
Essays and Related Prose
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624; edited by J.Sparrow, 1923, Anthony Raspa, 1975, and Elizabeth Savage, 2 vols., 1975
Juvenilia, or Certaine Paradoxes, and Problems, 1633; revised, enlarged edition, as Paradoxes, Problems, Essayes, edited by John Donne (the son), 1652; as Paradoxes and Problems, edited by Helen Peters, 1980
Essayes in Divinity, Interwoven with Meditations and Prayers, 1651; edited by Evelyn M.Simpson, 1952
Selected Prose, edited by Evelyn M.Simpson, 1967
Selected Prose, edited by Neil Rhodes, 1987
Other writings: poetry, satires, a book about suicide (Biathanatos, wr. 1607–08, pub. 1647), and sermons (collected in Sermons, edited by G.R.Potter and Evelyn M.Simpson, 10 vols., 1953–62).
Keynes, Geoffrey, A Bibliography of Dr. John Donne, Oxford: Clarendon Press, revised edition, 1973 (original edition, 1914)
Roberts, John R., John Donne: An Annotated Bibliography of Modern Critidsm, 1912– 1967 and 1968–1978, Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2 vols., 1973–82
Bald, R.C., John Donne: A Life, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970
Simpson, Evelyn M., A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962 (original edition, 1924)
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