Professor Jane Carducci
19 September 2007
In his analysis, “Logic and Paradox in the Structure of Donne’s Sermons,” Jerome Dees decries what he terms “[o]ne of the more persistent of the received notions about Donne’s sermons,” namely, that they devalue “logical arrangement in favor of associative, metaphorical connections” (78). Denying the claims of Joan Webber, Winfreid Schleiner, Janel Mueller and Stanley Fish, Dees instead argues that the Rev. John Donne’s sermons obey “simultaneously two separate logical principles, one cumulative and processive, the other disjunctive or bifurcative” (79). And while Dees does not deny the importance of the metaphorical connections in Donne’s writing, he argues that they are not divorced from a certain rhetorical logic. Nowhere is this clearer than in an excerpt from Donne’s “The Second of My Prebend Sermons upon My Five Psalmes.”
As with any literary analysis, why Donne composed this sermon is of tantamount importance to discovering their inner logic. If we acknowledge that Donne had a certain message to get across to a specific audience, then his rhetorical devices will begin to come to light. As a preacher, Donne’s primary concern was the salvation of the members of his congregation – as he writes, not “…the body of all, the substance of all…” but their souls, since “The body of all, the substance of all is safe, as long as the soule is safe” (29). With this fact, underlined by the epiphoric repetitions of “of all” and “safe,” serving as our pivot, the logic of Donne’s first, 123-word sentence moves quite smoothly.
The first two subjunctive, anaphoric “Let me” clauses build one upon the other: It is one thing to waste away in a “penurious prison,” but the amplificatio of withering “in a spittle under sharpe, and foule, and infamous diseases” is that much worse. Having built to his climax, however, Donne presents his listeners with a way out when he says “yet.” Parallel and once again presenting amplificatio is a double protasis: first, if God withdraw not – he enumerates – his blessings, grace and patience; and secondly, if Donne’s suffering is God’s action. Then we hear the implied apodosis: then his sufferings are but “temporall.” If we apply Dees’ thesis to this passage, the two metaphors that follow – the “caterpillar got into one corner” and the “mill-dew fallen upon one acre” – are not metaphors serving as a replacement for logic, but metaphors precisely because logical syntax calls them to be there. For, if we have followed Donne’s syntactical logic thus far, we should know the sufferings he described in his first two clauses are not physically real: They metaphorically represent the potential sufferings of his soul. Now his logic comes full circle, and his first two metaphors within the overarching metaphor are met equally with two more. Even so, logical progress is made, since the overarching metaphor of bodily suffering for spiritual suffering has been extrapolated. As Dees would put it, Donne’s “processive” logic has been at work.
Although, grammatically speaking, the remaining 343 words of this excerpt are a single sentence, they logically consist of three units split in the middle by a change in the person addressed. Just as the first sentence builds to a climax with its anaphoric “Let me,” so too do the first six clauses of the second sentence – the first unit – begin with the phrase “when I shall.” Once again, these phrases build one upon the other as Donne lays out in the apodosis, namely, what happens to the person who trusts “that, which wee call a good spirit” instead of trusting God: First his or her constancy is destroyed, then health, good opinion and, finally, peace. But here Donne the preacher, who needs to exude a pathos that will convert his hearers, sets to work. God doesn’t merely destroy the sinner’s constancy, he says; rather, God shall “shake, and enfeeble, and enervate, destroy and demolish” it. Then Donne plays with an extended metaphor: As God “shall call up the damps” on the “sweet air of a good conscience,” the very “vapours of hell it selfe,” which shall “spread a cloud of diffidence,” in turn hardening into “an impenetrable crust of desperation” (29-31). The metaphor’s placement is perfect; the congregation is chilled. Thus, to ring true for the listeners that “health shall flie” needs nothing more than to be linked by diacope to the fact that “riches shall flie.”
With the proper ethos established, Donne feels his hearers are ready for prayer. Thus he no longer speaks of God but instead directly to the Deity: “there is none but thou, O Lord, that should stand for me,” he says. Thus his physical and mental wounds return to the world of metaphor to find the instrument by which they were really caused: arrows having come “from thy quiver.” The divisio, or, as Dees would have it, “bifurcation,” is paradoxical, bridging the world of reality and metaphorical divinity. On one hand Donne gives us the real, mental action of trusting “a good spirit” instead of relying on God, which seemingly leads to his horrible state; but in his sermon the effect is paradoxically “bifurcated,” predicated instead to a spiritual, rather than its original, mental cause. The central paradox here is that God, not the sinner, is causing the sinner’s woes: “When it comes to this height… mine enemy is… The Lord of Hosts himselfe…” Donne writes. Far from illogical, Donne’s rhetoric is instead spiritual, which Dees, among others, would argue follows a paradoxically appropriate logic: As Dees puts it, “The structural tensions in Donne’s sermons embody the paradoxes inherent in… a set of conditions in which the preacher must be heard… as the spokesman for a divine agency” (90).
Like Dees, Herbert Umbach emphatically denies that Donne’s sermons lack a rigorous rhetorical methodology. He instead traces Donne’s rhetorical logic and its accompanying syntactical tools, which he says are “richer and more varied in his sermons than elsewhere” (357), to Augustinian preaching methodology. Umbach especially points to Donne’s use of cumulative paragraphs, such as those found in the present sermon. He writes, “In total effect such cumulative paragraphs, which remind one of an organ’s crescendo or the inrushing waves of the tide because they are unified and coherent, are not at all to Donne’s discredit” (358). Given the association Umbach made between the styles of Augustine of Hippo and Donne, a look at the former writer could be helpful in understanding better the latter.
The style of Augustine’s Confessions is eerily similar to the Donne sermon excerpt currently in question. In what is probably the most quoted passage from his work, Augustine says:
Too late did I love thee, O Fairness, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love thee! … Thou calledst, and criedst aloud, and forcedst open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and chase away my blindness. Thou didst exhale odours, and I drew in my breath and do pant after thee. I tasted and do hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace. (212)
Unlike Donne’s anguished address of prayer to God, Augustine’s supplication is one of praise. But his climax, like Donne’s, is metaphorical: Call, exhale, taste and touch are meant spiritually. As with Donne, Augustine’s metaphorical causes have spiritual, not physical effects.
Textually, Donne borrows much from Augustine. The alliteration of “calledst” and “criedst,” as well as the internal rhyme of these two words with “forcedst,” evoke Donne’s syntax. Internal rhyme is found in Donne, for example, when he says, “If I can call my suffering his Doing, my passion his Action” (29), and, “…because I am all evill towards thee, therefore thou hast given over being good towards me” (31). As another similarity, alliteration is a syntactic tool holding thoughts together throughout Donne’s sermon: for example, Donne begins, “Let me whither and weare,” and toward the end says, “…with his owne hand.” Finally, something that comes out more clearly in Augustine’s original Latin – which Donne would have been reading – is Augustine’s use of homoioteleuton – easier for Augustine since verbs and declined nouns end similarly in that language. Donne’s use of homoioteleuton, however, is employed mainly by means of adverbs, as seen in how he ends his sermon: “we are swallowed up, irreparably, irrevocably, irrecoverably, irremediably.”
The rhetorical logic Dees argued for in Donne finds its roots, therefore, in the Augustinian backbone of the preacher’s methodology. Based on classical rhetoric, this methodology involved the use of paradox because it addressed spiritual topics that could only be addressed analogously. Donne understood well that only metaphors and figures of speech could accomplish his purpose of winning souls, and thus he moved decisively and logically from reality to metaphor and back again, artfully utilizing all the rhetorical devices at his disposal to weave his powerful syntactical web. Nowhere is this clearer than the sermon excerpt examined herein.
Augustinus, Aurelius. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. J.G. Pilkington. New York:
Collector’s Library, n.d.
Dees, Jerome S. “Logic and Paradox in the Structure of Donne’s Sermons.” South Central
Review 4.2 (1987): 78-92.
Donne, John. “’Salvation or Damnation’: from a Sermon.” Found in Styles and Structures:
Alternative Approaches to College Writing. Ed. Charles Kay Smith. New York: Norton,
Umbach, Herbert. “The Rhetoric of Donne’s Sermons.” PMLA 52.2 (1937): 354-358.