Thursday, December 15, 2011

Saint Augustine and the Love Poetry of John Donne

This essay was written in late 2003 for Anthony Low's New York University graduate seminar on 17th-century British poetry.

The pervasive influence of Saint Augustine on John Donne is all but beyond dispute. The prevailing view of the great theologian's impact on Donne's work is epitomized by Alexander M. Witherspoon and Frank J. Warnke's remark that "Donne holds him [Augustine] highest in esteem among all church fathers, and he quotes him most frequently of all" (86). Witherspoon's comment was, of course, made in specific reference to Donne's sermons, which were composed during his tenure as Dean of St. Paul's in the latter period of his life. However, Donne's regard for Augustine's work is apparent throughout all his writings. Its influence can even be found in the love poetry of his early career, a connection that appears completely unexplored by scholars, contemporary or otherwise. Although surprising, given the fair amount of attention paid to Augustine's influence on the sermons, one can make some reasonable speculations on the reason why: the early Donne had very different views than the later Donne. He characterized his early work as "lascivious discourse," and largely came to regard it as an instrument of the devil (Carey 11). It also the very place where one would think him most at odds with the Church father's thought. This paper will establish Donne's likely familiarity with Augustine's writing in his younger days, It will present the examples of Augustine's writing that appear to have had the most resonance for Donne. It will also examine eight of the early poems in terms of Augustine's thought.

One cannot say with absolute certainty if the younger Donne was familiar with Augustine's writings, but it appears a safe assumption. John Carey describes Donne as bookish and well read as a young man (26), remarking that he "was one of the few Englishmen of his day to know Dante in the original" (18). Carey has also noted Donne's familiarity with such writers as François Rabelais and Pietro Aretino (18-19). Additionally, Carey writes that the youthful Donne, caught up in the conflicts of faith that revolved around his (more or less coerced) renunciation of Catholicism, became extremely familiar with theological writing in general (26). In the time leading up to his apostasy, Donne, in his own words, "survayed and digested the whole body of Divinity, controverted between ours [the Church of England] and the Romane church" (Carey 26). As R. C. Bald notes, "he was doubtless well read in the literature of penitence and conversion from the Confessions of St. Augustine down to his own time" (Bald 235).

Where Donne's love poetry and Augustine's thought seem most at odds is obviously in their attitudes towards sex. Augustine, in the Confessions, characterizes the promiscuity of his youth as "the abominable things I did in those days, the sins of the flesh which defiled my soul" (Conf. II: 1). Avidity for sex is denounced as "desire for a surfeit of hell's pleasures" (II: 1). In the City of God, Augustine argues that while sex is appropriate in marriage, it is only appropriate insofar as it allows humanity to fulfill its procreative function. But the desire for sex remains lust. As such, it is still an appetite, the embrace of which constitutes a fall away from God's presence (CoG XIV: 13). He notes that "[t]he sexual act itself, which is performed with such lust, seeks privacy" (XIV: 13). Paraphrasing the Roman poet Lucan, he writes that "all right actions desire to be set in the full daylight" (XIV: 18). But, because of the sense of shame that accompanies lust, and, with it, the turning away from God, "[a] man would be less put out by a crowd of spectators watching him visiting his anger unjustly upon another man than by one person observing him when he is having lawful intercourse with his wife" (XIV: 20).

Donne's love poetry, in contrast, appears to embrace carnality. "The Flea" implicitly asks its reader to admire the speaker's wit in his effort to seduce an unmarried woman. "Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed" is an unabashed rendering of the speaker's lust for the woman he is about to have sex with. And "The Good Morrow" depicts sex as a means to a spiritually transcendent state of unity, a view that would directly appear to contradict Augustine's perception of sex as an acquiescing to appetite that constitutes a spiritual falling away.

But just because the love poetry does not conform to Augustine's views of appropriate behavior or sexual morality does not mean it does not conform to Augustine's thought. Actually, one can well imagine a devout Augustinian using these poems and others collected in the Songs and Sonnets as illustrations for the Church father's views. As a theologian, Augustine was far more a philosopher than a moralist. This is not to suggest that he did not hold firm views on right and wrong, but that his central concern was in relating right and wrong--specifically the Christian view of right and wrong--to human experience. One can see this, for example, in his aforementioned view that sex within marriage retains a sinful aspect. With Donne's love poetry, one can see Augustine's views on the sinful and ignorant nature of young people reflected in and even shaping the material. Also present is his view that the fulfillment one finds in relationships with friends and families is a reflection of--and even practice for--the higher fulfillment one finds in communion with God. And perhaps most importantly, his conviction that for "the individual man [...] the base condition comes first, and we have to start with that; but we are not bound to stop at that, and later comes the noble state towards which we may make progress [...]" (CoG XV: 1) informs the protagonist of "The Good-Morrow" (text here), perhaps Donne's most significant expansion of Augustinian thought. Donne was not content to just follow. He demonstrates a willingness to expand upon Augustine's views of human communion, as well as the Church father's notions of sin.

Augustine considers a human being to be living in sin from the moment he or she is born. He notes that a baby, at first, knows nothing but appetite and other physical sensations (Conf. I: 6). As the child grows older, it learns to communicate its wants and needs, first by crying and other sounds and movements, and then through language (Conf. I: 8). As it grows more sophisticated, it resorts to deceit and other artful uses of language in order to satisfy its desire and greed (Conf. I: 19). In adolescence, the appetites one knows in childhood--those for food, sleep, and comfort--are joined by sexual desire (Conf. II: 1). Throughout it all, Augustine implies, the child lives in complete ignorance of its sinful state. One can see these tendencies combining in the speaker of "The Flea"(text here), perhaps the most callow of Donne's protagonists. His references to the unmarried state of both himself and the girl to whom he speaks, as well as the inference that both are still under the dominion of their parents (11-15), mark him as an adolescent. He is inflamed with desire for the girl, but, finding an earlier advance rebuffed (2), he resorts to sophistry (represented by the body of the poem) in an effort to win her over. And from start to finish, he lives in sin while completely oblivious to his state; words such as "sin," "shame," and "maidenhead" carry no resonance for him (5-6), and terms like "kill," "self-murder," and "sacrilege" have no meaning beyond the opportunity their usage provides for manipulation (16-18).

It can be argued that this is a banal analogy, and that the likening of the protagonist of "The Flea" to Augustine's characterization of youth assumes the uniqueness of Augustine's perspective to a degree that it perhaps does not deserve. What gives "The Flea" an Augustinian character is that the protagonist, even in his lust, sees sex with the girl as a form of communion, and that he is capable of seeing that communion as existing outside the realm of not only bodily desire, but that of the body's existence as well. In the Confessions, Augustine describes unbridled adolescent lust as reflective of an anxious need to love and be loved, and, furthermore, reflective of the need to love and be loved by God, a communion that exists outside the physical plane (III: 1). Furthermore, he implicitly identifies the increasing development of the intellect as the means through which spiritual maturation occurs, given that the hunger for truth that spurs the development is the hunger for God (III: 6). The protagonist of "The Flea," as anxious as he is to take the girl to bed, is still able to recognize sex as a form of communion. He sees the act as being more than just a means of satisfying carnal desire. This recognition allows him to conceive a metaphor for communion, as gauche and revolting as it is, in the mixing of his and the girl's blood in the body of the flea. This particular metaphor also shows that he is, at the very least, able to conceive of a communion that exists outside the realm of human bodily experience. This spark of insight, though morally inchoate, is the first step in developing the ability necessary for the building of a higher unity with God.

In "Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed"(text here), one finds a speaker who is likely somewhat older than the one in "The Flea," if not especially more mature. But his consciousness is a bit more developed in Augustinian terms than his younger counterpart. The protagonist of "The Flea" is only able to project his desire for unity outside of an immediately bodily context. The protagonist of "To His Mistress" is able to distinguish between higher and lower forms of both desire and beauty. He disparages those who value material possessions over people (35-38), for jewels offer those that covet them no possible form of communion and, as such, no path to unity with God. As Augustine writes, "material things, which have no soul, could not be true objects for [...] love" (Conf. III: 1). The speaker also recognizes, though erratically, that the beauties of Heaven are on a higher level than the beauties of Earth. He compliments his mistress by likening her beauty to the heavenly angels that once greeted mankind (19-20). His recognition of what constitutes higher and lower beauty, as indicated above, is not entirely consistent: he likens her girdle to the higher beauty of "heaven's zone glistening" (5), but then declares her breastplate superior to it in glory, although he doesn't present the breastplate as being anything more than beautiful within itself (6-7). The beauty of the mistress' body heightens his awareness of the outside world in that it prompts his memories of "flowery meads" (14), and his fantasies of the newly discovered and allegedly Edenic America (27). He also, in contrast to his counterpart in "The Flea," does not merely hunger for the pleasures of sex, he knows them firsthand. And although he has, as such, fallen into the morass of physical lust, he does have greater knowledge of communion with another, and, as indicated above, he is closer to knowledge, if not purity, to the higher communion of God's companionship.

Donne renders a detailed portrait of the communion of lovers in "The Good Morrow." The poem begins with the speaker's recognition that he and his lover have, through their love, entered into a state of consciousness that they had not previously known (1-2). Their life before was appetite; the speaker makes specific reference to suckling and sleeping (2-4), appetitive behavior that one immediately associates with childhood. Augustine specifically identifies these activities as comprising the world of appetite and sensation that, as noted above, comprise for him the world of sin into which a child is born (Conf. I: 6). The three lines that follow are startling:

[...] but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee. (5-7)

As noted above, Augustine regards sexual desire in the young as yet another manifestation of blind appetite. He also considers their choice of sexual partners to be arbitrary and unprincipled (Conf. II: 2). Donne acknowledges this, but he also asserts the possibility of transcendence in sexual love. The speaker states that his previous lovers were simply "fancies," a characterization, one infers, that denotes a lower order of pleasure than that offered by his current partner. She is a more desirable lover and, by extension, represents a more fulfilling love. Their love leads them to welcome the day and the experience of living it promises ("And now good morrow to their waking souls" [8]), and they welcome it secure in their love and in harmony with both the general and particular of the world around them (9-14). The two find an emotional and spiritual unity in one another (15-18), and, in that unity, locate a strength that shores up any sense of fatigue or fear of death (19-21). Romantic love, in keeping with Augustine's goal for mankind's spiritual education, has put the couple on the path of nobility.

Augustine accounts for the joy the lovers find in one another, even though the disgust he feels towards sexual relations is likely what prevents him from addressing it directly. Emotional communion with another is emotional communion with another, whether they are friends, lovers, or family. The pleasures of these relationships are those that come from a sense of unity with others. Writing specifically about friends, Augustine remarks that "[t]hey can kindle a blaze to melt our hearts and weld them into one" (Conf. IV: 8). He also notes that such relationships serve to bring out generosity and a degree of selflessness in people: "This is what we cherish in friendship, and we cherish it so dearly that in conscience we feel guilty if we do not return love for love, asking no more of our friends than these expressions of goodwill" (Conf. IV: 9). At the heart of this unity is that, in true friendship, friends love each other in God (IV: 9). Donne, in a poem such as "The Good Morrow," expands Augustine's view of relationships to what the Church father had most conspicuously neglected: the higher friendship and the higher communion that comes from the love between sexual partners; romantic love can exist in communion with God as well.

Augustine's distrust of romantic love appears to be related to the incontinent behavior that he felt inevitably accompanied it. In the Confessions, he tells of the time in which he, as a young man, fell in love. He describes the relationship as "a snare of my own choosing" (III: 1). He writes that its bliss was a false bliss, and one that led to all kinds of disgraceful behavior: "In the midst of joy I was caught up in the coils of trouble, for I was lashed with the cruel, fiery rods of jealousy and suspicion, fear, anger, and quarrels" (III: 1). The Donne of the love poetry, although he would have certainly taken exception to Augustine's refusal to consider romantic love as a source for man's spiritual enhancement, was also capable of acknowledging Augustine's position. In, for example, "The Indifferent," the speaker notes his indiscriminateness in love, describing the various and often distasteful women with whom he could have ended up (1-9). In the second stanza, he more conspicuously speaks to the woman in his life, disgustedly arguing with her about her jealousy. Their relationship has become a well for suspicion and anger.

In "The Sun Rising" (text here), Donne also deals with forms of incontinence that Augustine never touches on, particularly the misplaced pride into which one could see the lovers of "The Good Morrow" descending. The poem begins by seeming to address Augustine's contention that sex, because of lust, is inherently sinful because it shuns the scrutiny of both daylight and witnesses. The poem's speaker objects to the sun's presence, complaining of its intrusion into his and his lover's space. His objection initially appears to be the perceived invasion of their privacy and imposition on their time (1-5). Donne, however, is not actually giving support to Augustine's view; subsequent lines suggest that the objections are a reflection of laziness: the speaker angrily tells the sun to bother others who either have been or may be tardy in meeting their morning responsibilities (5-8). The contrast between these lovers and those in "The Good Morrow" is stark: the lovers in that poem welcome the day's arrival; the lovers here avoid it. However, the speaker in "The Sun Rising" then appears to shift into the sort of blissful perspective of his counterpart in "The Good Morrow," indicating that love has bestowed a transcendence from earthly existence ("Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime" [9]), but the statement, as the next line makes clear, is only arrogance dressing itself up as transcendence, The reference to "the rags of time" (10) is an insult to a fact of earthly existence that does not warrant denigration. The lines are of a piece with those that came before; the stanza is the voice of sloth lashing out at those that confront it with the truth about itself, a truth that it unwillingly acknowledges.

In the next stanza, the speaker goes on to belittle the sun, first asserting that, with regard to its beams, "I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink" (13), and then claiming that his lover's eyes could blind the sun's own (15). He then taunts the sun with the possibility of its ignorance (17-19), and proceeds to claim that all earthly power lies with him and his lover in the bed (19-23). He then belittles the sun, calling it decrepit ("Thine age asks ease" [27]), and follows it with a statement of utmost arrogance, a declaration that their room defines the world: "[...] since thy duties be/To warm the world, that's done in warming us" (27-28). He and his lover are the personification of sloth, and the world is centered around them ("This bed thy center is, thy walls, thy sphere" [30]). Sloth is more than Augustine's view of it as pos[ing] as the love of peace" (Conf. II: 6); Donne renders it equivalent to Augustine's notion of original evil: man turns away from God and looks to himself instead, seeing himself as the center of all things (CoG XIV: 13).

"Women's Constancy"(text here) finds Donne very much in accord with Augustine's view of the impermanence of human relationships, the deceptiveness of lust, and the destructiveness of our inability to recognize them as such. The poem begins with its speaker in despair:

Now thou hast loved me one whole day,
Tomorrow when thou leav'st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then antedate some new made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons as we were? (1-5)

The speaker fears that his new-found lover will prove to be the seventeenth-century equivalent of a one-night stand. One infers she has said things that indicate the contrary, but the speaker does not trust her veracity. It's an insecurity that is likely borne of experience. One tends to trust until that trust is broken. The speaker is quite possibly an example of Augustine's autobiographical paradigm of the lonely, wayward youth:

I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with the idea of it, and this feeling that something was missing made me despise myself for not being more anxious to satisfy the need. I began to look around for some object for my love, since I badly wanted to love something. I had no liking for the safe path without pitfalls, for although my real need was for you, my God, who are the food of the soul, I was not aware of this hunger. [...] So I muddied the stream of friendship with the filth of lewdness and clouded its clear waters with hell's black river of lust. (Conf. III: 1)

If one allows for this as a description of Donne's speaker, one sees that, in his lonely and desperate need for love, he has chosen a path he supposes--and desire convinces him--is the quickest and easiest way to reach his goal. But the love defined by sex that comes easy, also goes easy; it makes no commitment and breaks none. Augustine's description of his own travails again provides a likely explanation of the speaker's pain:

I lived in misery, like every man whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last and then is agonized to lose them. Only then does he realize the sorry state he is in, and was in even before his loss. In such a state was I at that time, as I wept bitter tears and found my only consolation in their very bitterness. (Conf. IV: 6)

The bitterness fed by the loss of impermanent things, Augustine declares, continually perpetuates itself. Donne's speaker continually loves women who almost immediately leave him; his resignation comes to define him so completely that he accuses the woman of abandonment before she's even announced her intention to leave. The speaker's tragedy is that he has led himself to believe that he cannot trust any commitment. Donne shows him in such a state of despair that he suspects even oaths made in the name of God are fickle (6-7). Even marriage vows are worthless (8), and falseness reigns (11-13). The speaker spirals ever further into his own hell; by the end of the poem he despairs of his own ability to keep his integrity from changing places with deceit (14-17). His inability to maintain faith in the notion of any sort of permanence attests to his distance from what is, in the Augustinian view, the only thing of permanence: the love of God. Donne has presented a protagonist who has sown the wind of "look[ing] for joy elsewhere [than God]" (Conf. X: 22), and is reaping the whirlwind of emptiness.

Still, the speaker of "Woman's Constancy" has not fallen as far as he might; the hell he knows is nothing compared to the one endured by the speaker of "Song (Go, and Catch a Falling Star)." The speaker is again one who feels as if no woman can be relied on. Donne has him say:

If thou findst one [a woman true, and fair], let me know.
Such a pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet do not, I would not go,
Though at next door we might meet,
Though she were true, when you met her,
And last, till you write your letter,
Yet she
Will be
False, ere I come, to two or three. (22-27)

The speaker feels no good can come of an effort to serve his earthly wants, most pointedly in his belief that a true woman would suddenly become untrue on the cusp of meeting him. In keeping with Augustine's paradigm of frustration in the quest for earthly satisfaction, the speaker finds consolation for his bitterness in his bitterness; he constantly strives to reinforce his disappointment. One cannot "catch a falling star" (1), impregnate a mandrake root (2), or show another where past years are stored (3). The speaker's need to perpetuate his bitterness is so strong that he appears to be daring God to subvert the natural order; he is almost calling for God to treat His works with contempt. This resentment and the alienation that accompanies it is what will keep him turned from God for as long as he acts in a way that maintains the cycle. The speaker is constantly pressing whoever hears to say, "I can't." God, by definition, is omnipotent; by His very nature, he will never say, "I can't." But nothing in Donne's depiction indicates that the speaker will set aside his damning habits and say, "I can" ("I can accept your salvation; I can have faith") to God. The tragedy of the poem's protagonist is that his defeatism will always keep him from salvation and the happiness of God's embrace.

"Break of Day" (text here), takes a different tack towards Augustine's thought: to a certain extent, the poem goes deliberately counter to it. The poem's setting is the bed shared by what appears to be a husband and wife. (In a conspicuous break with Donne's other love poetry, the wife is the poem's speaker.) The wife begins with an implicit rebuke of Augustine's daylight test for the sinfulness of sex, remarking, "'Tis true, 'tis day; what though it be?" (1). Her husband appears to go along with the Church father's view, but her response is to argue with him, saying:

Why should we rise because 'tis light?
Did we lie down because 'twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together. (4-6)

In the second stanza, the wife progresses from rebuke to outright defiance, saying that she doesn't care if the sun is a witness. All it could say was that she, out of love, was inseparable from her husband's side (10-12). Her view of love also runs counter to Augustine, who considers the greatest love to be for God; her greatest love is for her husband. She complains that love has time for the idle ('the poor, the foul, the false" [15]), but none for her and her husband because he has to work (16-18). It's a mild rebuke of God, the one who is supposed to be above rebuke, for giving his blessing to the less deserving instead of allowing her and her husband to share the blessing between them. The couple love each other, but they don't love each other in God, which Augustine would consider to be the only appropriate form of love. All in all, the poem is a sharp little bit of subversion.

Donne did not show sympathy (or, as is the case with "Break of Day," an anti-sympathy) with Augustine's thought in everything he produced. One poem in particular, "Elegy I. Jealousy" (text here), which is an underhanded, humorous treatment of adultery, seems completely divorced in this sense from Augustine's work. There is no effort to render even a glimmer of a transcendent attitude or the tragedy of sin. But it is the exception, not the rule. Donne, in his early poems, depicts Augustine's thought in large ways and small. From his emphasis on the aspects of sin that point the way to redemption in "The Flea" and "Elegy XIX. To His Mistress Going to Bed," to his expansion and elaboration on Augustinian doctrine in "The Good Morrow" and "The Sun Rises," to his rendering of the nightmare of the sinful state in "The Indifferent," "Woman's Constancy," and "Song (Go, and Catch a Falling Star)," to the whimsical subversion of "Break of Day," the Church father's views guide and shape even the most unlikely area of Donne's work. One hope the connections illustrated herein offers a vein with a large amount of ore to mine.

Works Cited

Augustine, Saint. City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin, 1984.

Augustine, Saint. Confessions. Trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. London: Penguin, 1961

Bald, R. C. John Donne: A Life. New York: Oxford UP, 1970.

Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind, and Art. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Donne, John. John Donne's Poetry. 2nd ed. Ed. Arthur L. Clements. New York: Norton, 1992.

Witherspoon, Alexander M. and Frank J. Warnke. Seventeenth-Century Poetry and Prose. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt, 1963.

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