Satire III: Of Religion by John Donne - Summary & Analysis

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Satire III: Of Religion

Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids
Those tears to issue which swell my eye-lids,
I must not laugh, nor weep sins, and be wise,
Can railing then cure these worn maladies?
Is not our mistress fair religion,
As worthy of all our soul's devotion,
As virtue was to the first blinded age?
Are not heaven's joys as valiant to assuage
Lusts, as earth's honour was to them? Alas,
As we do them in means, shall they surpass
Us in the end, and shall thy father's spirit
Meet blind philosophers in heaven, whose merit
Of strict life may be imputed faith, and hear
Thee, whom he taught so easy ways and near
To follow, damned? O if thou dar'st, fear this;
This fear great courage, and high valour is.
Dar'st thou aid mutinous Dutch, and dar'st thou lay
Thee in ships' wooden sepulchres, a prey
To leaders' rage, to storms, to shot, to dearth?
Dar' st thou dive seas, and dungeons of the earth?
Hast thou courageous fire to thaw the ice
Of frozen north discoveries? and thrice
Colder than salamanders, like divine
Children in th'oven, fires of Spain, and the line,
Whose countries limbecks to our bodies be,
Canst thou for gain bear? and must every he
Which cries not, "Goddess!" to thy mistress, draw,
Or eat thy poisonous words? courage of straw!
O desperate coward, wilt thou seem bold, and
To thy foes and his (who made thee to stand
Sentinel in his world's garrison) thus yield,
And for forbidden wars, leave th'appointed field? Know thy foes: the foul Devil, he, whom thou
Strivest to please, for hate, not love, would allow

Thee fain, his whole realm to be quit, and as
The world's all parts wither away and pass,
So the world's self, thy other loved foe, is
In her decrepit wane, and thou loving this,
Dost love a withered and worn strumpet, last,
Flesh (itself's death) and joys which flesh can taste,
Thou lovest; and thy fair goodly soul, which doth
Give the flesh power to taste joy, thou dost loathe.
Seek true religion. O where? Mirreus
Thinking her unhoused here, and fled from us,
Seeks her at Rome, there, because he doth know
That she was there a thousand years ago,
He loves her rags so, as we here obey
The statecloth where the Prince sate yesterday.
Crants to such brave loves will not be enthralled,
But loves her only, who at Geneva is called
Religion, plain simple, sullen, young,
Contemptuous, yet unhandsome; as among
Lecherous humours, there is one that judges
No wenches wholesome, but coarse country drudges.
Graius stays still at home here and because
Some preachers, vile ambitious bawds, and laws
Sill new like fashions, bid him think that she
Which dwells with us, is only perfect, he
Embraceth her, whom his godfathers will
Tender to him, being tender, as wards still
Take such wives as their guardians offer, or
Pay values. Careless Phrygius doth abhor
All, because all cannot be good, as one
Knowing some women whores, dares marry none.
Gracchus loves all as one, and thinks that so
As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is religion; and this blind-
ness too much light breeds; but unmoved thou
Of force must one, and forced but one allow;
And the right; ask thy father which is she,
Let him ask his; though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her, believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, on proles,
May all be bad; doubt wisely, in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;

To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so,
Yet strive so, that before age, death's twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will, implies delay, therefore now do.
Hard deeds, the body's pains; hard knowledge too
The mind's endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case here, that God hath with his hand
Signed Kings blank-charters to kill whom they hate,
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to Fate.
Fool and Wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man's laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Or will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin taught thee this?
Is not this excuse for mere contraries,
Equally strong; cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;
Those past her nature, and name is changed; to be
Then humble to her is idolatry.
As streams are, power is: those blessed flowers that dwell
At the rough stream's calm head, thrive and prove well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream's tyrannous rage, alas are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consumed in going, in the sea are lost:
So perish souls, which more choose men's unjust
Power from God claimed, than God himself to trust.

Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids Those tears to issue which swell my eye-lids, I must not laugh, nor weep sins, and be wise, Can railing then cure these worn maladies? Is not our mistress fair religion, As worthy of all our soul's devotion, As virtue was to the first blinded age?
Satire III: Of Religion


      Line. 1-4: My feeling of pity prevents me from expressing my anger (at the lack of true religion in my countrymen); my contempt at their folly forbids me from shedding tears and therefore, my eyelids have become swollen. I can neither laugh nor shed tears at the sins of my contemporaries. Perhaps, I may be able to cure these old and chronic diseases through satire.

      Line. 5-15: Does not our beautiful beloved - Religion - deserved all the devotion of our souls? In ancient times, pagans (who did not have the benefit of Christ's message) gave all their devotion to virtue. Does not Christianity deserve the same respect from us that the pagans paid to virtue? The hope of joy of heavenly life should control our lusts as efficaciously as the desire of honor enabled the pagans to control their passions. Shall we Christians who have better scope of attaining salvation (through Christ) allow the pagans to surpass us in attaining salvation? Shall our father in heaven meet only pagans who have earned their way to heaven through disciplined and virtuous life? Shall our father regard us damned (sinful), in spite of the easy way taught to us by Christ?

      Line. 16-25: If we are courageous, why should we be afraid of such damnation. To conquer sin requires great courage and zeal valor. It requires great strength to help the Dutch in their fight against the enemy (Spain) It requires great nerve to lie down in a ship's wooden coffins containing the dead bodies of those who faced the anger of the leaders or fell victim to the bullets, sea-storms and starvation. There have been brave explorers who have gone deep into the depth of ocean and traveled to the bowels of the earth. Have you the heroic spirit of great adventurers who tried to find a route to the western regions through the icy zones of the north? Do you have the patience to stand the fire much greater than the fire in which the lizard-like creatures called salamanders burnt, or the fire suffered by the divine children (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) who were thrown in a burning furnace under the order of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, or the fire in which heretics (non-Conformists) were burnt by the authority of the Spanish inquisition or the fiery heat of the equatorial zone, the countries of which are like alembics where Christian bodies are burnt.

      Line. 26-32: Can you fight with courage only for worldly gain? Must every man fight for his beloved though he may not regard her as a goddess? Should he draw his sword or suffer indignities for her sake? This is no courage. This courage can be shown by any insignificant person. O miserable coward, will you be bold and show your courage to your enemies and the enemies of God? Will you, who is destined to protect the world, surrender to God's enemies? Will you desert the moral battlefield - the fight of Christians as God's soldiers - and participate in worldly wars, forbidden by God?

      Line. 33-42: You should know your real enemies. One of your greatest enemies is the wicked Devil whom you try to please (by a life of sin). The devil would willingly give you his kingdom (of hell) out of hate and not out of love. All parts of the world are subject to decay and will pass away. Your other enemy whom you love is the world's self-worldly power and riches. This is like loving an old and wrinkled prostitute. (Loving the things of the world is like loving an old and miserable whore). Your last but not the least enemy whom you love is the flesh. You are fascinated by the pleasures of sex. You love the flesh, forgetting the soul which furnishes power to the body to enjoy such pleasures.

      Line. 43-54: You should find out true religion. Where will you seek it? Different people have sought it in different places. Mirreus, feeling that true religion was not to be found in Protestant Britain fled to Rome (the High Seat of Roman Catholic Church) where the spirit of true religion flourished a thousand years ago. He loves the few traces of original devotion which Rome still possesses, just as we, in Britain, respect the canopy hung over the throne once occupied by some ancient British monarch. Crants is not attracted by garlands and glittering decorations. He loves the spirit of true religion to be found in Geneva - the home of Calvin and austere Puritanism. Such spirit of religion is plain, simple, rigorous, youthful but not attractive. Crants may be considered as one of those persons with the temperament who does not like any beautiful woman except the rough, hard-working and village-woman.

      Line. 55-75: Graius stays here in Protestant Britain. Some priests who, like pimps, transfer their mistresses to newcomers for the sake of promotion, persuade Graius to accept the new fashionable laws passed during the regime of Queen Elizabeth. They make him feel that the spirit of religion which still exists in Britain, is quite beautiful. He embraces her as a young man would accept as wife a woman selected by his godfather. Such boys, even today, accepts as wives, girls offered to them by their guardians, and they do not, they gladly pay the penalty fixed under the law. Phrygius who is indifferent to religion hates all the forms, because he feels that all forms cannot be good. He is like a man who remains unmarried because he knows some women to be loose in character. Graccus loves all the forms of religion in equal measure. He thinks that just as women living in different countries wear different types of dress-hough all of them have the same body-in the same way religions may have different forms in different countries but the spirit is basically one and the same. This blindness (lack of discrimination) is caused by to much light. When one thinks that everything contains the light of truth, one cannot tell the difference between truth and falsehood and as such becomes blind to the real truth.

      But you must select one or the other form of religion, either by your choice or free will or you may be forced to do so by your superiors. You may ask your father which is the best religion. He may in turn ask his father. In fact, truth and falsehood are like twin-brothers, nearly the same, but truth is the elder of the two, as it came to the world a little earlier. Therefore, you must seek true religion. If you do so, you cannot be regarded as anti-religious or irreligious or as following the worst religion.

      Line. 76-100: Idol-worship (done by the Catholics) may be bad, but it is equally bad to hate idols or to protest against idol worship. The best thing is to doubt wisely and search courageously for the right, never minding what others say. A man strays from the path of religion when he does something which he knows to be wrong. A man who is in search of truth may go one way one time, and the other way next time. He is just reconnoitering the passage to the mighty hill in order to find a way of easy ascent. Truth stands on the top of a rough and steep hill. The seeker must find his own way to reach the top of the hill. He must make a sincere effort for the peace of his soul before he reaches old age when the shadow of death falls on him. In fact, it is impossible to search for truth in the impending darkness of dean. (The search for Truth must begin in youth and not in old age when physical and mental powers are on the decline). In fact it is better to begin the search of truth right now. Just as one accomplishes difficult tasks by undergoing physical pain, so one can gain spiritual knowledge by hard activity of the mind. The fact that there are certain difficult truths - mysteries - which our mind cannot grasp is no justification for neglecting the search for truth. Truth is like the sun, visible to all. Stick to the truth that you have discovery with much effort. Men must muster up courage. God does not give kings the prerogative a blank cheque - to do what they like, to sign death warrants of their enemies arbitrarily.

      Kings do not function as Fate, but they may be regarded as the agents of Fate. They cannot kill any one whom God has not ear-marked for martyrdom. Oh you foolish poor man, will you like your soul to be bowed down by man-made laws when you are not going to be judged by such laws on the Day of Judgement? Will it be any use to tell God that you were instructed to do this or that by Philip of Spain or Pope Gregory or Henry VIII or Marin Luther? This argument is equally available to factions holding opposite views. Both sides can take the same plea but surely, both rival factions cannot be right.

      Line. 101-110: If you want to obey any authority or power correctly, you must understand the limits to which it is right to do so. Once the authority exceeds its limits, its nature and title undergo a change. To bow to authority blindly is as bad as idol-worship. Power or authority may be compared to a stream. The ultimate source and sanction of earthly power is God. Those who derive their power from this source, prosper like the flowers which grow at the quiet source of the stream and bloom well. When these flowers are uprooted and fall into the strong current of the water, they are pursued through mills (on the river banks), rocks and woods and are completely destroyed and lost in the sea.

      Similarly, the souls which obey not God's Will but that of earthly dictators and tyrants are damned. Such souls which submit to man's damnation - wrongly said to be derived from God-rather than to God, are beyond redemption.

Critical Analysis

      Satire III: Of Religion was written perhaps in 1596-1597 and it shows the author's sincere search for a true religion. Donne was a Catholic till 1598. He was groping for a faith which would remove his religious instability and uncertainty. The poet's spirit of doubt does' not pertain to the Christian religion. It rather refers to a search for a true form of that religion - Catholic. Puritan or Calvinistic. We cannot but be overwhelmed by sincerity and integrity of the poet in trying to say for himself what type of Christian religion could satisfy his soul. This was the period of spiritual turbulence and his endeavor for spiritual identity. He had not yet decided as to which denomination he should join. Some people called it a period of atheism, though Donne never abandoned Christianity at any time. According to Izaak Walton, his biographer, the poet's faith in the Roman Catholic religion began to abate about the year 1598. He was feeling inclined towards Anglicanism and was duly ordained in that church in 1615. The poet deliberately uses the traditional form of satire because he is over-borne by pity and scorn. In order to get rid of the feeling of suffocation, he finds an outlet in 'railing, to laugh at current evils rampant in the Christian religion. What appeals to the critics is the dramatic quality of the poem and the agility of his mind which swiftly moves from one concept to another. Garrod commends the poem as a defence of philosophical doubt. It has liberal temper which examines the strong and the weak points of Christian denominational grounds, and the final conclusion' doubt acceptable. The mocking tone is an invariable component of satire and though at times, we may find the poet harsh in his judgments, his sincerity can never be held in doubt wisely - appears to be quite rational.

Development of Thought:

      A satire on religion is a difficult subject, particularly when one has a religion. When one realizes the inadequacies and dilemmas of one's faith, one has to make a sincere search for a faith which will satisfy the inner cravings and anarchies. Donne was in such a situation when he wrote this poem. It contains an account of his endeavor for exploration of fundamentals of spiritualism. He was not satisfied with Christian faith. So he assesses the current faiths and thereby gives a new dimension to Christianity.

Donne's Spiritual Dilema:

      Donne speaks of his spiritual ill health in terms of physical malady choking of the spleen and swelling of eye-lids. There is a sort of physical suffocation which reflects the inner tension and anxiety. Pity and scorn are of no avail. The poet finds an outlet in railing to let out this inner tension and suffocation. Religion is the fair lady for whose love all types of men aspire. Some want the fair lady for lust, other for true devotion. In pre-Christian times, virtue was sought as the goal of men. The heathens won heaven by leading a life of virtue. Christians have great courage but they waste their energies in religious disputes and quarrels. Various religious sects engage in open conflicts for the sake of proving he superiority of their doctrines. Courage or valor has to be used properly and for a good cause. Donne cites ironically the example of 'children in the oven' - who walked bare-feet on flaming ovens. Courage has to be used against real enemies of religion: Know thy enemies and fight against them. The greatest enemy of religion is the Devil' who is both inside man and outside man, and our aim should be to carry on a ceaseless fight against him.

The Real Enemies of Man:

      The three enemies of man are the Devil, the World and the Flesh. It is o use appeasing the Devil, because the attempt will be futile. The second enemy is the World - its power and wealth. The love of the world is like loving an old sickly prostitute who is subject to decay and death. Thirdly, people love the Flesh (body and sex) and ignore the soul. The knowledge of the soul can be obtained through true religion. But the question is: What is true religion?

Evils in Existing Christian sects:

      Donne examines critically the principles and practices of current denominations of the Christian church and finds them inadequate and ridiculous. Roman Catholicism with its ritual and superstition - the worship of relics no better than rags - is no good. What about Geneva, the real or pure Protestantism called Calvinism? Donne mocks at the rigid discipline and inferior and austere standard of life of the Puritans. The Protestants consider only those persons religious who lead a coarse and joyless life. They are like the lustful persons who have a liking only for country wenches. Donne compares preachers to bawds and pimps (touts) who sell mistress - religion to all sorts of people. The false religious sects are prostitutes. With great daring Donne pokes fun at the sacred and makes them appear vulgar and mean. In his manner, Donne exaggerates the follies and quarrels of different sects. How to know the best religion-the best mistress? Donne suggests the use of reason for this purpose.

The Spirit of Inquiry:

      Truth can be known through interrogation, through inquiry and analysis. This does not mean that Donne advocates atheism. On the contrary, Donne makes a passionate plea for the search of truth which requires patience and perseverance:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go,

      The search of truth requires hard work and devotion, and the earlier one starts in life the better. In old age man's physical and mental powers decay and as such the search may not be fruitful. The truth lies latent within the individual; it has, however, to be much patent and manifest.

Attack on Ecclesiastical Laws:

      There is a vital difference between the realization of God's Truth and the laws of religion made by church and the state. To punish religious practices under secular law is tyrannous, Donne has in mind the persecution of Catholics under the British laws. Why should men-made laws interfere in matters of faith? Ultimately, on the Day of Judgement, the divine law will prevail. The founders of different Christian sects cannot prevent the damnation of the souls of their respective followers. Just as flowers which grow at the source of the river flourish unlike those which are uprooted by the strong flow of the current and ultimately destroyed, in the same way souls which do not cling to the source of their faith are washed away in the flood of religious controversies and destroyed. Every soul must seek God in its own way.

Critical Remarks:

      Not blind faith, but faith modified by reason is the best way of realizing religious truth. Donne's prescription - Doubt wisely is the medicine for sickly or zealous souls. The poet's mind was disturbed by religious controversies and claims of different sects, all of which proclaimed the monopoly of truth. Donne found comfort and consolation in the search for truth through persistent effort and determination. He gave the benefit of his experience to his reader. As is usual in a satire, the moral note justifies the mocking tone. The moral of the piece is clear and unequivocal - "Keep the Truth which thou has found"(L 89).

      There is an obvious evolution in his satiric method followed in this poem. In he beginning the satire is caustic, vitriolic and Juvenalian, but gradually it mellows down into a rational search for spiritual certainty. The poet's compassion for the underserved Catholic persecution is in contrast with his condemnation of the Catholic ritual.

      The dominating metaphor is that of courtship, marriage and loyalty. Religion is a fair mistress (L. 5). The lovers must perform acts of daring (17-32). Who is a suitable bride (L. 43-88)? After marriage, the question of marital fidelity is raised. Then again the question of man's foes is taken up. The real enemies of man are not different churches but the Devil, the World and the Flesh. Dealing with the weakness of different Christian sects under different names, the poet mocks at the skeptic who hates religion like the man who has known some faithless woman and, therefore, refuses to marry any lady.

      The poet ridicules the laws of Kings and Popes. Can they save a man on the Day of Judgement? Donne ridicules the misuse both of ecclesiastical and temporal powers. The kings cannot be real defenders of faith or enforcers of conscience. Donne is quite restrained in his satire at the end. He warns us that the search for truth entails "hard deeds, the body's pains, hard knowledge too" (L. 86). Allusions to the Bible and classical literature show the scholarly quality of the poem. References to salamanders, children in the oven, Merreus, Graius, Phrygius, Graccus reveal the depth of the poet's religious learning. The poet has a personal knowledge of the corruptions, ceremonies and hypocrisies of different sects and priests. The technical excellence of this satire is remarkable. Leishman wrote: "Donne's wit and similes never get out of hand. He is not merely witty, but passionately witty and wittily passionate". To satirize religion - a sacred and delicate subject - with such brilliance and logic is a remarkable achievement for any poet. This satire "stands out for its penetrating and serious discussion of the problem of choosing between rival religious beliefs, the alternative possibilities being embodied in shorn satirical portraits." F.R. Leavis comments on the dramatic quality of this satire: "Satire of Religion, very obviously justifies the adjective 'dramatic' and the handling in it of the decasyllabic lines reminds us peculiarly of dramatic blank verse. This art has evident affinities with Shakespeare's, nevertheless, Donne is writing something original and quite different from blank verse. For all their apparent casualness, the rimes, it should be plain, are strictly used; the couplet structure, though not in Pope's ways, is functional....enough illustration...has been given to bring home how dramatic Donne's use of his medium can be; how subtly in a consummately managed verse, he can exploit the strength of spoken English".

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