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John Donne, Protestantism, Reformation


Donne's use of the imperative when addressing God in the Divine Poems is a maneuver designed to resolve a particularly Protestant dilemma, the same dilemma confronted by the speaker of Elegy 19 under another guise. As C. L. barber and Richard P. Wheeler have pointed out, the reformers' dismantling of "much of the Catholic apparatus of worship in order to isolate the individual worshiper in direct rapport with God through faith...put worshippers at risk in new ways. In areas where the Reformation triumphed, extraordinary anxiety could be generated by the absolute importance conferred upon the individual's faith in the grace of God no longer accessible through the ritual work of the church, and whose eternal wrath toward those not saved was beyond the mitigation both of the church and of individual action." The speakers of Elegy 19 and the Holy Sonnets betray just such an anxiety. The first recognizes women not only as the mystic book whose revelation assures "salvation" but also as dispensers of the imputed grace without which males cannot be made worthy of receiving that revelation. The speaker of the Sonnets ponders the same problematic dependency:

Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke;

But who shall give thee that grace to beginne?

("Oh my blacke Soule!" lines 9-10)

Prevenient grace, needed to begin the action of repentance, is available only from God, who has as yet given the speaker no sign of his election. God, the only member of the relationship capable of initiating the work of the speaker's salvation, must act but is "inaccessible," in Barber and Wheeler's words, through traditional channels. The imperative is used in each poem, I believe, as part of the speaker's frantic attempt to do nothing less than—impossible as it may be—provoke his own election.