'We can love nothing, but that which we do, or think we do understand' : the sacred and the profane in Donne's poetry.
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
Donne's dismissal of a dichotomy between the sacred and the profane in his Elegies, Songs and Sonets, and Divine Poems is fundamental to his conception of love. Throughout his poetry, and reiterated time and again in his Sermons, is his conviction that however desirable such a distinction may be between earthly and divine love, it is at best arbitrary, and often proves futile. This is because the nature of our love and its expression, whether for men and women, or God, defies categorisation as discrete secular or sacred manifestations. Donne's approach to this paradox is best demonstrated by considering his secular and religious poetry together, which however obvious it may seem, has not previously been undertaken in any great detail. As a way of contextualising what Donne is doing, and emphasising his essential orthodoxy, two complementary literary traditions are discussed. The first, in Chapter Two, is the exegetical tradition surrounding The Song of Songs, in conjunction with two mystics, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and the poets, Robert Southwell and Richard Crashaw. Petrarchism is the second, secular, literary tradition looked at, in Chapter Three. I then turn to the poetry itself, devoting the rest of Chapter Three to the Elegies, Chapter Four to the Songs and Sonets, and Chapter Five to the Divine Poems. By examining the individual groups of poems together like this I want to demonstrate that in the profane poetry there is a discernable connection between the sanctification and celebration of earthly love and Donne's use of religious terminology, which is mirrored in the secular, often sexual imagery found in his description of his love for God. The result is that however startling and occasionally uncomfortable readers may believe Donne's juxtaposition of the earthly and the divine to be, his conflation of these two apparent opposites is fully considered.