Coming to Terms with his Past – John Donne and his Allegiance to St. Thomas More: A New Historical Reading of “The Canonization”, “The Legacy”, and the Holy Sonnets.
On July 6th, 1535, Thomas More uttered his last words before his execution at Tower Hill. To his executioner, he spoke these words: “Thou wilt give me this day a greater benefit than ever any mortal man can be able to give me. Pluck up they spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short: take heed, therefore, thou strike not awry for saving thine honesty.” Moments later he said to the crowd that he would “suffer death in and for the faith of the Holy Catholic Church” and that he was King Henry VIII’s “good servant but God’s first” (Halpin 299). Following this, the executioner followed More’s request and completed his office not afraid. These last words, along with his refusal to swear the Oath of Supremacy by request of his King, paint Thomas More within the divine light that echoes characteristics sought upon investigation for Canonization. The kind-heartedness, forgiveness, and honesty to both his executioner and gathered crowd depict a man of noble-surroundings and reflect the Catholic faith in action as well as words: within these words exists no anger, malice, or denial of his faith. These characteristics and behavior lead to the martyrdom and future canonization of St. Thomas More.
History paints Thomas More as the reformation martyr, a man whose legacy marks him as an opponent to the Protestant Reformation synonymous to that of Martin Luther or William Tyndale. At the time of his execution, Catholic-dominated Europe stood staggered, contemporary scholars and kinsman alike heralded his execution as a great loss to society, Swift marking that he was “the person of the greatest virtue this kingdom ever produced” (CITATION NEEDED). While Europe mourned the loss of the future Saint More, England stood stoic. More’s death marked the birth of national Protestantism, the smothering of Catholic ideals within the English society, and the end of exemption from the Act of Succession for those close to the King’s ear. Prior to More’s execution, the first victims were three unnamed Cathusian monks, one who commented, “How could the king, a layman, be Head of the Church of England?” (Logan 476). The death of these three nameless souls, who were hanged, drawn, and quartered, warned those who chose to speak out against King Henry VIII. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, followed the three Cathusian monks by openly questioning Henry’s Act of Succession, his head was taken a few weeks later.
For More, the only logical solution was to remain silent, to not speak out against his beloved King, yet his faith would not permit him to speak the Act of Succession. His silenced voice did not stop his executioner’s axe. The indifferent Henry, in that same year, permitted twenty-five Protestants, members of the Anabaptists, burned for heresy shortly after Fisher and More’s deaths. Henry’s faith to Rome or to Luther never stood on solid ground – but Thomas More, close confidant to the King, must have known that Henry’s faith, the once Defender of the Faith of Rome, and the excommunicate follower of Rome by Pope Clement VII, did not fall within a belief system of religious faith, but in faith in his own ego, power, and contempt for any of those who opposed his view of the world. Henry’s Act of Supremacy asked for denial of the Roman Church, but it did not reflect the true desire of the King, to be recognized as the absolute leader of man and man’s faith – whether Protestant or Catholic.
Therefore, More’s silence, his refusal to speak denial of his faith or to chose a side between King and his God, embodied not a act of rebellion, but of agency: aware of Henry’s inability to recognize his own desires, More stood silent – he neither denied nor accepted the Act of Supremacy, knowing the invalidity of its purpose. He held this silence through his persecution and carefully reasoned his thinking to the masses awaiting his execution. Following the death of More, the man who once painted the King’s father’s enemy, the overthrown King Richard III forever as a twisted and evil man bent on insanity, no one was safe from the blade of Henry VIII.
To the great-great nephew of the future canonized martyr, John Donne, Thomas More represents a blessing and a curse. To Donne, whose place within English society of the 17th-century is defined by this ancestral past, More represents the ever-inquisitive eye of public speculation of faith, as well as a near impossible standard of expectation for Donne to surpass. While his writing focuses primarily on man’s glorification of carnal desire and his complex connection to that of God, the motif of Death and the impact that Death has on our decisions, actions, and thoughts, persists throughout Donne’s work. Donne’s writing reflects the confliction between a man, his past, his desired path in society, and impossible expectations set upon him by his great-great uncle, St. Thomas More.
Carey posits that John Donne mentions Sir Thomas More and his “firmness to the integrity of the Roman faith” with an evident level of pride (209). Dickson marks Donne’s dodging of the Oath of Supremacy, same as his to be sainted ancestor, and a poet who found his own poetic voice by overturning conventional methods of writing, but also as “an astute observer of human nature in an exuberant new city at an exciting moment in its history” (xi). More achieved religious and political greatness through his placement within King Henry VIII’s court, and his writings, including the illustrious and immortal Utopia granted him equal secular fame and fortune.
Donne finds himself between a societal/religious conflict: to be honorable to Catholic faith, or to take part in the literary world that London offered – the benefits of both reaped by his St. Thomas More, but impossible within Donne’s world to coexist. Around John Donne existed all the glory of Elizabethan London: with the open theaters performing the works of masters Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson, with a lack of threat from the conquering Spanish Armada, this “Monarch of Wit” was swept in a transcendent era with a future that held no impossibilities. His great-great uncle lived in an almost opposite world. Donne recognized that, in part, the death of his great-great uncle and the resulting Protestant Reformation brought this New English World – a byproduct of religious and societal sacrifice, and one that Donne socially benefits from throughout his life. It only makes sense that Donne would use his astute observation to question the pathway of history to reach his contemporary world, as well as his family’s own legacy and contribution, in life and death, of his fruitful era.
Donne’s loyalty to the More’s beloved Catholic Church notably kept Donne “awake in a meditation of martyrdom” (Lewalski 1233), aware of his lineage to one of the great Catholic families of all of Europe. Donne may have felt a desire to follow his family’s footsteps and to become a martyr of his ancestral faith, and with that a certain pride of his family sacrifice. Yet, a close uncle was executed by disembowelment for this same relation, and his own brother dodged the executioner’s axe having died in prison of the plague – neither of whom became martyrs, or received admiration with talks of future canonization. Donne expected no public career, no honors of bloodline bestowed upon him due to his ancestral past, and no participation in university or other formal studies due to the ever-present eye of Protestant oppression. But the transcendental Elizabethan/Jacobean world beckoned and, succumbing to his own ability and potential, converted to the Church of England. Does this mark him as a traitor to his faith or his bloodline? Is he a man without the pride and faith of his celebrated great-great uncle? Unable to integrate as a Catholic, and unable to deal with public scorn and the impending financial difficulties in inherited faith offered, Donne chose to participate in society rather than mitigate his own faith. He, to seek the acceptance of James I, penned the Pseudo-Martyr in 1610 urging Catholics to take the Oath of Allegiance and satirized the Jesuits in Ignatius his Conclave in 1611. It would appear that John Donne, the descendent of the faithfully strong Sir Thomas More, turned his back on his faith and, in practice and written word, sought for the same position of power wielded by his ancestor, but would be willing to denounce his faith More would not: More the pious, Donne the traitor.
To Donne, the sacrifice of being Catholic in the non-Catholic friendly world of England was too great – no immortal benefit would befall upon him as it did his greatest ancestor, but only another nameless Catholic, a statistic, alongside numerous others who died from their faith – perhaps nothing more than a footnote in the history of his great-great uncle’s biography. To Donne, his immortality fell within society, not religious practice. To achieve or match the greatness bestowed upon him by name and blood, Donne would have to forgo greatness through religion, and focus primarily upon the secular written word – sacrificing his religion rather than himself. But yet, within the written words of Donne, the Monarch of Wit did not wholly let go of his Catholic past, nor did he completely deny the actions of his ancestry. Within his writings, witty passages of satirical embellishes of English society, his Religious Sonnets, and his sermons later in life as the court preacher and dean at St. Paul’s exists subtle and witty acknowledgment of St. Thomas More.
Donne appears to directly acknowledge his own ancestry within his poem “The Legacy”. Here, Donne asserts the parallels between his own faith and actions to that of Thomas More. The poem is often analyzed as that of a lover, whose death of love reflects the cavalier playboy attitude of the early Donne writings. However, the careful wordings of each line, when viewed through the lens of Donne, the admirer of his ancestral past, battling his own allegiances to Roman Faith, ancestral legacy, and the pull of celebrative Elizabethan English society, reads as though he places himself in the role of martyr on a regular basis, thus displaying his “awake in meditation to martyrdom.” Here, Donne attempts to thwart, but also justify, the legacy that Sir Thomas More bestows upon him through his bloodline. The legacy is the strength of More, the focus of his convictions, and the determined heart of a man assure of his role to God, his King, and society – none that Donne possesses.
The poem’s opening two lines, “When last I died, and, dear, I die/ As often as from thee I go,” display Donne’s wavering allegiances to God, Crown, and himself. By recalling his last death, Donne recognizes his own inability to echo the stability of More in belief and society. To Donne, he chooses to die multiple deaths on a regular basis of faith and allegiance. The frugality of his allegiance comes and goes “though it be but an hour ago” (line 3), appears to read as a jealous man, unable to grasp the strength bestowed upon him by his bloodline. And what does Donne credit with this weakness of soul, spirit, and body? Nothing but himself. He finishes the poem’s first stanza writing, “Though I be dead, which sent me, I should be/ Mine own executor and legacy” (lines 8-9). Donne knows that it is own actions and thoughts, his inability to justify his flightiness – he is a man who battles himself eternally, unable to commit to thought or agency, unable to take his place within the noble Catholic bloodline he resides within.
The second stanza of “The Legacy” lets Donne begin to assert himself. Here, the speaker finds voice in the form of dialog to no outside listener. Donne writes, “I heard me say, ‘Tell her anon,/ That myself, that is you, not I, Did kill me,’/ and when I felt me die,” (lines 10-12). Donne emphasizes directly to himself that no one can be blamed for his own lack of allegiance to the More family legacy but himself, nor is there any listener to the voice. Donne must speak anonymously of the death of his family legacy, to no listener to listen but himself, hiding his heritage from his public office to climb English social ladders. He comments about how his legacy has kept him stagnant socially, and won nothing religiously when he writes:
“But alas could there find none,
When I had ripp’d me, and search’d where hearts should lie;
It kill’d me again, that I who still was true,
In life, in my last will should cozen you.”
Donne recognizes that all his searches, either religiously or socially, have lead to not. Instead, the searches lead to heartache and anguish, and with each waver away from his spirituality, he finds himself dying more and more, despite his attempt to be true. Without a listener, Donne speaks to himself, recognizing that either choice, whether to Rome or to the Church of England, or to God or to English society, leads to ruin, and, in the end, will do nothing but continue the lies and tricks he plays upon himself by attempting validity of his denied legacy.
In the final stanza Donne appears to come to some temporary conclusion to his own conflict with family legacy and the needs and desires of a burgeoning, 17th Century man living in an artistically transcendental English society. He notes that he “found something like a heart” somewhere that encouraged him to continue his path towards the socially accepted John Donne. But, this muse, this object in which Donne invests so much credential to is “like a heart” – something artificial and only possesses some of the characteristics of the heart wielded by Sir Thomas More. Donne uses a simile to represent the temporary balance he finds between his legacy-based faith and his place within the social context of England. He closes the poem by stating, “I meant to send this heart in stead of mine,/ But oh, no man could hold it, for ‘twas thine” (lines 26-27) as if Donne further understands that his actions, thoughts, and beliefs do not, in any way shape or form, represent his true allegiances. By recognizing that the object that took the place was “thine”, perhaps this is the borrowed conviction of Sir Thomas More, an object temporary and undeserved, that serves as morality and faithfulness, but not so much as the true thing – the legacy of faith, not the strength through faith.
Donne’s inability to match Thomas More’s convictions must have been difficult for the socially-lauded Donne to handle. The very same celebrity that brought his name into recognition, his own legacy, the strength to withstand religious persecution and the respect that came with that, gave him credence and status, but none of which were directly inherited to John Donne. The death of Sir Thomas More was a badge of honor, but also a stain, a reminder of his own inabilities, and one that Donne dealt with in all aspects of his life. In multiple sonnets, Donne angrily battles his martyred past. In “Death be not proud” he writes:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
Dor those whom though think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst kill me.”
Donne’s anger pours from the “holy” sonnet. He openly questions the supposed pride he should feel towards his more-lauded ancestor, his mightiness, his pride celebrated for nearly century upon the writing of these lines. He angrily defies this celebrated death, one in which Donne cannot match or surpass. He calls this martyred death a “slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and deserate men”. It’s as if Donne himself questions the legacy of Thomas More. What greatness can be found in this legacy, when not just the actions of the king play a part, but fate itself? Is this a legacy at all to even attempt emulation? Donne admits that he took “much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow” (line 6) and knows that at some time “our best men with thee do go” (line 7), so was Thomas More’s death a noble, martyred death, or was it the normal path that a man must follow? To Donne, he masks his anger towards his ancestor’s historical place by banging his fists in anger at the expectations of those around him, and his inability to meet these expectations.
Nearly a century after Thomas More’s execution, John Donne would pen “The Canonization” written sometime after 1588. John A. Clair critiques the poem stating that “the five stanzas may be said to be controlled by the Canonization metaphor as it proceeds from proof of personality to sanctity, to proof of heroic virtue, proof of miracles, examination of the burial place and the writings, and finally to the declaration of the Sainthood and veneration of the Saint” (332). Clair cites other common interpretations of “The Canonization” as a testament between lover and the wooer, a declaration of love and sanctity, or as a Devil’s Advocate during the Canonization process. While each critical examination of the poem holds literary merit, the poem itself poses a much simpler interpretation, a far easier and more direct purpose – it is possible that many critics overestimate the true purpose of “The Canonization”. Donne recognized the lack of anger, malice, and the forgiveness of More’s final moments, but envied the opportunity offered the Saint, and focused on the words that More did not speak – his own defense of his Roman faith. Donne gave voice to his ancestor, a man whose kindness, greatness, and faith would lead him to Sainthood, by defending his and his own Catholic faith in open forum by supplying the anger, confusion, and desperation of a man facing execution because of his faith –in this case, “The Canonization” reads as Donne seizing the opportunity to rewrite the last words of More with all the faults of humanity.
Donne opens the poem in direct plea for silence, silencing the tongue of the speaker, possibly More himself stating, “For God’s sake hold your tongue, and let me love”. Here, Donne angrily asks his ancestor to cease his Saint-like speaking and allow Donne to openly worship his own love of God and Catholicism. Within the following lines, Donne openly admits to his own flaws: his external flawed characteristics publicly viewed by those around him – he admits his failing in fortune and the inability to dodge the age of time when stating in the third line, “My five gray hairs, or ruin’d fortune flout”. Donne willingly confesses his secular sins, the sins of man that are unavoidable and easily criticized and punishable by public opinion. The remaining lines of the first stanza, Donne begs his listeners to “take your course, get you a place” (line 5) and to “Contemplate; what you will, approve, / so you will let me love” (lines 8-9). Donne forces the witnesses of his execution to gain balance in their beliefs, a moment to solidify their own convictions, so that they can allow themselves to hear his words objectively.
“The Canonization’s” second and third stanzas reflect the confusion and anger of a man facing death for his faith. He defends Catholicism by asking a series of rhetorical questions that posits what harm has his faith and practice of the Holy Roman Catholic Church has had on Elizabethan London, sometimes criticizing the political entity of London itself. He questions whether or not his faith’s sighs economically have drowned merchant’s ships or contributed to arresting the advancement of the burgeoning arts scene of London’s contemporary culture by mentioning the “plaguy bill” (line 15), the closure of the theater bills due to The Black Plague. Rhetorically, the answer to each question from the second stanza, at least in the mind of Donne, is “nothing.” By doing so, Donne relinquishes Catholicism of any negative societal impact that dampens the transcendent state of Elizabethan London surrounding him both economically and artistically.
Donne’s words in “The Canonization’s” third and fourth stanzas compare and contrast the two faiths searching for an imbalance that the poet cannot find. “Call us what you will,” writes Donne in line 19, “we are made such by love;/ Call her one, me another fly.” Here he questions the equal mortality of all worshipers of religious love, regardless of paths of beliefs. In great desperation, Donne begs for reasoning as to why a man must lose his head over his own love of God, when both faiths worship the same God in different manners. By the fourth stanza of the poem, Donne uses his last words to focus on the missed opportunities the broken Christian faith causes. Donne recognizes, similar to the way he recognizes his ancestor’s own immortality through Sainthood, the immortality of his colleagues, but how this immortality is restrained by religious persecutions. “Our legend be, it will be fit for verse;” writes Donne, recognizing the potential greatness of those around him, “And if no piece of chronicle we prove,/ We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms” (lines 30-32). Donne begs his society to recognize what his generation, regardless of religious faith and belief, will contribute to society but hold back due to the inability to love their faith openly. The poet, in an paradoxical display of pessimism of his contemporary society but optimism of future society, recognizes within the last line that the creations of those around him will be, if not allowed in his own time, openly celebrated and permitted to display of love of God and faith “…by these hymns, all shall approve/ Us canonized for love”. Here, the doomed soul damns the inability for his audience to recognize love of God only as love of God and not a besmirch of another faith or monarchial ruler, and puts forth the argument that Time itself and a more transcendent world will turn all poets and songwriters, regardless of Catholic or Protestant faith, as equal Saints of worship after their deaths.
The final stanza displays the anger and frustration within Donne just before he takes his metaphoric blade to the neck. With great aggression and rage, Donne openly criticizes the hegemonic Protestant leaders by forcing one faith to worship in isolation and fear by directly addressing the power that guides the blade to his neck, describing this faith as one who lost its purpose in worshipping God: “’you, whom reverend love/ Made one another’s hermitage;/ You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage” (lines 37-39). Donne attacks this religious empire with the aggression and anger lost to St. Thomas More on his execution day by asking, “Who did the whole world’s soul extract, and drove/ Into the glasses of your eyes” (lines 40-41). What madness made a vehicle to love and worship God drive to cut a man down that worships the very same God? What beast tore the very soul out of an entire faith to allow an open execution of a fellow worshipper of Christianity? Donne concludes the poem, in desperation, pleading for answers that he will not hear, “Countries, towns, courts: beg from above/ A pattern of your love” (lines 44-45). Donne, with his head on his ancestor’s execution block, emphasizes the immensity of the Catholic faith, and begs only for solidarity and consistency in the manners of worship of God and Crown.
Thomas More achieved Canonization and religious immortality by conducting himself, on that fateful day in 1535, in the manner that mimicked that of his own savior: More was forgiving, kind, and honest. He held back emotions that define humanity; his words lack the anger and confusion of a man about to lose his head because of his love of God. More offers no defense of his actions, nor does he question the actions of the executing society. To his ancestor and fellow Catholic John Donne, who held a keen eye of humanity and its actions, the rare moment to defend one’s faith was a missed opportunity. Donne could only have been aware of the future Sainthood of his ancestor and, with the pride of any family member who shares blood with greatness, chose to defend his bloodline and heritage. Donne provided More the words and voice that More, in his religious Saintliness, chose to not speak. In “The Communion”, Donne places his own head on More’s execution block, and speaks his soul, defending his faith, and displaying his anger at a society that consistently oppresses his own love and worship of God in the voice and emotions of humanity.
Donne, by giving voice to More, humanizes the humanist. Donne promptly matches his great-great uncle’s literary fame though his secular work. Through his poetry, Donne’s fame grew and his place within English society, moved away from the public scrutiny placed upon him by the death of St. Thomas More. By the time Donne attained status, he received the role of preacher within The Church of England. Donne, the man who achieved literary status in English society, now begins the process of matching More’s religious piety. Here, Donne’s Holy Sonnets reflect a man who recognizes his own guilt of religious abandonment to attain secular greatness. Now, a man of the cloth, Donne grapples with his own past, his decisions and those or More.
Within his “Holy Sonnets”, Donne openly questions the divided Christian faith, and begins to validate his dismissal of one ractice of faith for another. He begins Sonnet XIV by stating, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you/ As yet but; breathe, shine, and seek to med;/ That I may rise, and stand” (lines 1-3). Donne’s battered heart reaps the wounds of a three-fold conflicted allegiance to God: the Catholic and Protestant faiths, British society, and the royal house’s usurped role of Rome. Donne recognizes that faith and God remain separate from one another: three separate ways to practice one common faith. Here, Donne begs to rise against these bruises earned from a lifetime of religious and societal conflict. In the same manner in which St. Thomas More gave his life for his faith, Donne illustrates his own sacrifices – sacrifices of belief, external practice of faith, and the turmoil to find balance between his legacy and his place in English society. He writes, “I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,/ Labour to admit you, but O, to no end” (lines 5-6) personifying his own original faith to be guarded like a town guards its walls, and forcefully allows this confliction of God and society permeate his beliefs from another practice of faith. Donne’s Sonnet XIV allows us into the inner workings of Donne’s faith and his conflict with his ancestral legacy, his sacrifice of faith holds him “captive(d), and proves weak or untrue” (line 8) and leaves him “betroth’d unto your enemy” (line 9), his original Roman faith. Despite this battle of internal conflict, this battered soul of a man attempting to best his own legacy both secularly and spiritually, he begs for divorce of faith, to “break that knot again”, recognizing that he once abandoned his faith for his material gain, requesting it once more . But, despite this conflict, Donne recognizes his religious piety, an unwavering devotion to God shared with St. Thomas More, by closing the poem with the couplet: “Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me” (lines 13-14). Donne posits that his own battered soul, beaten upon the rocks of faith similar to his ancestor’s, still calls to God regardless of his practice of faith – his three person’d God, despite conflicts from his sacrifice of Roman faith, still beckons to him. Here Donne, announces his service to all aspects of faith.
It is no stretch of the imagination to assume that the biography of a writer impacts the work of the scribe, and John Donne would be no exception. Similar to his contemporaries, Shakespeare and Marlowe, a great deal of assumption is made by critics to fill in certain gaps that remain unanswered: Shakespeare’s missing years, for example. Certain aspects of Donne’s biography, studied by both critics and scholars alike, has been unearthed, a great deal of unanswered questions arise concerning his devotion to faith and his allegiance to family. To many, the course of life remains known, but his reasoning remains aloof. There is no doubt that Donne felt the burden of his family legacy, the martyrdom and expected canonization of Thomas More hung over his head as much a motivator and as a curse, and the expectations for the future “Monarch of Wit” equally vexed his soul. Donne’s Catholic upbringing and heritage acted as a weight, holding him from public office, recognition, and his proper place within the literary world. To die for his faith, emulating his great-great uncle’s nobility execution, did not serve as a acceptable path to continue his family legacy. Instead, Donne sacrificed his faith, stepping away from faith to conquer the secular world in poetry, attempting to equal More’s success from Utopia. But this success came with a cost, he rose to religious power and position similar to More and spent the remaining years validating his spiritual sacrifice in the same manner More did on his execution day. To Donne, his greatness could never best or match that of Thomas More, but what More sacrificed in body, Donne sacrificed in spirit, and spent his remaining years as faith’s good servant, but God’s first.
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