Thursday, January 27, 2011

Blog 2 Prompt #3 -- Religion in Donne's Poems

John Donne is a great poet who speaks on many aspects of life. In W;t we read mostly of the side of Donne that wants to hide from his feelings yet also write ironic and witty, complicated poems. However, Donne is also very in touch with his sexual side, which we discussed in class. His erotic poems scan the entire book, something Vivian seems to leave out of her explanations for multiple reasons. His religious parts of his poems also go unmentioned by Vivian.

The mention of “three” is brought up a lot in Donne’s poems. In the assigned readings Triple Fool and The Flea, Donne uses the term “three”, in the title of one poem and in line 18 of The Flea. Three, to me, means the Holy Trinity; the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit. This Catholic terminology is not added to Donne’s poems to go unnoticed, he believes in Christ and uses his poems as a medium for talking about Catholicism.

The Holy Sonnets are also filled with religious meaning. Donne pours such religious passion into his poems; it is hard to believe Vivian went without talking about that. In the Holy Sonnets XIV, Donne pleads for God to break his heart and save him to help him become a better person (lines 1-2) and how Donne cannot accept God’s love because he is sinful. (lines 9-10).

In Holy Sonnet I, Donne tells us that he is afraid God will not relieve him of his sins and he will not enter Heaven (lines 1-4) and he is also scared that the devil will easily take over him. (lines 5-8). Donne references God in almost every line saying how God is the only one who matters and he hopes he has done all that he needs to to enter Heaven.

Vivian does not seem like a religious person. She does not reference God throughout W;t and she does not explain this aspect of Donne’s poetry to her students. Even as she is dying and in much pain, there is no desire for religion in her life, she only thinks back to her childhood and other past experiences she’s had. For that reason, she may not have explained religion to her students because she is not familiar with it and has no religious background.

Another reason for this lack of religious explanation may be because she has been so focused on her academics and teaching that she lost sight of any God in her life and stopped believing in him. She may see no point in teaching about him if she does not think there is truth to Catholicism.

Also, Vivian lacks many emotions. I believe that to find truth in God and religion, one must be an emotional person. You must have passion because the thought of God’s existence is so abstract and hard to find true when no one can see it. If Vivian only finds comfort in words and being intellectual, she may find it hard to believe in something such as God and therefore, would not teach religion or think about it.

We can clearly see that Donne finds much passion in religion throughout all of his poems and religion is a large part of his beliefs. Vivian, however, extracts the religious aspects of the poems and does not acknowledge their importance. May it be that she is not religious herself, or over the years she lost trust in God, or that her lack of emotions cloud her ability to find comfort in a greater power, she continues to only see the irony, wit, and complications in Donne’s poetry.


  1. I'm going to organize my response around a line which, to me, sums up the strengths and weaknesses of your essay: "Vivian does not seem like a religious person. She does not reference God throughout W;t and she does not explain this aspect of Donne’s poetry to her students. "

    This is partially insightful, but your reading is also problematic, up to an extent. You are entirely right that doesn't seem like a religious person (Jason mirrors or exaggerates her here, of course). But it's not actually true that she doesn't reference God. Pages 70 & 71, when she's in intense pain, she calls out to God repeatedly. Now, it would be perfectly reasonable to say that she's just using God as a figure of speech here, and there's no more meaning to it than that. But "God" is repeated four times here; that's significant, even if she's not aware of what she's doing.

    More critically, on page 50 she gives a detailed analysis of the religious content of one of Donne's poems.

    So, your insight that she is irreligious is a good starting point - but you're wrong that she doesn't talk about God. She may not talk about God as a believer - but she nonetheless talks about him *and* calls out to him, whether she means to or not.

    As E.M. Ashford says to Vivian: "Begin with a text, not with a feeling." Your approach has merit, but it needs to deal with the actual text and its details, not just with your feelings about it.

  2. I think you chose a really good angle to write about. Like Dr. Johns said, Vivian does teach the religious aspect of Donne's poetry, particularly because the focus of her classes was on the Holy Sonnets. What I think would really improve your essay is if instead of saying she doesn't teach the religious aspect, to focus on the paradox of a woman, who I think you correctly point out is non-religious, teaching extensively on the most religious of Donne's poetry. You could possibly focus more broadly on the paradoxes that surround Vivian, such as the fact that it is the treatment rather than the cancer that is causing her to die quickly, or that she is a woman who has shunned emotion and companionship, yet she begs Susie for it when she is in pain.