Faith and Metaphysical Poets of England

In order to fully grasp the American nuances of literature and poetry, one must understand English Literature from which our nation spawned from, after the English came to America claiming the inhabited land as their own.

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Metaphysical poets John Milton and John Donne wrote poetry that reflected the individual’s relationship with faith in seventeenth-century society.  John Milton wrote Paradise Lost about the struggle of man to exist in a society full of temptation, vice, good, and evil while having free will. John Donne wrote Satire Three about the struggle of man in society with rules that encourage disobedience against God and crown. Metaphysical poetry by definition is a “vague classification,” but through the clear distinction of themes and emphasis correlate a timeline of the individuals and their faith in 17th century England.

Paradise Lost and Milton’s Faith

 

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John Donne

         “During the English Civil War, Milton championed the cause of the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell, and wrote a series of pamphlets advocating radical political topics including the morality of divorce, the freedom of the press, populism, and sanctioned regicide.” (Poets, n.d.)     During the Cromwell reign, he worked “composing official statements defending the Commonwealth.” Having lost his eyesight, Milton used the aid of assistants and other poets, such as Andrew Marvell to finish his writing while living in seclusion for the remainder of his days.  In seclusion, he wrote Paradise Lost, “as well as its sequel Paradise Regained and the tragedy Samson Agonistes.” (Poets, n.d.)  It is the philosophy of Paradise Lost that free will, be “man’s first disobedience.”  (Greenblatt, 2012) Free will of man enables him to rise or fall in society, and Milton saw the fall of man despite his being blind, the continued search for faith, which is committing an act of disobedience against God and man’s laws.  Being blind took his sight, but he did not accept that as the end.  God tells Adam in his poem Paradise Lost, “Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall.”  (Greenblatt, 2012) A man is free to be disobedient or obedient, but in disobedience man is warned, he may fall from grace. Milton equated disobedience with faith, as faith in man meant disobedience towards God and man’s laws. In society, Milton was outspoken, and his views on faith were radical for seventeenth-century society. He did not make any apologizes for his opinions on society and faith, living out the rest of his years secluded from society, despite his elevated status for his radical writing.

Satire Three and Donne’s Faith

After being imprisoned for marrying the very young niece of his employer, John Donne reentered society a poor man, unable to get work to support his rather large family. Donne’s financial status changed in 1615 when he took holy orders to the Catholic Church and became the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he penned the Holy Sonnet X. He died in 1631 never knowing the life of a published poet or the status he rose to for that talent.  Donne rejected from earning his degree in a Protestant England regime, because of his Catholic faith.  After years of traveling, Donne returned to London and converted to the English Church.  When Donne found himself so poor, he could not bury his dead family members he tried to regain the favor of the English court and James I. “When King James I came to power, Donne converted to Church of England and moved towards religious poetry, writing prose attacking the Catholic faith.” (John Donne, 2014) Donne saw converting as a means to provide for his family, and regardless of whether it was the right choice or not, his act of disobedience to his faith secured his ability as a man on Earth to provide for his family and bury his dead.

Satire Three demonstrates Donne’s emotions of repression of faith in mankind, God, self, and church.  Donne finds faith in truth.  It is in truths of historically proven belief systems that Donne flourishes and writes Satire Three. Having changed religions, seemingly by necessity, not the choice, Donne uses Satire Three as a way to poke fun at the idea of having devout faith in religion, that depending on who is in power, demands their religion is the correct path to heaven.  Satire and mockingly Donne uses this poem to put on display the absurdity of forced faith allegiance in society under the guise of heavenly assurance.

The Role of Faithin Society

Paradise Lost tells the story of Satan, Adam, Eve, and the angel’s that existed in the Garden of Eden and the fight between good and evil. Paradise Lost is “the product of one man’s extraordinary English Protestant imagination at work in its time.” (Reisner, 2011)  This poem was “born of the political and religious upheavals of the seventeenth century and addressed, as the invocation to Book VII indicates, to a ‘fit audience…though few’ of like-minded Protestant revolutionary readers who have presumably suffered and lost with Milton in the cause of liberty and religious non-conformity.”  (Reisner, 2011)  In book three, Milton takes the time to address divine light of God that comes from within and “Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell Of things invisible to mortal sight.” (Greenblatt, 2012)  To see beyond what the mortal eyes could see provided the physical evidence Milton was looking for that superseded blind faith.  In Paradise Lost, John Milton’s perspective approached a whole new level of understanding and tact even if not by choice, but forced blindness that Milton had been searching. Milton was blind, and divine light that comes from within and shown outward was something he could express through his faith in the divine and faith in others who could guide him in his daily life. Faith for Milton meant more than just trusting God but also trusting others with telling him the truth so that he may see without sight. Faith meant fact for both Milton and Donne.

“Donne acknowledged his love of ‘freedome and libertie’ and aside from his “move from the militant Catholicism of his birth and upbringing to the Protestantism of the English Church” Donne spent a large number of years in between that transition without a declared religion to attach his faith to.” (Strier, 1993)  “Donne was born in London in 1572 into a Catholic family at a time when Catholicism was illegal. He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge but could not graduate because of his faith. “ (John Donne, 2014)  Donne writes in Satire Three, “Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids;” and “Is not our mistress, fair religion, As worthy of all our souls’ devotion As virtue was in the first blinded age?” (Greenblatt, 2012)  His words reflect a faith in himself to analyze and see beyond what his eyes had agonized over and could not find answers. Donne finds the sight of a mortal to be a handicap that can be deceived by religion causing the mortal to miss seeing an opportunity to devote one’s soul to God.

The English language used words such as faith and truth in ways that meant more than the basic definition of them, as well as in colloquiums of that the 17th century.  “The expression in faith was used, along with variants, such as in good faith.  Also found are expressions involving my faith such as on my faith, and the most common of these, by my faith.” (Bromhead, 2009) The word faith was broader than believing in God void of physical evidence. “Since faith depends on testimony, it therefore rests upon the individual reliability of a specific person. Thus, given the connection between higher social standing and truth telling, the faith expressions have more of an upper-class flavor.” (Bromhead, 2009) Faith was a luxury afforded to those that could pay into the system of religion.  Only particular people could give validity to the expression of faith depending on social standing. Middle and lower classes did not contribute to the religious doctrines of seventeenth-century society but had to have faith that the upper classes had theirs and everybody’s best interest in mind. The crown and church demanded blind faith and obedience in accepting a universal truth to fit all of the seventeenth century English society.

The words truth and faith were often used interchangeably in seventeenth century English Literature.  “At first glance, it could look as though by my faith has the same meaning as by my troth because they are often paired together and used in the same contexts.” (Bromhead, 2009)  However, “in the English of the period, there was an important distinction between faith and truth, or troth, which one finds in pairings such as faith and troth.” (Bromhead, 2009)  One’s truth and faith were afforded to be socially relevant to society depending on social standing, and both Milton and Donne contributed to that truth of the seventeenth-century writer, which asks all future generations to have faith that they represented their centuries overall opinion on both matters of Protestantism and Catholicism in English society.

Conclusion

Reflected in his literary works, John Donne expressed “a desire for freedom of thought and action,” which encouraged him to write “different modes of asserting his freedom against a corrupt court, an oppressive legal system, and potentially enslaving social bonds,” in poetry, lyric, and sonnet. (Scodel, 2005)  In his poem Satire Three, Donne uses satire to write a radical argument that “stand clear of the religious, political, and social pressures of his world.” (Scodel, 2005)  In Paradise Lost, Milton took great measure to interject self into the poem while discussing the Christian story of the fall of man and woman. “The defending of free will is one of the most essential topics in Paradise Lost.”  (Vahid, 2014)  It was Milton’s assertion that if people did not have free will they could not choose to be faithful and obedient to God.  It is “understood that Milton draws a distinction between God’s knowledge about the matters of the world and the Divine commands” as he splits the assertion that God is omnipotent simultaneously as man’s free will. (Vahid, 2014) Free will is the crux of the story of Paradise Lost and the freedom of thought in Satire Three.  Both Milton and Donne used this to dramatize one’s ability in seventeenth-century English society to make their choices in faith, because even if it turned out to be the wrong choice, it was man’s choice to make it.

References

Bromhead, Helen. (2009) Topics in English Linguistics : The Reign of Truth and Faith :

Epistemic Expressions in 16th and 17th Century English. Berlin, DEU: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009. ProQuestebrary. Web. 12 February 2016.

Greenblatt, S. (2011). The 16th And Early 17th Centuries. Retrieved from                                             http://wwnorton.com/college/english/nael9/section/volB/overview.aspx

Greenblatt, S., Christ, C., David, A., et al (Eds.). (2012). The Norton anthology of

English literature. (9th ed., Vol. 1). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

John Donne Biography. (2014). Retrieved from

http://www.bbc.co.uk/poetryseason/poets/john_donne.shtml

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Poets: John Milton. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/john-milton

Reisner, N. (2011). Reading Guides to Long Poems : John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’.

Edinburgh, GB: Edinburgh University Press. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Scodel, J.. (2005). “None’s Slave”: Some Versions of Liberty in “Donne’s Satires 1” and

“4”. ELH72(2), 363–385. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/30029978

Strier, R.. (1993). Radical Donne: “Satire III”. ELH60(2), 283–322. Retrieved from

http://www.jstor.org/stable/2873380

The Metaphysical Poets [Video file]. (1998). In Films On Demand. Retrieved February

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VahidAbtahi, S. (2014). [An Epistemological Analysis of] Predestination and Free-Will

in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.International Journal Of Applied Linguistics And

         English Literature, 3(3), 83-89. Retrieved from

http://www.journals.aiac.org.au/index.php/IJALEL/article/view/1056/986

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