Coping with Predestinarian Anxiety: Reconciling Free-will and Predestination in the Religious Poems of John Donne

        According to one of the basic theological assumptions held by John Donne (Lim 1), Donne subscribes to a predestinarian belief that he is of the elect, chosen by God to receive grace and eventual salvation. Donne’s religious poems, however, harbour a predestinarian anxiety – the insecurity in accepting that he is destined for God’s grace. Donne’s predestinarian anxiety is reflected as a wrestling tension between volition and a complete submission to the grace of God. Donne’s insecurities in the tangibility of God’s grace then compels him to evoke violence and death in order to feel God’s grace by pleading for penitential punishment. In view of this, I posit that Donne copes with his predestinarian anxiety by ascertaining the tangibility of grace through the evocation of suffering and violence as punishment for his sins; the violent punishment then serves as a form of “preparation” (Martin 351) that Donne requires of himself as a conditional prerequisite in order to prepare his soul to receive his predestined grace.

        For the purpose of this essay, I will first look at Donne’s Holy Sonnet (IV), “O, my black soul, now thou art summoned”, to discuss the tension between free-will and predestination that arises from Donne’s predestinarian anxiety. I will also analyse Holy Sonnet (XIV), “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God”, to bring forth the violent imagery that Donne evokes in order to physically feel the grace of God by pleading for his own punishment. Finally, the poem, “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness” will reveal Donne’s volition in contributing to his own salvation by preparing himself to receive God’s grace.

        To begin, while Donne subscribes to a predestinarian belief that he is of the chosen elect, his Holy Sonnet (IV) “O, my black soul, now art thou summoned” raises an anxiety that originates from a wrestling tension between a volition and a complete submission to God’s predestined grace. It is often speculated that Donne envisioned his own death in this poem, since he imagines his sinful “black soul” to be “summoned / By sickness” (Donne 1). After the volta, Donne acknowledges the never-ending generosity of God’s grace; as long as one repents, one “canst not lack” (9) the grace of God. However, the following line “But who shall give thee that grace to begin?” (10) hints at Donne’s insecurity regarding the legitimacy of God’s grace. By connecting lines 9 and 10 which reference to God’s never-ending grace on the terms of repentance, Donne questions the legitimacy of this grace – how can he begin to repent if he is not sure grace has been given to him in the first place? Since no one “can know neither the mind of God nor the true condition of their own hearts” (Martin 354), Donne questions and legitimacy of his predestined elect status and yearns for a certainty in God’s predestined grace for him.

        Donne’s insecurity is similarly foreshadowed in lines 6 and 8 of the same poem earlier, where Donne appears to be wrestling between wanting to be “deliver’d from prison” (Donne 6) and to “be imprisoned” (8). To be “deliver’d from prison” (6) is to be freed from sin, as the theological concept of “deliverance” suggests, it is the “act of God whereby he rescues his people from danger” (Brown). The noun “prison” serves as metaphor for sin – it traps the individual who has broken communion with God. Thus, to be freed from sin is to submit fully to the grace of God by pleading for His rescue, or, deliverance. However, Donne struggles to fully submit to God’s grace as he also “wisheth that he might be imprisoned” (8) for his sins. There is also a functional shift in the word “prison”, morphing from a noun in “deliver’d from prison” (6), to a verb in “wisheth that he might be imprisoned” (8). The functional shift from the noun “prison” to the verb “imprisoned”, which suggests action in the form of punishment, could later hint at Donne’s desire in contributing to his own salvation.

        Donne’s predestinarian anxiety therefore motivates his need to ascertain the tangibility of grace; he needs to feel it. This compels him to have a hand at his own salvation by expressing a pleading desire to God to punish him violently in “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God”, in order to physically feel the grace of God. Donne pleads God to “knock”, “breathe” and “shine” on him in order to “mend” (Donne 2) his soul that is broken by sin. The violence ensues when we compare the second and fourth line of the octave, where “knock / breathe / shine” (2) become “break / blow / burn” (4). The verbs in line 4 represent what happens when excessive energy is placed on the verbs in line 2: to “knock” (2) harder is to “break” (4), to “breathe” (2) harder is to “blow” (4), and finally, to excessively “shine” results in a “burn” (4). An excessive physical energy is placed on the verbs in line 2 in order to result in significant breakage in the verbs of line 4. Moreover, the monosyllabic stress of the verbs “knock / breathe / shine” (2) in line 2 that progressively morphs into the repetitive plosive and monosyllabic sounds found in “break / blow / burn” (4) in line 4, re-emphasises the added violence and harshness in prosodic stress which perhaps is needed as punishment in order for Donne to physically feel the grace of God. The final line of the poem, when Donne pleads for God to “ravish” (14) him, cements Donne’s desire for God’s punishment, as the word “ravish” (14) suggests a holy rape that Donne pleas for in order to feel God’s grace. Donne copes with this predestinarian anxiety by pleading for punishment in order to feel the tangibility of God’s grace.

        Before I continue, I would like to address how the concept of punishment is related to the grace of God. Considering that Donne was raised a Roman Catholic, the concept of Catholic salvation is conditional – in order to receive it, one has to confess one’s sin and undergo penance, which is a form of punishment that precedes the atonement of sin. Perhaps Donne’s doubt in his predestined status is partially due to his prior Catholic beliefs. Although Donne eventually converts to Anglicanism and becomes a man of the cloth, it seems that his Catholic roots inevitably compel him to contribute to his own salvation through means of a poetical plea for penitential punishment. Perhaps this is required, as “the status of the elect must always appear as conditional, not absolutely certain, since they can neither know neither the mind of God nor the true condition of their own hearts” (Martin 354). Donne’s plea for suffering and punishment is then the condition on his own accord that prepares his soul for God’s grace.

        As a result, the violence that Donne wishes for God to enact on him serves as a form of “preparation” (Martin 351) which he requires of himself in order to receive God’s grace. The concept of “preparation” plays an important role in the lives of believers who are deeply anxious over their eternal salvation (351). William Perkins notes that “man, although totally depraved, might nevertheless predispose or ‘prepare’ himself for saving grace” (qtd. in Martin 351). The plea for self-mortification and violence in “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” therefore draws back to the Hebraic teachings to “prepare the heart to reconcile and return to God.” (351)

        Donne’s willful ‘preparation’ of his soul surfaces explicitly in “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness”, where he foregrounds a conditional cause-and-effect relationship between his time on earth and in heaven, thus suggesting a strong desire to contribute to his own salvation. The poem opens with “Since I am coming to that holy room” (Donne 1), which reflects Donne’s acceptance of his predestined status as an elect for heaven, the certainty of tone in “I am coming” (Donne 1) also confirming his belief in predestination. However, the word “since”, which opens the poem as a conjunction already presupposes a conditional clause – “Since I am coming to that holy room” (1) (with “holy room” as a metaphor for heaven), Donne wants to be “made thy music” (3). He feels that his salvation is conditional, that because he is granted eternal life in heaven, he has to become an instrument of God. The concept of “preparation” (Martin 351) as mentioned before, is also reminiscently seen in the fourth and fifth line of the first stanza:

            I tune the instrument here at the door,
                        And what I must do then think here before. (4-5)

        The fifth line suggests the act of preparation – “what I must do then think here before” (5); “then” refers to the event of Donne entering heaven, and “here” refers to Donne’s time on earth. Donne then connects these two events by suggesting whatever he does “then” in heaven, he has to prepare by “think[ing] here” on earth. The adverbs of “then” and “before” revealing a “cause-and-effect” relationship between heaven and earth, as one has to prepare to “think here” on earth, what he “must do then” in heaven. The second last line of the final stanza, “Be this my text, my sermon to mine own” (29), embodies Donne’s role as the poet with regard to his predestinarian anxiety – the “text” therefore becomes Donne’s own willful enactment, through the discourse of the “sermon” (29), of his own punishment which then serves to prepare him for his own predestined salvation. As a result, Donne yearns to contribute to his own salvation by preparing his soul on earth for his life in heaven.  

        To conclude, Donne’s reconciles free-will and predestination by willfully preparing his soul to receive God’s predestined grace since no one can “neither know neither the mind of God nor the true condition of their own hearts” (Martin 354). Donne does not reject predestination, but he is insecure of it. In order to cope with this insecurity, his plea for violent punishment of his sins is therefore the conditional penitential act which he requires of himself in order to prepare his soul for his predestined path to receive God’s grace.

Works Cited:

Brown, William E. “Deliver.” Bible Study Tools, Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 1996, http://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/deliver/.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnets (XIV): Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God.” Poems of John Donne, edited by Edmund K. Chambers, 1st ed., Lawrence & Bullen, 1896, Luminarium. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/sonnet14.php.

Donne, John. “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.” Poems of John Donne, edited by Edmund K. Chambers, 1st ed., Lawrence & Bullen, 1896, Luminarium. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/sonnet14.php.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnets (IV): O, My Black Soul, Now Thou Art Summoned.” Poems of John Donne, edited by Edmund K. Chambers, 1st ed., Lawrence & Bullen, 1896, Luminarium. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/sonnet14.php.

Lim, Walter. “John Donne: The Poetry of Religious Experience.” EN3221 English Renaissance, 17 Mar. 2019, National University of Singapore. Microsoft PowerPoint Presentation. Lecture Notes, pp. 1-4.

Martin, Catherine G. “Experimental Predestination in Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Self-Ministry and the Early Seventeenth-Century “Via Media”.” Studies in Philology, vol. 110, no. 2, 2013, pp. 350-381, Project Muse. doi.org/10.1353/sip.2013.0014. Accessed 17 Apr. 2019.

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