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"For reason, put to her best extension, / Almost meets faith":

The Flawed Dialectical Structure in Donne's Sonnets


J. Oakes



"So perish souls, which more choose men's unjust / Power from

God claimed, than God himself to trust."

John Donne's satire

condemning flawed human efforts to find true religion ends with a sentiment that might cause us to conclude that reason and faith are incompatible, even contradictory elements of human experience. However, some of Donne's "Holy Sonnets" show that he does not always think of these two notions as polar opposites: instead, those seemingly opposite modes of comprehension or awareness serve a joint function in his thought. Reason and faith act like the two sides of a coin, closely allied but inherently opposite, as he tries to understand both larger doctrinal issues and the personal issue of his own salvation. Donne devises a syncretic epistemologi- cal strategy incorporating both reason and faith because, as he says in his verse letter to the Countess of Bedford, "By these we reach divinity." For Donne, the journey to the divine begins with reason, which can lead the human mind to understanding and then

faith. This epistemological process, deemed Donne's "Reason- Faith Equation" by Irving Lowe (389), is explained in the elegy written after the death of James 1's son Henry, and in the verse let- ter to Lucy Harington, the Countess of Bedford, which I just quot- ed. Today I will synthesize Donne's explanation of this process in

the two poems, and then show how he tries to use it-with

ing success-in

on Donne's own salvation. As with many of Donne's poems, the "Prince Henry"

divulges as much about Donne's opinions on other things as it does about its purported subject. The first section of the lament does not even mention the deceased Prince, rather, it explains

Donne's conviction that reason can be used to comprehend of faith:


two of the "Holy Sonnets" which are meditations




Look to me faith, and look to my faith, God; For both my centres feel this period. Of weight one centre, one of greatness is; And reason is that centre, faith is this. For into our reason flow, and there do end, All that this natural world doth comprehend:

Quotidian things, and equidistant hence, Shut in, for man, in one circumference. But, for the enormous greatnesses, which are

So disproportioned,

As is God's essence, place and providence, Where, how, when, what souls, do, departed hence, These things (eccentric else) on faith do strike; Yet neither all, nor upon all alike. For reason, put to her best extension, Almost meets faith, and makes both centres one. (1-16)

and so angular,

This passage compares the circumscribable

field of reason to

the unlimited and unlimitable field of faith.

by the unforeseeable,

tion between our finite understanding

God" (Gilson 41). Lines 11 and 12 specifically mention the prob- lem of knowing God's providence and the fate of the departed as

matters which "our reason cannot

" (Smith, Notes 582). The next four lines explain Donne's method of dealing with this situation. He proposes that reason works with faith; they are two centers balanced in equilibrium, each playing a necessary role in making the "greatnesses" of the divine realm as knowable as the "quotidian" things of the natural world. Since "faith presupposes the mind's rational self-knowledge" (Sherwood, "Reason, Faith" 60), Donne believes that reason, if "put to her best extension," has the capacity to resolve the problems that faith presents. Writing to his friend and patroness, the Countess of Bedford, Donne further expands his claim that both reason and faith are

necessary to understand

Donne is discomfited


aspects of faith: "the dispropor-

and the infinite essence of

into any coherent pattern


(which is equated with the

Countess herself):

Reason is our soul's left hand, Faith her right,

By these we reach divinity, that's you;


Their loves, who have the blessing of your sight,

Grew from their reason, mine from fair faith grew. But as, although a squint lefthandedness Be ungracious, yet we cannot want that hand, So would I, not to increase, but to express

My faith, as I believe, so understand.


The metaphor describes a physical connection, a fraternal but

conjoined twinship in which the two partners are functionally dif- ferent in their manner of achieving a goal - in this case, the

acquisition of a certain kind of knowledge-

but are equally indis-

pensable in the quest for that knowledge. It is clear that reason will never dominate: this more "human" of the two qualities is acknowledged to be "ungracious," relegated to the so-called "sin- ister" left hand, and is somewhat awkward or pedestrian in its procedures. Apparently wanting to avoid the implication that his faith in his patroness may be less than complete,) Donne adds the important qualification that reason will not increase his already immeasurable faith in the Countess, preferring to emphasize that faith will be made manifest by combining it with reason. Nevertheless, the operation of the human intellect is essential to "express" and "understand" his faith. The convictions expressed in these poems are a complex mix- ture of certain strains of Thomistic and Augustinian thinking. Thomas Aquinas concurs with Aristotle that the human process of acquiring knowledge starts with the sensory world: "according to its manner of knowing in the present life, the intellect depends on the sense for the origin of knowledge " (Aquinas, Summa Contra

Gentiles I:iii:3). In the elegy, Donne agrees that "All that this nat- ural world doth comprehend" (6) is the result of reason; in the Bedford letter, he explains that being within Lucy's field of vision





the ability


see her


has caused oth-

ers to develop love for her "from their reason" (4). But there is another step: by analogy, reason can move to an understanding of

higher truths. This is how Aquinas believes we begin to know

things about God:

requisites to the things that are of

"things proved





" (Aquinas, On



1, 2-2, q.

1, art.


Aquinas even echoes Aristotle's

words on this point: "beginning with sensible things, our intellect


is led to the point of knowing about God that He exists, and other such characteristics that must be attributed to the First Principle" (Aquinas, SCG I:iii:3). According to Aquinas' commentator Rene Gilson, the sensory world is truly the only way we can begin to know things about the divine: "The knowledge which we have of God is, therefore, only such as a person starting from sense-data,

can acquire of a being which is purely intelligible" (41). Similarly, Donne claims that "reason, put to her best extension / Almost meets faith." Since knowledge attained through reason can lead to knowledge of God, and since principles of reason are also part of God's wisdom, applying rational methods to revealed truths can lead to higher truths not comprehensible by reason alone:

In describing the "Reason-Faith" equation, Irving Lowe argues that in his sermons, Donne follows Aquinas in calling us to start

with reason -

to faith - "the mysteries of Revelation" (394). Both are necessary to come to faith. But I believe Aquinas adds an additional, initiat- ing step that Donne also adopts: reason cannot achieve divine

truth without the initial prompting of faith, which influences rea-

son to strive toward

hend them:

the "knowable things of the world" -

and move

higher truths

even when it cannot compre-

it was necessary for the human mind to be called to some-

thing higher than the human reason here and now can reach, so that it would thus learn to desire something and

with zeal tend toward

something that surpasses the whole

state of the present life (Aquinas, SCG I:iii:5).

The will is motivated

to start the intellectual operation

dim but sure knowledge of that final object:


by belief, a

[H]uman reason can stand as consequence to the will of the believer. When a man has a will prompt in believing, he loves the believed truth, and thinks about it, and he embraces reasons for it if he can find them (Aquinas, On


vol. 2-2,

q. 2,



Thus, the process starts with a prompting faith, feeble as it might be, in the truths of divinity, leading to the desire to pursue a greater understanding of those truths with reason, leading in turn to a more profound faith in revealed truths.

In the "Prince Henry"

poem, Donne describes these higher


truths as greater "things [that] on faith do strike," "enormous greatnesses" which, unlike the "equidistant" and regular things of

the natural world, are "disproportioned,"

tric," making them all the more difficult fo.r reason to grasp on its

own. He recognizes the power of faith, both dominant and initia.t- ing, as he calls "Look to me faith" at the beginning of the elegy,


and "eccen-

and explicitly states the appropriate order of the faith-rea son-faith process in the Bedford poem: "as I believe, so understand." Thus, in the schemes of both Aquinas and Donne, supported by Aristotelian thinking, reason and faith work together, in turn, to approach divine truth. Faith comes both before and behind reason in expanding, but clearly defining, the limits of the human intellect

as it approaches

centre, faith is this" and "Reason is our soul's left hand, Faith her

right," Donne acknowledges

and dissim-

of reason and faith" (Henriksen 21) and the autonomy


And, in assertions such as "reason is that

both "The Thomistic interdependence

ilarity of their natures. The Thomistic idea that we start on the road to divine knowl-

edge through human sensory apprehension opposes the Augustinian notion of the superiority of Christ's authority; howev- er, Donne's dialectial construct is a blend of Thomistic and Augustinian philosophy. The primacy of God's sovereignty under- girded the Protestant emphasis on the utter inability of human thought or effort to participate in the soul's salvation. On this point, Augustine was viewed by Protestant reformers as an anti- intellectualist who spoke of humankind's irrevocably flawed post- lapsarian nature. However, Donne's sermons stress "those aspects of Augustinianism that are compatible with Thomism" (Henriksen 21); for instance, Terry Sherwood demonstrates that Donne incor- porates Augustine's distinction between ratio (the faculty of reason which allows us to know of temporal things) and intellectus (the faculty of reason which leads to knowledge or wisdom of the

divine) in his thinking, as Donne and Augustine each attempts

create a role for reason consistent with both his own intellectual


nature and his sense of human

" (Sherwood,

"Reason in Sermons" 358).

Donne is also indebted to Augustine

in the "Prince Henry" elegy regarding


"both fate and the means of

it." As reason "Almost meets faith, and makes bpth


centres one" (16), we can see "Augustine's emphasis upon the pri-

ority of reason and his rejection of skepticism"


"Reason, Faith"

62, 63).

Augustine's own intellectual efforts

enabled him to reject the false doctrines of Manicheism; it is this attitude toward the capabilities of reason, not the anti-intellectual interpretation, which we see in Aquinas's and Donne's thinking. Much as Donne is influenced by Thomistic and Augustinian notions to shape the relationship between reason and faith, he adds his own innovations in creating an epistemological process which uses them to progress to greater faith. Donne's modifica- tions are, in fact, even more complex than they appear on the sur- face. A.J. Smith, argues that, in the opening passage from the elegy, Donne claims that "reason and faith are concentric circles," but "in our dislocated understanding these centres do not coin- cide" (Notes 581). This conclusion is based on the final words of the opening of the poem: "For reason, put to her best extension, I Almost meets faith, and makes both centres one" (15-16). But this

interpretation of the reason-faith relationship sees the relationship as being a circle of finite circumference laid over a circle of infinite circumference: reason attempts to situate itself over faith, and thereby confine faith to the limits of reason. This conclusion mis- construes the importance of both the old and the new "philoso- phies" for Donne. The plain words of this often obscure poem show that the two realms are separate, in accord with Thomistic philosophy: "Reason is that centre, faith is this" (4) and "Of weight one centre, one of greatness is" (3). To think of reason and faith as completely overlapping disregards Aquinas' stipulation that the two ways of knowing do not merge but exist in joint and complementary roles, sharing the same goal and common ground in their subjects of inquiry but differing in their methods of demonstration (Gilson 48-49). More importantly, the notion of reason and faith being joined with one center neglects discoveries of the "new Philosophy" of which we know Donne was aware.

The problem stems from a misinterpretation

references in the poem.

same center leads to Smith's conclusion that there are two separate

figures created, both of which are intended to be circular.

form recalls the Copernican scheme of circular planetary orbits.


of the astronomical

Assuming that faith and reason have the


But Donne did not have Copernicus in mind: he had studied Kepler's more recent De stella nova (in fact, Donne's annotated copy of the book is still extant), which describes those orbits as elliptical rather than circular. The key is the word "eccentric" in

line 12. Bruce Henricksen suggests that this is "a synonym for 'elliptical'," which points to the Keplerian model:

An ellipse is an orbit such that the sum of the distances between two points and the circumference remains constant. Put to her best extension, as figured in Kepler's model, reason becomes a cen- ter of heavenly movement - reason and faith are the two foci that keep our ellipse, if not our circle, just (28). Donne specifically describes the spatial object of the "Prince Henry" poem as having not one but two "centres," a non-scientific way of describing the foci of the ellipse. "Both centres" are not literally made "one," but as the two defining elements of the ellipse maintain a constant and interdependent relationship. The proper constitution of the relationship between reason and faith requires not one but two "centres": it is not that they cannot meet, but that they do not

need to meet because they are working

in tandem to reach greater

faith. Armed with this epistemelogical model, I now turn to the "Holy Sonnets" for two examples of its operation - one successful and one unsuccessful - in Donne's most intimate expressions of his personal beliefs and fears about his own salvation. In some of the "Holy Sonnets," Donne wields the twin weapons of reason and faith to try to believe in what seems to be unbelievable, even impossible to him: that the man of the "black soul" whom he sees in the mirror could possibly be one of the elect. Sonnet XV shows Donne's epistemological process at its best, using faith and reason to enable him to express a degree of belief in his salvation. The sonnet begins with faith in the promises of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection:

Wilt thou love God, as he thee? then digest, My soul, this wholesome meditation, How God the Spirit, by angels waited on In heaven, doth make his temple in thy breast. The Father having begot a Son most blessed, And still begetting, (for he ne'er begun)


Hath deigned to choose thee by adoption,

for them the sure guarantee

and seal of their adoption, the

Coheir to' his glory, 'and Sabbath's endless rest;

mark he has engraved can never be erased from their hearts

And as a robbed man, which by search doth find


His stol'n stuff sold, must lose or buy it again:


suggests some of the more comforting aspects of

The Son of glory came down, and was slain,


doctrine in its suggestion of conscious choice and lov-

Us whom he had made, and Satan stol'n to unbind.

ing acceptance, and its use is appropriate

in a sonnet which trum-

'Twas much, that man was made like God before, But, that God should be made like man, much more. (1-14)

The faith-reason-faith

opening question declares the speaker's final objective -

tion that God loves him -

model is in full operation in this poem.


a convic-

and asks the soul whether it returns

that love, prompting it to reason to its final truth. Evidence is then presented to the soul (which it will "digest," a process as human as reasoning) of God's attitude toward him. In lines 5-8 he elaborates on both God's position in the relationship (the adoptive Father) and his own as the chosen heir of glory. The sestet reasons through an earthly analogy of loss and retrieval of material goods to try to understand the higher truth of Christ's sacrifice for humankind. The closing couplet returns to the divine, employing the Old Testament story of human creation to link our lives with the New Testament divine life of Christ: the phrases '''Twas much" and "much more" which enclose the couplet suggest the turn from a knowledge of the truths of human existence known from Scripture ("man was made like God") to a higher belief in the eter- nal promises of God's coming to earth ("that God should be made like man"). Sonnet XV lives up to Donne's claim that it is his most "whole- some meditation," as he seems to have subdued his fears of damnation sufficiently to be able to celebrate God's devotion to humankind, the saving power of Christ's death, and his being cho- sen by God "by adoption" (7). This last term is especially signifi- cant for Reformation thinkers. Jean Calvin uses it more than once

in the Institutes

to emphasize the feeling that assurance brings:

What does [adoption] mean?

That we should not

be borne down by an unending bondage, which would ago-

nize our consciences with the fear of death

We ought to grasp this: however deficient or weak faith may be in the elect, still, because the Spirit of God is



pets assurance of Donne's position as "Coheir to [God's] glory" (8). This sonnet shows that Donne's will can initiate a reasoning process to help him understand the divine truth of God's love for him as one of His children. It is a complete example of Donne's epistemological model leading to assurance of salvation: reason ponders the aspects of divine truth to the best of its ability and then becomes unnecessary when his comprehension of those mar- velous truths compels belief in his position among the elect. However, reason and faith do not always cooperate, causing

the process to collapse due to the failure of the "prompting will." For example, in Sonnet I, Donne can neither articulate a hypothe-

sis of faith on which to set his sights nor undertake

the rational

inquiry to get there, demonstrating the failure of the proposed dialectic. This failure is caused by Donne's dogged confidence in reason and the profound and tenacious fears about his reprobate nature, which paralyze his intellectual processes. He has great dif- ficulty acknowledging that reason's ability to understand revealed truth is limited, and he hangs on to reason even when it clearly leads him astray. In addition, he is so convinced that his sinfulness is beyond all hope, his salvation an utter. impossibility, that the rea- soning process has no basis of faith in divine truth to which to direct itself, and he is defeated from the start. In the octave he can see only the imminence of death and damnation:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?

Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,

I run to death, and death meets me as fast, And all my pleasures are like yesterday,

I dare not move my dim eyes any way,

Despair behind, and death before doth cast Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste By sin in it, which do towards hell doth weigh;


He will tell us later in the sestet that he wants to believe with


Aquinas that reason, assisted by faith, can "gather certain likeness- es" (SCG Lviii.1) of the truths of faith: "when towards thee / By thy leave I can look, I rise again." However, Donne is handi- capped in this poem by the fact that he does not, as Aquinas requires, already embrace "the believed truth" (Summa Theologiae 2-2, q.2, art. 10) of his own election. The opening line rebukes God for abandoning the poet to his own devices; he sees that he is not equipped to maintain his sights on his spiritual goals and anticipates the plunge toward hell caused by uncertainty and mis- direction. By the end of the octave, he has reached the depths of despair and doubt as his "feeble flesh" is being pressed to hell. The process has been flawed from the start because his decay and betrayal are more convincing to him than his status as one of

God's treasured

The effects of insufficient will emerge in the sestet, where any attempts on his part to rise to divinity are preempted because he

will succumb to the devil's temptation


to sin:

Only thou art above, and when towards thee

By thy leave I can look, I rise again; But our old subtle foe so tempteth me, That not one hour I can myself sustain;

Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art;

And thou like adamant

draw mine iron heart. (9-14)

He knows on an intellectual level that God's mercy could draw him away from sin, but he has no faith that God actually does so. And he still insists in line 10, seemingly unconsciously, that the ability to "sustain" his attention to the divine object belongs to him. His only recourse is a prayer for repentance in the final two

lines -

a request






may save

him. The shaky note on which this poem closes affirms that weak- ness of faith crippled this "spiritual exercise" even before it was begun. Reason has been given no base, no direction in which to find belief that he will face anything other than "Despair behind, and death before" (6). Using faith and reason as dialectical terms has failed. Donne's attempt to apply his academic training to questions of faith does not succeed on its own, forcing him, in other poems, to experiment with alternate measures to resolve the argument and find a sense of assurance in his salvation.


Through these "Holy Sonnets" and others, Donne devises an epis- temological model based on Catholic and scientific modes of though but uses it to analyze Protestant doctrine; he champions faith but clings faintheartedly to reason; he is the commanding preacher of St. Paul's but also the self-abasing sinner excluded from God's promise of salvation. However, I believe that this seem- ingly Janus-faced quality is typical of the way he thinks about everything, including, and perhaps particularly, theology. The Protestantism which he adopted included the potentially paradoxi- cal Reformation principles of Scriptural fidelity and individual interpretation of Scripture, which give believers the support of God's Word but also the sometimes treacherous power to find their own religious truths. Bequeathed these potent ingredients, Donne uses a free hand in selecting his weapons to attack his per- sonal theological questions. The fact that these practices take him across spectra of epistemological and theological concepts but can also leave him with unresolved questions could suggest an undis- cerning or mercurial mind. In truth, however, his choices of method and doctrine - whether successfulor not - are achieved

only after rigorous thought, grounded

and a sincere desire to "reach divinity." Notes

IThe abbreviation work.

uln analyzing the sermons, Irving Lowe argues against the early twentieth-century critical tradition of "Donne as skeptic" and claims a Thomistic position for Donne: "Donne tells us that nature directs us to faith. Mere reason apprehends the goal; recti- fied reason compasses the leap" (394).

Works Cited

Aquinas, St. Thomas. On Faith: Summa theologiae,2-2, qq. 1-

16. Trans. Mark D. Jordan. Readings in the Summa theologiae. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1990. Summa Contra Gentiles. Trans. Anton C. Pegis. Notre

Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 1975. Summa Theologica. 3 vols. New York: BenzigerBros., 1947.

in an ardent love of God

SCG will hereafter be used to refer to this


Calvin,Jean. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Ed. John T. McNeill. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Westminster,1960. Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. Ed. A.J. Smith. London: Penguin, Gilson, Etienne. The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Trans. Edward Bullough. Ed. G.A. Elrington. 1937. Freeport, NY:

Books for Libraries P, 1971.





"The Unity of Reason and Faith in Donne's Papers on Language and Literature 11 (1975):


Lowe, Irving.

"Both Centres One: The Reason-Faith

Equation in

Donne's Sermons." Journal of the History of Ideas. 22



Sherwood, Terry G. Lamentation




Faith, and Just Augustinian

in Donne's Elegy on Prince Henry."


English Literature,


13 (1973):

"Reason in Donne's Sermons."

(1972): 353-374.

English Literary History 39.3