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John Donne: Poem analysis » Satyre III: 'On Religion'


Donne wrote a number of satires in his youth. This poem probably dates from around 1594-5, a period when Donne was trying to make a life-changing decision - whether to remain a Catholic, in accordance with his upbringing and family loyalties, or to move (as he eventually did) to become a member of the Church of England. He read widely as he sought to understand the passionately held but widely differing beliefs current at the time and tried to decide between them.

Like elegies and epigrams, satires have their origin in classical literature. Literally, satires are poems which ridicule certain people or human attitudes, often trying to reform them at the same time.

An age of religious controversy

In this, the third satire, On Religion, Donne addresses the search for religious truth in an age of religious conflict. In Donne's day, people were frequently imprisoned and even killed for their religious beliefs. Donne's uncle and brother had suffered directly for their Catholic faith. Finding and holding to spiritual truth mattered desperately to Donne, and the intensity of his personal struggle and turmoil gives this poem an edge and force not often seen in his earlier work.

The poem has a number of key themes:

A warning to those who fail to prioritise spiritual truth

The poem begins with anguish and anger as Donne states the need to be devoted to ‘faire religion'. He looks back to the pagan philosophers of the classical age (before the coming of Christianity) who greatly valued and pursued virtue. Donne states that human beings should fear to be judged by God for being worse than the pagan philosophers were, despite possessing spiritual knowledge which they lacked. Donne may be speaking of his own father, a Catholic who died when Donne was young. He is, perhaps, envisaging him, safe in heaven, hearing of his son's damnation even though he had passed on to him the ‘easie' and familiar ways of his own religion. The fear of damnation (spiritual condemnation by God) is, says Donne, an appropriate response which needs true courage to face it.

To avoid such a fate, men and women must know their spiritual foes: the world flesh and devil, which will destroy the soul.

The challenge to ‘seek true religion'

The problem is where to look. Donne examines the options on offer under the guise of a series of names. Mirreus is a Roman Catholic; Crantz (a German-sounding name because the Reformation began in Germany) is a Calvinist or Presbyterian; Graius is Anglican; and Phrygius is a sceptic or agnostic. He satirises all these people and their reasons for belief.

Donne therefore sets out the best way to search for truth, a task which will require both care and determination. The reader is urged to ‘doubt wisely' and to consider carefully, yet to get on with the job:

in strange way
To stand inquiring right is not to stray;
To sleepe, or runne wrong, is.

Discernment and courage are needed. It won't be easy and the journey may be long and arduous. Donne uses an image that has often been quoted:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will
Reach her, about must, and about must goe;
And what the hills suddeness resists, winne so.

By ‘suddeness' he means steepness. For Donne it isn't ‘travelling hopefully' that matters, it is essential to arrive. ‘Therefore now doe' he says, while there is still light.

The need to follow one's conscience at all costs or risk damnation

Donne gives some further guidance: don't blindly follow the authority of human rulers and leaders; it is better to suffer persecution (as Donne's own family had done so harshly) than to risk losing one's eternal soul, by obeying human authorities rather than God. Donne's search for religious truth, therefore, demands an independence of mind and heart, and a refusal to give up.

Investigating On Religion
  • What factors might make some one feel they need to search out the truth about religion?
  • Pick out some of the main strands of imagery in the poem
    • Which strike you as the most vivid?
A genre which ridicules some one or something. It can be poetry, drama or fiction.
1. Sometimes used to denote all Christians 2. Used specifically of the Roman Catholic church.
The 'Established' or state church of England, the result of a break with the Catholic church under Henry VIII and further developments in the reign of Elizabeth I.
1. A poem written in a certain classical metre. 2. A poem lamenting the death of someone; a poem of mourning.
A concise, neat and witty poem or saying.
To do with Ancient Greek and Roman civilisation or literature.
1. Sometimes used to denote all Christians 2. Used specifically of the Roman Catholic church.
Belief and trust in someone or something.
1. Consisting of or relating to (the) spirit(s), rather than material or bodily form. 2. Relating to matters of the soul, faith, religion, or the supernatural. 3. A type of religious song whose roots are in the slave communities of North America.
Word used in the Authorised Version of the Bible for punishment or destruction, referring to the fate of those who are found on the Day of Judgement to have rejected Jesus Christ (Revelation 20:12-15).
Term applied to those who are not Christian, particularly followers of the classical religion of Greece and Rome and of the pre-Christian religions of Europe.
The beliefs, doctrines and practices of Christians.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
Three negative spiritual influences upon people. The world is a metaphor for those people and systems which act contrary to God's principles and purposes. Flesh is a metaphor for inherent human sinfulness. The devil is the enemy of God.
Member of a worldwide Christian church which traces its origins from St. Peter, one of Jesus' original disciples. It has a continuous history from earliest Christianity.
Followers of the Swiss reformer John Calvin, and his theology.
Member of the Presbyterian Church, a worldwide Protestant church, which is governed not by bishops but by minsters and lay elders.
The Anglican church is the 'Established' or state church of England, the result of a break with the Catholic church under Henry VIII and further developments in the reign of Elizabeth I.
A person who believes that nothing is known - or can be known - of the existence of God.
Lasting forever, throughout all ages.
The spirit which gives life to a human being; the part which lives on after death; a person's inner being (personality, intellect, emotions and will) which distinguishes them from animals.

Kind pity chokes my spleen; brave scorn forbids
Those tears to issue which swell my eyelids;
I must not laugh, nor weep sins and be wise;
Can railing, then, cure these worn maladies?
Is not our mistress, fair Religion,
As worthy of all our souls' devotion
As virtue was in the first blinded age?
Are not heaven's joys as valiant to assuage
Lusts, as earth's honour was to them? Alas,
As we do them in means, shall they surpass
Us in the end? and shall thy father's spirit
Meet blind philosophers in heaven, whose merit
Of strict life may be imputed faith, and hear
Thee, whom he taught so easy ways and near
To follow, damn'd? Oh, if thou dar'st, fear this;
This fear great courage and high valour is.
Dar'st thou aid mutinous Dutch, and dar'st thou lay
Thee in ships' wooden sepulchres, a prey
To leaders' rage, to storms, to shot, to dearth?
Dar'st thou dive seas, and dungeons of the earth?
Hast thou courageous fire to thaw the ice
Of frozen North discoveries? and thrice
Colder than salamanders, like divine
Children in th' oven, fires of Spain and the Line,
Whose countries limbecs to our bodies be,
Canst thou for gain bear? and must every he
Which cries not, "Goddess," to thy mistress, draw
Or eat thy poisonous words? Courage of straw!
O desperate coward, wilt thou seem bold, and
To thy foes and his, who made thee to stand
Sentinel in his world's garrison, thus yield,
And for forbidden wars leave th' appointed field?
Know thy foes: the foul devil, whom thou
Strivest to please, for hate, not love, would allow
Thee fain his whole realm to be quit; and as
The world's all parts wither away and pass,
So the world's self, thy other lov'd foe, is
In her decrepit wane, and thou loving this,
Dost love a wither'd and worn strumpet; last,
Flesh (itself's death) and joys which flesh can taste,
Thou lovest, and thy fair goodly soul, which doth
Give this flesh power to taste joy, thou dost loathe.
Seek true religion. O where? Mirreus,
Thinking her unhous'd here, and fled from us,
Seeks her at Rome; there, because he doth know
That she was there a thousand years ago,
He loves her rags so, as we here obey
The statecloth where the prince sate yesterday.
Crantz to such brave loves will not be enthrall'd,
But loves her only, who at Geneva is call'd
Religion, plain, simple, sullen, young,
Contemptuous, yet unhandsome; as among
Lecherous humours, there is one that judges
No wenches wholesome, but coarse country drudges.
Graius stays still at home here, and because
Some preachers, vile ambitious bawds, and laws,
Still new like fashions, bid him think that she
Which dwells with us is only perfect, he
Embraceth her whom his godfathers will
Tender to him, being tender, as wards still
Take such wives as their guardians offer, or
Pay values. Careless Phrygius doth abhor
All, because all cannot be good, as one
Knowing some women whores, dares marry none.
Graccus loves all as one, and thinks that so
As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion; and this blind-
ness too much light breeds; but unmoved, thou
Of force must one, and forc'd, but one allow,
And the right; ask thy father which is she,
Let him ask his; though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death's twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body's pains; hard knowledge too
The mind's endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.
Keep the truth which thou hast found; men do not stand
In so ill case, that God hath with his hand
Sign'd kings' blank charters to kill whom they hate;
Nor are they vicars, but hangmen to fate.
Fool and wretch, wilt thou let thy soul be tied
To man's laws, by which she shall not be tried
At the last day? Oh, will it then boot thee
To say a Philip, or a Gregory,
A Harry, or a Martin, taught thee this?
Is not this excuse for mere contraries
Equally strong? Cannot both sides say so?
That thou mayest rightly obey power, her bounds know;
Those past, her nature and name is chang'd; to be
Then humble to her is idolatry.
As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell
At the rough stream's calm head, thrive and do well,
But having left their roots, and themselves given
To the stream's tyrannous rage, alas, are driven
Through mills, and rocks, and woods, and at last, almost
Consum'd in going, in the sea are lost.
So perish souls, which more choose men's unjust
Power from God claim'd, than God himself to trust.