In a sermon on Philippians 3:2 preached at St. Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne declares that
"there are not so eloquent books in the world, as the Scriptures … as God gave his Children a bread of Manna, that tasted to every man like that that he liked best, so hath God given us Scriptures, in which the plain and simple man may heare God speaking to him in his own plain and familiar language, and men of larger capacity, and more curiosity, may heare God in that Musique that they love best." (1953–1962, Vol. 10, p. 103)
The Bible offered Donne an infinitely flexible source and model for his writing, a verbal “musique” that could both inspire and accommodate his own literary efforts. Donne’s sensitive engagement with the Bible’s highly varied linguistic styles, narratives, and images shows itself across the multiple genres in which Donne wrote; in works both sacred and secular, poetic and prose, Donne’s writing demonstrates the considerable range of ways in which the Bible’s eloquence affected early modern literature. Over the course of his life (1572–1631), Donne wrote in an astounding array of genres (lyrics, sonnets, elegies, satires, paradoxes, epigrams, religio-political treatises, sermons, devotions, biblical paraphrases, letters). Across his canon, Donne responsively tailors his approach to scripture according to the requirements of his genre.
Biblical allusion and linguistic play underpin Donne’s earlier poetic work; in the Songs and Sonnets, his use of scriptural symbolism (such as Mary Magdalene in “The Relique” or manna in “Twicknam Garden”) rearticulates biblical content in daring, amatory modes. In the Holy Sonnets, Divine Poems, and the Anniversaries, Donne’s reworking of biblical images and phrases is similarly provocative; in Holy Sonnet XVIII, for example, Donne audaciously recasts biblical descriptions of the church as bride of Christ in terms of sexual promiscuity. This transformative play is by no means frivolous; rather, in poems like Holy Sonnet VI, in which Donne interrogates the agency of God’s grace by rearticulating Romans 4:6 (“God imputeth righteousness without works”) in the imperative voice, he highlights the exegetical flexibility and linguistic contingency that scripture can present.
Donne’ prose works offer his most developed and multifaceted engagements with scripture.
His earlier prose tends to deploy scripture as proof-text; Biathanatos (written ca. 1608, published 1647), a tract in defense of suicide, cites Jesus, Judas Iscariot, Saul, and Samson as biblical precedents. Similarly, Pseudo-Martyr (1610), which participates in contemporary anti-Catholic debate concerning the Oath of Allegiance, amasses scriptural references that praise monarchs and argue against religio-political martyrdom. Yet even as he uses scripture in service of his arguments, Donne is alert to the multivalent, uncertain interpretations made possible by disingenuous quotation. Much of his criticism of opportunistic or fraudulent use of scripture is partisan, leveled at Catholic opponents for what he terms “their piae fraudes [pious frauds], with which they emplaster this venemous & contagious wounding the scriptures of God, & the phrase of his spirit” (1993, p. 81). Nevertheless, in his early prose works Donne demonstrates a rapidly developing awareness of the Bible’s capacity to be made to say anything, once entangled with human literary words.
Essayes in Divinity.
The Essayes in Divinity offer Donne’s earliest sustained investigation into the Bible’s language. Likely composed between 1611 and 1615 while (according to a preface written by Donne’s son, John Donne Jr.) he was considering a career in the church, the Essayes provide a detailed study of the first verses of Genesis and Exodus. As Anthony Raspa suggests in his edition (2001), the Essayes is more properly classed as a humanist treatise or biblical commentary than a collection of essays; the work combines humanist textual criticism with neoclassical speculation, drawing on a wide range of patristic and contemporary Continental theology as well as Hebrew philological scholarship and cabalist thought. In taking such small selections of scripture as his subject matter, Donne explores the immense range in which scriptural words can make meaning. His analysis moves rapidly between the minute details of the Hebrew original text (such as the philosophical significance of Hebrew diacritical vowel points or the numerological significance of names) to sweeping philosophical speculation (for example, on God’s creation of time from eternity). In contrast to Pseudo-Martyr, Donne is less invested in specific interpretations of verses; rather, he is more interested in working through how humans understand the nature of existence, God, and the physical universe via the Bible.
On 23 January 1615, Donne was ordained into the clergy of the Church of England; shortly thereafter, he received a royal chaplaincy and an honorary doctorate of divinity from Cambridge. During his career as a preacher, Donne held multiple ecclesiastical positions, including Reader at Lincoln’s Inn and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Of Donne’s sermons, 160 are extant; in common with the typical approaches of his day, they are structured as exegeses of a single verse (sometimes two or three verses) of the Bible and exert rigorous focus on the details of scriptural language. It is in his sermons that Donne’s sense of the interrelationship between scriptural words and his own comes to the fore; his language is permeated with the words of scripture, to the extent that scriptural words and his own often are difficult to distinguish. However, his indebtedness to scripture by no means sacrifices his literary voice. Sermons were the foremost rhetorical events of the period, and Donne continues to demonstrate the impressive and highly individual literary eloquence that characterizes his poetry—paradox, parallelism, and alliteration abound, and his ability to craft unexpected metaphor is undiminished.
The sermon’s status as a rhetorical event ensured that the traditions of classical oratory shaped how sermons were composed and received; but while attention to literary skill demonstrates indebtedness to a Ciceronian emphasis on the orator’s duty to “teach, delight, and persuade,” Donne and preachers of his time adhered more closely to St. Augustine’s remodeling of Ciceronian rhetorical rules: the preacher’s responsibility was to “instruct, edify, and convert” (Donne’s inheritance from Augustine is extensive and, as Katrin Ettenhuber  and Dennis Quinn [1960, 1962] explore, structures his approaches to scripture throughout his sermons). As works of scriptural exegesis, Donne’s sermons are principally intended to instruct audiences in the meaning of his selected text, in accordance with the literal sense. The structure of his sermons (termed the divisio) derives from the lexical breakdown of his verse into its component units, which are then minutely explored for their full semantic potential. Key words are collated (that is, compared against their appearance in other parts of scripture, in order to more fully understand difficult passages), compared across translations, paraphrased, analogized, and etymologized in order to glean their fullest possible meaning. As Donne describes this method of dissection and expansion, “the Word of God is made a Sermon, that is, a Text is dilated, diffused into a Sermon” (1953–1962, Vol. 5, p. 56).
Such explanatory work is occasionally pursued in service of a specific point of theology or pressing religio-political issue (as in Donne’s Paul’s Cross sermon of 15 September 1622, in which he defends James I’s Directions Concerning Preachers). However, it is principally intended to foster the spiritual growth of his audience (their “edification”). Donne is heavily cognizant of his role as a prophetic intermediary, called to apply God’s Word to his congregation. “The most powerful meanes” to gain knowledge of God, Donne argues, “is the Scripture; But the Scripture in the Church” (1953–1962, VIII: 227). It is in the voice of the preacher that the Bible is given “motion, and action” (1953–1962, IV: 104), as he speaks to the specific circumstances and needs of his audience. For this reason, Donne often explicitly selects interpretations that best serve the edification of his audience—as when he argues for the inclusion of the word “worms” in Job 19:26, despite its absence from the original Hebrew (and Greek and Latin) version. This emphasis on the needs of his audience has prompted critics like Jeanne Shami (2003) and Peter McCullough (2013–) to direct scholarly focus to the specifics and impact of Donne’s original delivery of his sermons.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions.
While dean of St. Paul’s in December 1623, Donne suffered a serious illness; during his recovery, he composed one of his most well-known works, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The Devotions are structured as a series of 23 sections, each consisting of a “meditation,” an “expostulation,” and a prayer, in response to a symptom or occurrence of his illness. Loosely construed, this structure echoes Donne’s sense of God’s “three books” (an idea popularized in the sixteenth century by the Spanish monk Raymond of Sebund): the meditations refer to the book of nature, or physical experience; the expostulations refer to the Bible; and the prayers refer to the book of life, or God’s inaccessible register of the faithful Elect. As such, the expostulations are by far the most occupied with scripture. Donne’s language in these sections is saturated with biblical phrases, and here again it is at times impossible to distinguish his voice from scripture. Donne explicitly aims to emulate the Bible’s language, asking, “O, what words but thine, can express the inexpressible texture and composition of thy word[?]” (1975, p. 99).
In quoting the Bible back to God, Donne reminds him of biblical promises, traces recurrent themes, and applies the events, personages, and symbols of the Bible to his own life. This collation and application are the most important features of the expostulations; in the eleventh expostulation, for example, he compares biblical references to the word “heart,” noting that “I can gather out of thy Word, so good testimony of the hearts of men … if my heart were such a heart, I would give thee my Heart” (1975, p. 59). However, by no means are collation and application straightforward practices for Donne in the Devotions. As Donne piles reference upon reference in order to elucidate the occasions of his illness, he does not hesitate to describe his frustration when biblical passages not only fail to apply but also fail to elucidate one another (or, indeed, directly contradict each other). For example, in the twelfth expostulation he complains to God, “thou hast made vapor so indifferent a thing, as that thy Blessings, and thy Judgements are equally expressed by it” (1975, p. 64). Yet such moments of frustration are reflective of Donne’s deep engagement with the words of scripture. As Kate Narveson (2011) suggests, Donne pursued innovative, dialogic means of interacting with the perplexities of scripture, allowing it to correct his own assumptions; the Bible is turned inside out, speaking to him, through him, and often beyond him.
Donne’s collational approach is not restricted to comparing verses within a single copy of the Bible; his biblical references are sourced from all versions of scripture available in his day. Of English versions, his preference in his earlier works is for the Geneva Bible (a choice entirely typical of his day, owing to the affordable and convenient format of Geneva Bibles printed in England after 1582). Essayes in Divinity, for example, follows Geneva throughout. Upon his ordination and the publication of the King James Bible, Donne’s English source transitions to this version; in his sermons, most of the epigraphs and a great deal of the in-text references follow the King James Bible. The Great Bible is generally followed for the Psalms (the Great Bible continued to be the version of the Psalter used in the Church of England until the late twentieth century). The Coverdale, Bishops’, and Douay-Rheims versions are also cited, albeit less frequently. The Wycliffe version is referred to once, in Donne’s third Prebend sermon (1953–1962, Vol. 7, p. 248); this sermon also provides a rendering given in the Book of Common Prayer.
After English versions, Donne’s most frequent scriptural source is the Latin Vulgate (the Bible of his Roman Catholic upbringing). His use of the Vulgate was not uncritical; he cautions against undue reverence for the Vulgate in his sermons, arguing that “the translation is a reverend translation; a translation to which the church of God owes much; but gold will make an idol as well as wood, and to make any translation equal, or better than the original, is an idolatrous servility” (1953–1962, Vol. 8, p. 207). In Pseudo-Martyr, he frequently criticizes post-Tridentine Catholic adherence to the Vulgate, arguing that despite the Tridentine labeling of the Vulgate as the “Autentique translation of the Bible,” it is nonetheless undeniable that “betweene the Edition of Sixtus the fift, and the Edition of Clement the eight, there is so much difference, even in absolute and direct Contradictions” (1993, p. 230) that the two are hardly the same text. Indeed, he appears throughout his career to have used an edition previous to the 1592 Clementine recension (as he does not follow readings introduced in this edition) and likely one with the Glossa Ordinaria and the Postillae of Nicholas of Lyra. In addition to the Vulgate, Donne also used the Tremellius-Junius Latin version (most notably in his biblical paraphrase, “The Lamentations of Jeremie, For the Most Part According to Tremellius”), the Latin interlinear translations of the Antwerp and Complutensian Polyglot Bibles, and (less frequently) the Latin translation of Pagninus.
The Antwerp and (to a lesser degree) Complutensian Polyglots were a frequent resource for Donne’s references to scripture in its original languages and ancient translations. Donne’s references to Hebrew seem generally to have been taken from the Antwerp Polyglot, although he may have used Bomberg or Münster’s Rabbinic Bibles. Donne’s provision of Hebrew is usually given in Latin transliteration (following methods typical for his day), and he frequently provides the Hebrew root rather than inflected forms, in a manner similar to providing the Latin infinitive. As such, it is difficult to identify his specific Hebrew sources; indeed, there is much to suggest that Donne relied on intermediary sources like Pagninus’s or Buxtorf’s Hebrew lexicons (a practice common to many contemporary scholars—including proficient linguists, such as Lancelot Andrewes; Chanita Goodblatt  explores in depth Donne’s use of such intermediaries).
The Antwerp and Complutensian polyglots are Donne’s most probable sources for the Greek Septuagint, and the Antwerp Polyglot appears to have been his chief resource for references to the Aramaic Targums (referred to in his day as the Chaldee Paraphrase), which, in a Trinity Sunday sermon on 1 Peter 1:17, he provides in forms corresponding to the Antwerp Polyglot’s Latin interlinear translation. For the New Testament, Donne uses the original Greek far less frequently than he does the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, and as a result his sources are more difficult to identify; the Antwerp Polyglot is likely, as is a Latin intermediary such as Beza’s translation of the New Testament in the Junius Bible.
Despite his preference for comparing versions and exploring points of textual uncertainty, Donne does not tend to refer to ancient manuscript sources or engage in weightier forms of textual editing. He does, however, demonstrate awareness of principal manuscript sources; for example, he refers once to Codex Vaticanus, describing it as the manuscript which Catholics “value above all” (1953–1962, Vol. 3, p. 232).
Donne’s approaches to the Bible across his works, and especially in the Essayes, Sermons, and Devotions, apply a broad range of reading techniques that seek to understand the Bible inside and out. His searching of scripture allows the language of the Bible to be meaningfully applied to the individual soul—whether the souls of his audience in the sermons or his own in the Devotions. Such individual applicability, and Donne’s ability to accommodate it in his extensive range of compositions, is represented by Donne as a reflection of the Bible’s own literary range and flexibility. Through scripture, God speaks “in that voice, and in that way, which I am most delighted with, and hearken most to” (Vol. 10, p. 110); through Donne’s writings, the Bible speaks in highly varied and innovative rearticulations, sensitive to the requirements of audience and genre.
Works by Donne
- Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Edited by Anthony Raspa. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1975.
- Essayes in Divinity. Edited by Anthony Raspa. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.
- Pseudo-Martyr. Edited by Anthony Raspa. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.
- The Sermons of John Donne. Edited by George Potter and Evelyn Simpson. 10 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953–1962. Volume 10 provides a thorough outline of Donne’s scriptural sources.
- Ettenhuber, Katrin. Donne’s Augustine: Renaissance Cultures of Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Goodblatt, Chanita. The Christian Hebraism of John Donne: Written with the Fingers of Man’s Hand. Pittsburgh, Pa.: Duquesne University Press, 2010.
- McCullough, Peter, ed. The Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013–. Volume 3 of this series, Sermons Preached at the Court of Charles I, edited by David Colclough, provides an excellent discussion of Donne’s scriptural approaches and sources in the introduction.
- Narveson, Kate. “The Devotion.” In The Oxford Handbook of John Donne, edited by Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester, pp. 308–317. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. This volume as a whole provides a thorough assessment of the current state of Donne studies, and many entries (such as Jeffrey Johnson’s entry on “The Essay”) address Donne’s use of scripture.
- Quinn, Dennis B. “Donne’s Christian Eloquence.” English Literary History 27 (1960): 276–297.
- Quinn, Dennis B. “John Donne’s Principles of Biblical Exegesis.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 61 (1962): 313–329.
- Shami, Jeanne. John Donne and Conformity in Crisis in the Late Jacobean Pulpit. Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2003.
- Doerksen, Daniel, and Christopher Hodgkins, eds. Centered on the Word: Literature, Scripture, and the Tudor-Stuart Middle Way. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004. Many of the essays in this collection (such as those of Raymond-Jean Frontain, Daniel Doerksen, Jeanne Shami, and Robert Whalen) address Donne’s approaches to scripture.
- Shami, Jeanne. “John Donne.” In The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature, edited by Rebecca Lemon, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, and Christopher Rowland, pp. 239–253. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.