About the Collection

About the John Donne Sermons

Though John Donne is known to his twenty-first century reader primarily as a poet, it is as a preacher that he reached his highest fame during his lifetime, and for his sermons that he expected to be remembered. From his first extant sermon in April 1615, delivered before Queen Anne when Donne was a newly-minted clergyman, to his famous last sermon Death’s Duell, Donne’s homiletic work displays a remarkable range of learning and interest. At the heart of Donne’s sermons lies an energy of mind that exhorts its audience to attend, to reflect, and even to wrestle with God after the example of Donne himself. Though Donne’s seventeenth-century biographer, Izaak Walton, viewed the poet-preacher as a contemporary version of Augustine, a sinner who cast aside his rakish youth and submitted his will to God, the sermons suggest that spiritual anxiety and uncertainty continued to be a hallmark of Donne’s religious observance. The sermons sound heights of spiritual rapture as well as plumbing the depths of existential and eschatological doubt. He uses the public pulpit to puzzle over the difficulties of his personal faith, collapsing the space between speaker and audience and giving voice to a multiplicity of experiences. His sentences are marked by a syntactic richness gained from fluency in Latin and Hebrew, and his meditations0far from the plain speech prized by radical religious reformers-are crammed with figuration. And his attention is ever turned toward the untangling of God’s own texts, each sermon characterized by Donne’s meticulous verbal analysis. In his prose work Expostulations upon Emergent Occasions, Donne glorifies God’s own linguistic richness:

My God, my God, Thou art a direct God, may I not say a literall God, a God that wouldest bee understood literally, and according to the plaine sense of all that thou saiest? But thou art also (Lord, I intend it to thy glory, and let no profane misinterpreter abuse it to thy diminution), thou art a figurative, a metaphoricall God too; A God in whose words there is such a height of figures, such voyages, such peregrinations to fetch remote and precious metaphors, such extensions, such spreadings, such Curtaines of Allegories, such third Heavens of Hyperboles, so harmonious eloquutions, so retired and so reserved expressions, so commanding persuasions, so persuading commandments, such sinewes even in thy milke, and such things in thy words, as all prophane Authors, seeme of the seed of the Serpent, that creepes, thou art the Dove, that flies (Expostulation 19).

In his sermons, we find John Donne imitating his divine model, offering a wrought and hard-won assertion of faith that engages the mind as well as the soul. Indeed, Donne’s muscular prose presents the modern reader with the same concerns that may be familiar from his poetry, sacred and secular: the relationship between matter and spirit, the fate of the soul, the tension between self-assertion and submission, paradox, and the negotiation of identity from contraries.

It is a welcome development in literary studies that Donne’s sermons have begun to draw readerly attention for their own merits and not merely as an interesting footnote to his poetry. This electronic archive hopes to offer easy access to the complete sermon texts for scholars and interested readers alike, and to aid in the process of making Donne’s compelling prose as well known as he had anticipated it would be.

– Kimberly Johnson, Project Editor


The text of this electronic archive is based on the ten-volume Sermons of John Donne, edited by George Potter and Evelyn Simpson and published by University of California Press between 1953-1962.