As someone who did my Masters in Early Modern literature and is finishing my doctorate in Old English literature and patristic exegesis, I sometimes have trouble figuring out what it is that motivates me. How can I do one degree on Milton, one of the more self-professed anti-Catholic figures of the early modern period, and another on St. Gregory the Great, one of the architects of the medieval Catholicism that the Reformation would later reject? What is the common thread?
At the moment, I won’t answer for Milton (though I often suspect him of being of a medieval Catholic party without knowing it), but one thing that did strike me as I was thinking about it is the similarity between a quality that has led me to appreciate both John Donne and Gregory the Great. In this post I will discuss Donne, and will talk about Gregory in the next. The part of Donne I am thinking of in particular is the often neglected Satire I. The poem takes some work to understand, but it is rewarding work. The basic premise is a poem written from the perspective of a scholar who would prefer to stay in his house and read books – theologians, philosophers, and political philosophers – but instead joins his friend, a “humorist,” in a walk through the streets. His friend is extremely superficial – attracted by all the worst excesses of fashion, flare, and social climbing – and ends up being thrown out of a brothel or a social gathering figured as one; the poem ends with the humorist returning to be cared for by the philosophical narrator of the poem.
What attracts me to this is the way that the narrator manages to care about his learned books, but does not let that distract him from caring for his rather foolish friend, in some ways entering the latter’s world to protect him from himself. I realize that some will probably dislike the narrator very much, as he is crusty and sounds manifestly uncompassionate in his biting description of events; others will dislike him for being condescending or overprotective etc. And I suppose in an ideal word – the world many people imagine has come about through modern “progress” – these things would be true, and one could be perfectly loving without being satirically sour and all the rest. But I find myself to be not a perfect human being, and so it is very easy to find such biting satirical commentary going through my own head with regard to certain situations and people, and I have to make do with a mind that sometimes automatically does this.
It is because of this that I like the narrator’s response; it can help me formulate my own response to similar situations. I suppose in a perfect world we would all think charitably and act charitably, but I think Jesus might be getting at something in his parable of the two sons (though not the one you are thinking of). In this parable, a father asks one of his sons to undertake a task; the son says yes, but never does it. Conversely, when he asks his other son, his initial answer is no – but that son in fact does end up doing his father’s will. I presume that in a perfect, heavenly world, words and actions will accord. But the point of the parable seems to be clear – if you have to choose between a rhetorically sophistic charity that does nothing or an ostensible misanthropy that in fact ends up performing love in spite of itself, by all means choose the latter.
What I like about the Donne poem is that, though the narrator gripes through the whole poem, he in fact does not abandon his friend, and ends up being the only one he can turn to when all of his more superficial “friendships” have been spent. Rather than taking the easy route of simply closeting himself up with his books, he allows himself for the sake of love – a love both effective and dragging its heels – to be torn between his preferred world of thought and the superficialities of his friend’s world.
I can be fairly caustic in my criticism of things; it is often because I see the devastation caused by so many situations and ideas in the world and what passes as the church. Whereas some people are very passionate about changing the world, I often find myself wondering if the world including myself is worth changing. But I pray that, when it comes down to it, I will be one of those who did something anyway. I am not attracted to flash and noise and popularity and all the things that everyone seems to celebrate as revolutionary. I do though admire those who are faithful and loyal even when everything in them screams “no” to the rhetoric of optimism and progress around them, and I daily require the grace of Christ and His church to help me live up to their example.