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 see the importance of spiritual truth
  • The challenge to ‘seek true religion'
  • The need to follow one's conscience at all costs or risk damnation

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?
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