Donne’s ‘Satire 3’ may not have been on your English reading list, but it certainly approaches a subject that many of us are familiar with. Find out more about crises of faith in this lesson with a synopsis and analysis of a poet’s spiritual dilemma.
Synopsis of ‘Satire 3’
Have you ever had one of those moments when you didn’t know whether to laugh, or cry, or scream? The poetic narrator of Donne’s third satire, which is a work dedicated to criticism through the use of comedic elements, feels similarly as he addresses the poem’s unnamed recipient. Imagine for this lesson the recipient is you and not just a mysterious third party. The speaker’s emotional upheaval leads him to question, ‘Is not our mistress, fair Religion, / As worthy of all our souls’ devotion / As virtue was in the first blinded age?’ and reveals the main subject of this particular satire.From here, the narrator launches into a litany of other questions for you, perhaps most notable among them whether your father would find pre-Christian philosophers in Heaven, but not you.
The speaker then claims that fearing such a fate is equal to reverence for the divine, and that this fear is in itself a form of courage. He then scolds you for tempting fate with daring feats (i.e. cliff diving, Northern exploration) for the sake of personal worldly gain. The narrator finds you to be pretending to be bold while unwilling to face your true adversaries: the devil, the world, and your own carnal nature.’Seek true religion’ is what the speaker urges you to do before introducing a number of allegorical figures representative of different religious ideologies, from which you should ‘but one allow.
‘ During this process of discerning which faith is the right one, the narrator urges you to recall familial traditions, but also encourages personal introspection.The poetic narrator warns that this personal journey toward truth takes time and a lot of confused running about. However, he presses you to reach this eventual destination of spiritual truth before old age dulls the mind and prevents you. This is, of course, the Truth, not truths bound to human law, ‘by which (one) shall not be tried / At the last day.’ This begins the end of the satire, during which the speaker condemns those who idolize human power, an unjust authority unequal to that of God Almighty.
Analysis of ‘Satire 3’
Many of us probably have friends who think they’re being funny when they’re actually being a big drag.
The same might be said by many who read Donne’s ‘Satire 3.’ Though the poem has its cheeky moments, such as mention of the ‘mutinous Dutch’ or contrast between the ‘statecloth’ (fine clothes) of Anglicanism and the ‘rags’ of Catholicism, overall, it doesn’t feel as fun as many other satires. That’s because this piece is really just another example of John Donne’s extensive endeavors in metaphysical poetry, verse works of the 17th century marked by their use of complex imagery to explore primarily concepts of love or religion.It’s sort of hard to be too funny when you’re dealing with such a serious question; namely, what is the one true religion? This would have been an extremely pointed question for Donne, whose Europe was filled with major belief systems all claiming the title of ‘One True Faith.
‘ For the poet, this prompted a need to investigate these claims.Let’s first focus on the work’s views on paganism. That investigation begins with a contrast between Christianity and paganism, which is represented explicitly by ancient philosophers (i.e. of Greece and Rome) and generally by really anyone non-Christian.
While the poetic narrator acknowledges that the philosophers’ ‘strict life may be imputed faith,’ it’s obvious that paganism is rejected as true religion given the incredible nature of the ancients’ appearance in Heaven.Let’s look at the view present here on the sects of Christianity. With paganism passed over in favor of Christianity, we now find an examination of its major individual sects at the time. Donne uses three different men to represent these Christian denominations:
- Mirreus, Roman Catholicism
- Crantz, Calvinism/general Protestantism
- Graius, Anglicanism.
Each has its merits as a branch of the Christian faith, but the speaker also points out several flaws. Catholic customs are depicted as old and worn-out, Calvinism is characterized as a ‘course country drudge’ (low-class servant), and Anglicanism is noted for its lewd preachers and church laws that are given to changing like fads.With such critical remarks concerning these Christian sects, one might think the poetic narrator would consider the notions of agnosticism and omnism, a belief system that validates or incorporates elements from all faiths, but both are summarily dismissed. Phrygius, representing agnosticism, is condemned essentially for religious promiscuity, while the omnism symbolized by Graccus is considered blind and even somewhat cowardly.
In short, neither of these options presents the addressee with the albeit difficult decision of choosing ‘but one’ faith, so they’re rejected out of principle.Let’s now look at the mysterious addressee. We’ve been talking about the ‘poetic narrator’ and using you as a stand-in for this addressee in this discussion of ‘Satire 3.’ However, although Donne surely intended the poem to be an inspiration to others, the real intended audience wasn’t actually you or me or a mysterious third person, but himself. The poet uses the voice of the poetic narrator, his own thoughts and feelings, to help guide him through his very own personal crisis of faith.
John Donne, famous as a poet and saintly Anglican priest, was originally born into a staunchly Catholic family, and this poem reflects his struggles with choosing between the faith passed down by his father and that of another path. Donne realizes that he must ‘seek true religion’ for himself, which for him means that we should ‘doubt wisely,’ or question everything while still operating under some fundamental framework (i.e. Christian theology for Donne).
Donne’s ‘Satire 3,’ then, is an exercise in such structured doubt. It’s a place where the poet can explore questions of his own spirituality without getting lost and where he can encourage others to do so for generations to come.
As we can see from its title and some mildly humorous features, Donne’s poem is a work of satire, a genre dedicated to criticism through the use of comedic elements. However, ‘Satire 3,’ the primary message of which is to ‘seek true religion,’ also belongs to the tradition of metaphysical poetry, or verse works of the 17th century marked by their use of complex imagery to explore primarily concepts of love or religion.Donne uses his work to explore his own spirituality and encourages others to do the same, allegorically representing various belief systems from which one can choose; from differing sects of Christianity (i.
e. Catholicism, Calvinism, Anglicanism) to the notion of omnism, a belief system that validates or incorporates elements from all faiths.