A relationship between the self and religion has existed for as long as historical record has been able to evidence it. Over the centuries since the introduction of Christianity, its role within countries, communities and the lives of individuals has been constantly changing. In 2008, 33% of the world’s population claimed to be Christians. In Britain 72% of the population is Christian but only 10% attend church on a weekly basis. i This illustrated how the role of religion has been somewhat diminished in recent times and perhaps hints at the failing relationship between religion and the self.
During the lives of John Donne and George Herbert, the public’s relationship with religion was vastly different. Both men were ordained in the Church of England and it would have been very unusual for anyone in Britain not to attend church regularly. This contrast throws up the question about just how much religion can impact upon the self. Another important note is that of the differences between religion and God. Different denominations of the Christian church have slightly different sets of rules and beliefs which can. However, there are several fundamental aspects of Christianity that are important to all denominations.
These include; moral rules on how to live life the way God wants, a sense of humility before the God who creates man, a highlighting of human weakness as they fall victim to sinfulness, the sense of comfort or hope from God in difficult times and finally the promise of eternal life. All these aspects are covered in the poetry of Donne and Herbert and are still relevant to believers today, even if their numbers are in decline. In the cases of Donne and Herbert, their relationship with religion is noted both in biographies about their lives and in their poetry.
As poets often use their own experiences to inspire their writing, it is completely natural that a Dean of St Paul’s and a country pastor would write about God. George Herbert’s only published work, ‘The Temple’, consisted almost totally of religious focused poetry. Herbert’s path to a career as a pastor was not a straightforward one; he hesitated and worked as a politician before being ordained. He struggled to define his relationship with God and this is extremely evident in his work which he described as having ‘Primary emphasis always on the soul’s inner architecture’. iJohn Donne, on the other hand, had a more turbulent relationship with his religion. He was born into a Roman Catholic family after England had converted to Protestantism.
This had a huge impact upon his life, he was not able to graduate from Oxford or have a career in the public service. Consequently he made the decision to convert to the Church of England and as a result, he was forced by King James to embark upon an ecclesiastical career. A preoccupying thought in Donne’s mind was that of the quest for true religion. He believed in looking for God, not simply accepting a religion. ii The poetry of both Donne and Herbert raises issues and tackles concepts of religion which were important to them but the work can also illustrate, to some extent a general relationship between the self and religion. ‘The Collar’ by George Herbert explores one of the fundamental problems the self experiences with religion. The rules religion places upon a follower do, of course, help them live their lives in a way in which God wants but it more often than not leaves a believer feeling trapped and unable to live life to the full.
The irregular form and consequent irregular rhythm in the poem reflects the angry outburst of the speaker. The passionate tone is carried through Herbert’s questioning ‘Shall I ever sigh and pine? ‘ and his dissatisfaction with being tied down continues when he writes ‘Forsake thy cage’. He uses images of drowning and of a barren wasteland to illustrate his feelings towards religious life. The feelings expressed in this poem highlight the human desire not to be trapped by regulations and to live life as fully as possible.
Herbert even claims he will ‘Recover all they sigh blown age on double pleasures’, in a sense, making up for the time he has spent under religion’s command by living even more extravagantly as he did before. He describes being help by ‘Thy rope of sands’ which perhaps indicates the weakness of the hold religion has upon humanity. So far in the poem, there is a spirit of rebellion coming from the speaker as he tries to escape the confines of religion. However, the conclusion of the poem offers something slightly different. The final two lines: Methoughts I heard one calling ‘Child! ‘ And I replied, My Lord. ‘iv These two lines are of significance because they highlight the separation of a caring father that is God and religion which places rules upon the self. His immediate reply of ‘My Lord’ expresses the fact that man is not frustrated with God, he is angry with religion. It also illustrates how the relationship between God and man is one in which God takes control and man meekly goes along with in the end. God’s relationship with man is a continual theme in Herbert’s poetry.
He described his work in The Temple as ‘A picture of the many spiritual conflicts that have passed between God and my soul’. v In contrast to Herbert’s frustration with religion in ‘The Collar’, he expresses a sense of unworthiness in ‘Love III’. In this piece of work he uses a metaphor of a dinner party with God as the host and the speaker as a guest. Human humility or feelings of unworthiness are common in the relationship between the self and religion. This further emphasises God as the active partner in the relationship and makes man appear weak and passive.
This poem is a brilliant illustration of how God helps the speaker overcome his sense of worthlessness. The opening line, ‘Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back’ set the agenda. The personification of Love as God is common, especially in the Bible. Herbert uses more love related language such as ‘sweetly’ and ‘took my hand’ to emphasise God’s loving, caring nature. The poet also makes two more important religious points in the poem. Firstly, Love says, ‘Who made the eyes but I? ‘ to which the guest responds with the fact he has ‘marred them’.
This extract marks God as creator and man as destructive. Secondly, and as a consequence, Love points out that he has ‘bore the blame’vi for the destructiveness of man and as a result, the guest relents and accepts Love’s invitation to sit and eat. This concluding section raises the question of why man accepts God. Perhaps it is because he feels guilt for everything God claims to have done to him or is it because he finally feels reassured and worthy? This question is very much relevant to the relationship between God and the self who may be defining themselves by their spiritual beliefs.
Many religious leaders, scholars or followers describe these feelings of unworthiness as being evoked by Satan, the enemy of God. The poem ‘Holy Sonnet 14: Batter My Heart’ is an example of Donne’s writing about the movement of sin and Satan in his life. Initially, he expresses his disgruntlement at God’s lack of force working in his life by using soft adjectives like, ‘knock’, ‘breathe’ and ‘shine’. This indicates that he is seeing a weaker, more caring side of his powerful God. In true metaphysical style, Donne uses a metaphor of himself as ‘an usurped town’.
He uses the image to describe his internal struggle to overcome sin and let God have control in his life. The words, ‘Reason, your viceroy in me’ highlight God or religion as what should guide his rational choices and this is interesting because non-believers would claim this to be completely illogical. The concluding sestet of the poem uses an unusual image but one which is commonplace in Donne’s poetry. He compares his relationship to sin as a marriage; ‘am betrothed unto your enemy’ and asks God to ‘divorce’ him from it.
This is unusual because the relationship between God and the church is often described as a marriage and marriage became a very Christian concept. Furthermore, Donne writes; ‘For I, Except you enthral me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. ‘vii He is asking God to, in effect, sexually overpower him. This however, is in line with Donne’s method of applying biblical images to sexual situations, for example, in The Flea or in many other early ‘Jack’ Donne poems, and erotic images to spiritual, religious situations. It highlights his desperation to be set free from the sin which is clearly causing him so much distress.
The rhyming couplet helps place further emphasis on these two lines. In summary, this poem highlights man’s eternal struggle between sin and God; essentially the struggle between what is right and what is wrong to some extent. The self, therefore, has relationships with both religion and sinfulness but positive relationships with both are obviously impossible. One of the fundamental principles of Christianity is the promise of eternal life. The sacrifice of Jesus was touched upon in Herbert’s Love III but the impact of such a promise is illustrated in another one of John Donne’s sonnets.
Holy Sonnet 10, sometimes given the title ‘Death be not proud’ is one of Donne’s most famous poems. Although it is not explicitly a religious poem, it incorporates the fact that those who have accepted God as a saviour will become immortal and death, therefore, is nothing to fear. Humans know that death is one of the few things one can be sure of in life so the impact of religion upon this is significant. The compact form of the poem stops the idea from becoming another long dramatic monologue and the vibrant tone is in stark contrast to the event of death.
In the poem, Donne personifies death and speaks to it, comparing it to ‘rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be’. This idea that rest and sleep, positive things, are mere glimpses of death emphasise the fact that death is even better because its consequence is eternal life in heaven. He tells Death that it is ‘slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men’ and this forces the reader to realise that death is simply a tool of these things and therefore is not what should be feared. Like in many of Donne’s sonnets, the final couplet is a powerful one. Here he writes; One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die. ‘ viii This image of Death dying is one which brings hope and a sense of victory over the one thing man fears most. This explains, perhaps, why so many dying people turn to God for a sense of comfort or why people, who may not ordinarily subscribe to any religion, begin to pray for their sick loved ones. This aspect of religion is one which is of great importance to the self, not in how one defines oneself, but in how one copes during difficult times; especially those involving death and sickness.
To conclude, one could say that the relationship between religion and the self is rather complicated. First, the distinction between religion, with all its rules, and God, loving and powerful, must be made. Secondly, the balance of the relationship must be recognised as being extremely one sided. With God creating man for companionship and man feeling a range emotions from entrapment to unworthiness, to comfort, to hope as a result of this seemingly inevitable relationship with his maker.
In today’s secular society, a relatively small percentage of people appear to define themselves by their religion because a spirit of logic and clear thinking seems to have developed. In the cases of Donne and Herbert, examining their relationship with God was of great importance to them at certain times in their lives. The writers draw both positive and negative experiences from their religious life. The relationship between religion and the self is one which is unique to every individual and in a constant state of flux.