Lenten Wisdom in Verse – Tuesday in Lent I

Today’s poem, or piece of a poem, comes to us from John Donne. The commentary comes, once again, from Malcolm Guite.

Satire III – John Donne

… though truth and falsehood be
Near twins, yet truth a little elder is;
Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death’s twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body’s pains; hard knowledge too
The mind’s endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

Monday’s poem, ‘The Pilgrimage’ by George Herbert, introduced a Lenten theme of journey and search, reflecting the journey of the children of Israel through the wilderness, and Jesus’ own 40 days in the wilderness. Our poems this week develop that theme further, beginning with this extract from one of John Donne’s Satires. This poem uses the same image of truth on a hill; indeed it may be one of the sources for Herbert, who knew Donne well as a family friend. The wider context of the ‘Satire’ is Donne’s difficult and perplexed search, amid the many controversies that vexed the Church in his day, for a clear understanding of where Christ is to be found. Here he realizes that a round-about method, considering the same thing from different places and angles, may be the only way to ascend to truth, but he also recognizes the need for resolve, deliberation and energy in the search. This is a dense and complex poem; I have chosen this particular passage because of its two clear, striking and helpful metaphors of the hill and the sun.

But first let me explain a little context. Earlier in the ‘Satire’ Donne conjures up caricatures of various contemporary religious ‘types’: an extreme Roman Catholic besotted wit ritual and all things Roman, an extreme Calvinist who believes nothing unless it’s come straight from Geneva, and a lazy indifferentist who blithely assumes that all faiths probably end up to the same thing but doesn’t actually bother to enquire. In the course of the poem Donne shows how each of them might be mistaken or simply carried away. Then, seeing this variety, Donne confronts the possibility of never finding any truth or certainty. Finally, we come to the point in the poem where our extract begins, in which he realizes that however difficult, or tentative, he must begin to make serious enquiries. Truth and falsehood may be, as he says, ‘near twins’, so like each other that it’s hard to distinguish, but truth is ‘a little elder’ and she’s still worth seeking.

That truth ‘a little elder is’, is itself a statement that carries a great truth. Truth can exist without falsehood, but to discern anything as actually false we have to have a prior standard of truth; every falsehood points to, and depends upon, an ‘elder’ truth. Earlier in the ‘Satire’ he may have mocked those who ‘adore, or scorn an image, or protest’, but that does not absolve him of responsibility to seek truth for himself. Then comes one of the great phrases of this poem: ‘doubt wisely; in strange way to stand inquiring right, is not to stray’. The Church would do well to learn from this. The serious doubter, the sincere enquirer, the person who hesitates a long time on a threshold, these are all people to be honoured and encouraged, not, as is so often the case, either demonized or cajoled. Donne put this even more succinctly in one of his great sermons at Lincoln’s Inn. ‘To come to a doubt and a debasement in any religious duty is the voice of God in our conscience. Would you know the truth? Doubt and then you will enquire …’ (Sermons 5.38)

Then comes the justly famous metaphor of the hill:
On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Some things are too great to come at directly. Just as we may weave back and forth as we climb a hill, and appear to be going around in circles, yet all the while are coming closer to the summit, so in our religious and spiritual life things may seem circuitous; we may think we have come back to the same spot, but always, if we press on, it is a little higher, a little closer to the truth.

Donne follows this image with a reflection on light. Perhaps the metaphor of an arduous climb suggested the desire to reach the peak before twilight; then comes the direct allusion to John 9.4: ‘We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night comes when no one can work.’
And that leads on to the beautiful image of the sun, ‘dazzling, yet plain to all eyes’. C.S. Lewis would have been very familiar with this poem, and I wonder if these lines of Donne’s are the distant ancestor of one of his famous and illuminating sayings: ‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else’ (‘Is Theology Poetry’).

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