"The Preacher as Artist"


T.S. Eliot

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About the work:

Eliot wrote this as a review of the book Donne's Sermons. Selected Passages, with an Essay by Logan Pearsall Smith but, essentially, it is an essay where he compares the sermons of John Donne to those of Hugh Latimer and Lancelot Andrewes. There is also a brief comparison of Donne's sermons to the Fire-Sermon of the Buddha.


About the copyright:

It is my understanding that this work is in the public domain in the U.S. but perhaps not in other countries (particularly in the U.K. and E.U.) Be careful about republication.

About this webpage:

Revision date (y/m/d h:m:s):
$Date: 2004/11/25 00:44:36 $
Rickard A. Parker    (raparker@theworld.com)

Hyperlinked table of contents to Eliot's text

To allow researchers seeking out or creating a citation for a quotation, hyperlinked page numbers (from The Athenĉum) have been inserted into the HTML markup of this file.

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1252 1252 prose as Donne could write    
1253 in Andrewes or in Hooker:     T.S.E

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1252   The Athenĉum   November 28, 1919


The Preacher as Artist

Donne's Sermons. Selected Passages, with an Essay by Logan Pearsall Smith. (Oxford, Clarendon Press.  6s. net.)

The selection is well made, and should also convince the reader that it was worth making. To what Mr. Pearsall Smith has said there are no objections to be raised; there are only one or two critical codicils to be added.

Donne's prose is worth reading both because it is a significant moment in the history of English prose, and because it has at its best uncommon dignity and beauty--a style which gives at times what is always uncommon in the sermon, a direct personal communication. Mr. Pearsall Smith is quite aware of Donne's personality, and of the occasions on which it appears immediately in his prose with the same immediacy as in his verse. But we cannot appreciate the significance, the solitariness, of this personal expression in Donne's sermons unless we compare him with one or two of the great preachers of his time, the great preachers whose sermons were fine prose. The absence of such comparison is the single important defect of Mr. Pearsall Smith's introduction. Without it, we are not in a position to criticize Donne's style at all analytically; the comparative study would educe what is doubtless well known to Mr. Pearsall Smith, but not patent to the cultured reader: that a great deal in Donne's predicatory style is traditional, and that some of the most praised passages are produced by a method which is more than traditional, which is immemorial, almost imposed by the sermon form. Not until we see this can we understand the difference between certain passages: the difference between Donne as an artist doing the traditional better than any one else had done it, and Donne putting into the sermon here and there what no one else had put into it.

Merely the fact that these are extracts, that you can extract from the sermons of Donne, is indicative. It is possible to select sermons of Bishop Latimer or Bishop Andrewes, but it would probably be futile to attempt to select passages out of the sermons. From one point of view, it is a disadvantage to Donne that it is possible to make excerpts from his sermons. The excerpts are enough to show Donne's place in English prose; but the sermon is a form of prose, the form in which Donne's prose was written. It follows that we cannot wholly apprehend Donne's prose without seeing the structure. For the Sermon was a form of literary art--"applied" art as the drama of Donne's day was applied art, applied poetry. And on the other hand, Donne had more in him than could be squeezed into the frame of this form: something which, if it does not crack the frame, at least gives it, now and then, a perceptible outward bulge. We must know what the sermon was, to know what Donne accomplished; and finally, to know what it was in Donne to which the sermon did not give free play. And perhaps this knowledge will supply a clue as to why the sermon is a difficult, perhaps the most difficult form of art; why compositions which were superlatively fine sermons possess none of the permanent qualities of the true work of art; and why Donne, who might have made a great prose art, failed to do so.

Hugh Latimer was a fine writer, and Lancelot Andrewes was a writer of genius. They both had gifts of style; in the style of Andrewes there are points which might very profitably be studied by any prose writer. They both wrote sermons which have beauty, though not the greatness of works of art; the gift of each of them was a gift for the sermon; they had nothing to say which could not be put into a very good sermon, no feelings which the sermon could not satisfy. And many of the passage of Donne given by Mr. Pearsall Smith can be paralleled from Latimer or Andrewes; paralleled in such a way as to leave it open to us to think Donne better, but better only in the same kind. There are touches of poetry in Donne and in Andrewes. The following of Donne is pleasing:

If you be, when you are, remember that as in that good Custome in these Cities, you hear cheerful street musick in the winter mornings, but yet there was a sad and doleful bel-man, that wak'd you, and call'd upon you two or three hours before that musick came. ...
And also Andrewes:
Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ.
The odd syntax, the forceful phrase, must have been as effective spoken as they are read. This is positively Andrewes, as much as the other is positively Donne, and both are perfectly suited to the needs of the sermon.

But the selection No. 44 in Mr. Pearsall Smith's book, the famous "Mundus Mare," will illustrate, better than any other, Donne's execution of a usual sermon method. The method is a vivid figure of speech, an image developed at length with point by point reference to spiritual truth. The world is a sea, has ebbs and flows, storms and tempests, the greater fish devour the less; it is like the sea, no place of habitation, but a passage to our habitations. We fish in this sea for the souls of men; we fish with the Gospel of Christ Jesus. The net has leads, the denouncing of God's judgments, and corks, the power of absolution. It is easy to see the value of such analogy for the sermon. The sermon is not oratory: it aims not so much to persuade as to give a fresh emotional tone to what is accepted. Donne does this in a more masterly way than Latimer, but by the same method even in detail. The effect is obtained not only by the analogy, but by repetition of phrase like wave upon wave:

The world is a Sea, in many respects and assimilations. It is a Sea, as it is subject to stormes, and tempests. ... So the world is a Sea. It is a Sea, as it is bottomlesse to any line. ... So the world is a Sea. ... All these wayes the world is a Sea, but especially it is a Sea in this respect, that the Sea is no place of habitation, but a passage to our habitations.
Compare Latimer in his Sermon on the Card:
Now turn up your trump, your heart (hearts is trump, as I said before), and cast your trump, your heart, on this card; and upon this card you shall learn what Christ requireth of a christian man.
The method--the analogy, and the repetition--is the same as that once used by a greater master of the sermon than either Donne or Andrewes or Latimer: it is the method of the Fire-Sermon preached by the Buddha.

As a writer of sermons, Donne is superior to Latimer, and more mature in style, if not more original or more important, than Andrewes. His style is nearer to Taylor or Browne than to either of these. He might be a little higher than any of these men, but in the same circle. But there are other passages, such as Mr. Pearsall Smith has done well to put first, which carry him out of it:

I am not all here, I am here now preaching upon this text, and I am at home in my library considering whether S. Gregory, or S. Hierome, have said best of this text, before. I am here speaking to you, and yet I consider by the way, in the same instant, what it is likely you will say to one another. when I have done, you are not all here neither; you are here now, hearing me, and yet you are thinking that you have heard a better sermon somewhere else, of this text before ... you are here, and you remember your selves that now ye think of it: This had been the fittest time, now, when every body else is at Church, to have made such and such a private visit; and because you would be there, you are there.
Things like this break, now and again, through the close convention of Elizabethan-Jacobean speech; they are rarer in the prose than in the verse. You will find as gorgeous or as marmoreal prose as Donne could write, in Andrewes or in Hooker: as terse and as direct, here and there in Hakluyt or in Ralegh; but very seldom, in the prose of Donne's age, but seldom, as in this passage, the sense of the artist as an Eye curiously, patiently watching himself as a man. "There is the Ego, the particular, the individuall, I." Donne was an Egoist, but not an egoist of the religious, the mystical type. Perhaps he was something less important. At all events he was something else; and it was an Ego which nowhere in his works finds complete expression, and only furtively in his sermons, "Amourous soule, ambitious soule, covetous soule, voluptuous soule, what wouldest thou have in heaven?" We should like to know that, but Donne cannot tell us. The difficulty is not to be laid solely to the charge of discerning, critical James I., who plucked Donne from the world and pushed him into a pulpit. We feel that English prose was not sufficiently developed, or developed in the right direction, for this introspective faculty of Donne to tell its tale. Montaigne was all right, but Donne did not find what he wanted; yet he had one of the finest brains of his time, perhaps the finest for its possible purpose. He does not fit: he is no Buddha, but certainly not an Andrewes either. But it would be a great injustice to him, and indeed to his editor as well, to regard him merely as the author of a considerable number of purple paragraphs.