Close-up of PC for WWW

Figure 1: Paul’s Cross, from 25 feet. From the Visual Model, constructed by Joshua Stephens, rendered by Jordan Gray. 


This section of the website offers a complete inventory of all accounts of Donne preaching written by people who might have heard him. Readers who know of descriptions of Donne preaching that have eluded this researcher are strongly encouraged to alert me to new resources, so we can approach an even more complete approximation of this goal.

1. The best-known account is from Izaak Walton’s “Life of Donne.” Walton’s description is often impressionistic and therefore unhelpful; one must wonder what “an angel from a cloud” might sound like. Nevertheless much of Walton’s account is echoed by others:

Walton begins by discussing Donne’s unnecessary (in Walton’s view) modesty in choosing the venue for his first efforts at preaching:

 And, though his long familiarity with scholars and persons of greatest quality, was such, as might have given some men boldness enough to have preached to any eminent auditory; yet his modesty in this employment was such, that he could not be persuaded to it, but went usually accompanied with some one friend to preach privately in some village, not far from London; his first Sermon being preached at Paddington.

This he did, till his Majesty sent and appointed him a day to preach to him at Whitehall; and, though much were expected from him, both by his Majesty and others, yet he was so happy – which few are – as to satisfy and exceed their expectations: preaching the Word so, as showed his own heart was possessed with those very thoughts and joys that he laboured to distil into others: a preacher in earnest; weeping sometimes for his auditory, sometimes with them; always preaching to himself, like an angel from a cloud, but in none; carrying some, as St. Paul was, to heaven in holy raptures, and enticing others by a sacred art and courtship to amend their lives: here picturing a Vice so as to make it ugly to those that practised it; and a Virtue so as to make it be beloved, even by those that loved it not; and all this with a most particular grace and an unexpressible addition of comeliness.

And indeed his very words and looks testified him to be truly such a man; and they, with the addition of his sighs and tears, expressed in his Sermon, did so work upon the affections of his hearers, as melted and moulded them into a companionable sadness; and so they left the congregation; but then their houses presented them with objects of diversion, and his presented him with nothing but fresh objects of sorrow, in beholding many helpless children, a narrow fortune, and a consideration of the many cares and casualties that attend their education.


[After preaching a] Sermon he never gave his eyes rest, till he had chosen out a new Text, and that night cast his Sermon into a form, and his Text into divisions; and the next day betook himself to consult the Fathers, and so commit his meditations to his memory, which was excellent. But upon Saturday he usually gave himself and his mind a rest from the weary burthen of his week’s meditations, and usually spent that day in visitation of friends, or some other diversions of his thoughts; and would say, “that he gave both his body and mind that refreshment, that he might be enabled to do the work of the day following, not faintly, but with courage and cheerfulness.”

2. Walton’s account also includes a second account, quoted by Walton from ” a gentleman of worth, – Mr. Chidley, a frequent hearer of his Sermons – in part of a Funeral Elegy writ by him on Dr. Donne; and is a known truth, though it be in verse,” which Walton offers to confirm his own account of Donne’s preaching style:

–– Each altar had his fire ––
He kept his love, but not his object; wit
He did not banish, but transplanted it;
Taught it both time and place, and brought it home
To piety which it doth best become.


For say, had ever pleasure such a dress?
Have you seen crimes so shap’d, or loveliness
Such as his lips did clothe Religion in?
Had not reproof a beauty passing Sin?
Corrupted Nature sorrow’d that she stood
So near the danger of becoming good.
And, when he preach’d, she wish’d her ears exempt
From piety, that had such power to tempt.
How did his sacred flattery beguile
Men to amend?

3. One Daniel Darneley, wrote an account of Donne’s preaching in Latin entitled “In obitum venerabilis viri Iohannis Donne,” sections of which are here translated by my colleague Zola Packman:

“On the death of the venerable man John Donne, Doctor of Sacred Theology, recently Dean of the Cathedral Church of the Saint Paul”

So was this man able, with the power of his speech, to move men, so was he
Able, with his voice, to move savages: for who is so barbarous or so

Strangely hostile to the eloquent that he would not be silent, moved,
When this man exhorted him, and overcome by sweet discourse?

In such a way did this man employ his eyes, his hands, his face:
As every single thing befitted an elder, so each was done by him.

I saw, I heard and I was amazed whenever the speaker stood in
St Paul’s, and, elevating them with astonishing gravity

Held hearts, eyes, and men: while he poured out
The words of Nestor (how much more sweet than any honey?).

Now he holds them thunderstruck, he reveals to the commoners
Mysteries not earlier entrusted to them and not yet understood; they fall back
Marvelling, and stand silent with pricked-up ears.

Soon he, with changed manner and form of speaking
Treated of sorrowful things: fate and the tearful time
Of death and that bodies return into their first ashes.

Then you would see them all give a groan, then (you’d see them) grieving,
Perhaps one or another does not refrain from tears, and

From his eyes lets flow much moisture; so the father
Of the sky wanted the crowd to surrender to that man when they heard him

And stir up their emotions and place them at the discretion
Of the familiar voice, while he reports the holy teachings of the divine mind,
And while he acts as master, powerful in the heights of the pulpit.

4. The next account is from Lucius Carey:

.[Donne gave his hearers] expectation to gaine grace
From forth his Sermons only, but his face;
So Primitive a looke, such gravitie
With humblenesse and both with Pietie;
So milde was Moses countenance, when he prai’d
For them whose Satanisme his power gainsaid;
And such his gravitie, when all God’s band
Received his word (through him) at second hand,
Which joyn’d, did flames of more devotion move
Then ever Argive Hellens could of love.

.5. The next account is from the poem  “On Dr Donnes death: By Mr. Mayne of Christ-Church in Oxford”

Then should I praise thee through the tongues and arts,

And have that deep divinity to know
What mysteries did from thy preaching flow,
Who with thy words could charm thy audience,
That at thy sermons ear was all our sense ;
Yet have I seen thee in the pulpit stand,
Where we might take notes from thy look and hand.

And from thy speaking action bear away
More sermon that some teachers used to say.
Such was thy carriage, and thy gesture such,
As could divide the heart, and conscience touch ;
Thy motion did confute, and we might see
An error vanquished by delivery.

Not like our Sons of Zeal, who, to reform
Their hearers, fiercely at the pulpit storm,
And beat the cushion into worse estate
Than if they did conclude it reprobate,
Who can out-pray the glass, then lay about
Till all predestination be run out.

And from the point such tedious uses draw.
Their repetitions would make Gospel, Law.
No, in such temper would thy sermons flow.
So well did doctrine and thy language show,
And had that holy fear, as, hearing thee.

6. Thomas Crosfield’s Diary reports that Donne was known for his “powerfull kinde of preaching by his gestur & Rhetoriquall expression.”

7. From Constantijn Huygens we hear that   “From your golden mouth, whether in the chamber of a friend, or in the pulpit, fell the speech of Gods, whose nectar I drank again and again with heartfelt joy.”

8. Our last witness is Donne himself, who in his ‘Lent-Sermon Preached at Whitehall, February 12, 1618,” tells us this about good preaching:

First then God for his own glory promises here, that his Prophet his Minister shall be a Trumpet to awaken with terror. But then he shall become Carmen  musicum, a musical and harmonious charmer,  to settle and compose the soul again in a reposed confidence,  and in a delight in God:  he shall be musicum carmen , musick,  harmony to the soul in his matter.

He shall preach harmonious peace to the conscience: and he shall be musicum Carmen,  musick and harmony in his manner;  he shall not present the messages of God rudely,  barbarously,  extemporally;  but with such meditation and preparation as appertains to so great an imployment ,  from such a King as God,  to such a State as his Church:  so he shall be musicum carmen, musicke, harmony, in matter and in manner and then musicum so much farther (as the text adds)  as that he shall have a pleasant voice,  that is,  to preach first sincerely (for a preaching to serve turns and humors, cannot,  at least should not please any)  but then it is to preach acceptably,  seasonably, with a spiritual delight,  to a discreet and rectified congregation,  that by the way of such a holy delight,  they may receive the more profit.

And then he shall play well on an instrument;  which we do not take here to be the working upon the understanding and affections of the Auditory,  that the congregation shall be his instrument;  but as S Basil says, Corpus hominis, Organum Dei, when the person acts that which the song says;  when the words become works,  this is a song to an instrument, to sing and to sing to an instrument is to perform that holy duty in action which we speak of in discourse.

And God shall send his people preachers furnished with all these abilities to be tubae,  trumpets to awaken them and then . . . to sing Gods mercies in their ears,  in reverent but yet in a diligent and thereby a delightful manner and so to be musick in their preaching and musick in their example in a holy conversation.

Thy preaching shall awaken them and so bring them to some sence of their sins to them;  thou shalt be . . .  musick and harmony. They shall conceive an apprehension or an offer of Gods mercy through thee and  . . . they shall confess that thy labors work upon them,  and move them,  and affect them.

That unpremeditated and drowsie and cold manner of preaching agrees not with the dignity of Gods service.  They shall acknowledge, says God to this prophet, thy pleasant voice,  confesse thy doctrine to be good and confesse thy playing upon an instrument , acknowledge thy life to be good too;  for in testimony of all this,  they shall hear this.

 Here, Donne Outlines a Sermon So the Congregation Can Follow

The parts are, first, the Literall, the Historicall sense of the words;  And then an emergent, a collaterall, an occasionall sense of them. The explication of the wordes, and the Application, Quid tune, Quid nunc, How the words were spoken then, How they may be applied now, will be our two parts.   And, in passing through our first, wee shall make these steps. First, God can, and sometimes doth effect his purposes by himselfe; intirely, immediatly, extraordinarily, miraculously by himselfe: But yet, in a second place, we shall see, by this story, That he lookes for assistance, for concurrence of second causes, and subordinate meanes.[1]

Here, Donne is being Witty, even Funny

1. The first book of the Bible is a Revelation and so is the last in the order as they stand a Revelation, too.

2. But we are now in the work of an houre, and no more.  Is there be a minute of sand left in the hourglass? There is not. Is there be a minute of patience left? Heare me say, This minute that is left, is that eternitie which we speake of; upon this minute dependeth that eternity: And this minute God is in this Congregation, and puts his eare to every one of your hearts, and hearkens what you will bid him say to your selves: whether he shall blesse you for your acceptation, or curse you for your refusal of him this minute: for this minute makes up your Century, your hundred yeares, your eternity, because it may be your last minute.

Here is Donne on the Inattentiveness of His Listeners

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 yet you think you could have heard some other doctrine of downright Predestination, and Reprobation roundly delivered somewhere else with more edification to you; you are here, and you remember your selves that now yee 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.

Here is Donne in Full Emotive and Cognitive Voice

  1. Christ, saith the apostle, will fetch them out of the dust when he comes and declare that they have beene in his hands ever since they departed out of this world. They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, surely the Lord is in this place and this is no other but the House of God and the Gate of Heaven and into that gate they shall enter and in that house they shall dwell where there shall be no cloud nor sun,  no darknesse nor dazzling,  but one equall light,  no noyse nor silence but one equall musick, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession,  no foes nor friends but one equall communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings but one equall eternity.
  2.  What they did historically we know: They made that House which is the hyue of this kingdome, from whence all her Hony comes, that House, where Justice herselfe is conceyud, in their preparing of good laws, and inanimated and quickned and borne by the Royall assent there giuen, they made that whole house, one Murdring peece: and hauing put in theyr powder, they chargd that peece with Peers, with people, with Princes, with the King, and ment to discharg it vpward at the face of heauen, to shoote God at the face of God, Him, of whome God had sayd, Dij estis, you are gods, at the face of that God who had said so: as though they would haue reprochd the God of heauen, and not haue been beholden to him for such a king, but shoote him vp to him and bid him take his king againe, for Nolumus hunc regnare, we will not haue this king to reigne ouer vs.
  3. That Sonne of God who was never from us and yet had now come a new way unto us in assuming our nature delivers that soule (which was never out of his fathers hands)  by a new way, a voluntary emission of it into his fathers hands;  For though to this God our Lord belong’d these issues of death, so that considered in his owne contract he must necessarily dye, yet at no breach or battery, which they had made upon his sacred body,  issued his soule, but emisit, hee gave up the Ghost, and as God breathed a soule into the first Adam so this second Adam breathed his soule into God, into the hands of God. There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him that hangs upon the Crosse, there bath in his teares,  there suck at his woundes, and lye downe in peace in his grave, till hee vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that Kingdome which hee hath purchas’d for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood.