The Art of Self-Knowledge

JOhn Donne
Portrait of John Donne (1573-1631), painted in 1622. V&A DYCE.5

‘If we remember that such exhortations resound throughout the popular treatises of our period, whether Puritan, Catholic or Anglican, we may avoid a tendency to attribute the acute self-consciousness of English meditative poetry in this era chiefly to Donne’s example, or to declare that “Herbert’s extreme insistence on individual responsibility” is “rather Puritan than ‘Churchly,'” or to attribute to the influence of Epictetus the presence of such a consummately Christian view as that expressed by Donne in his significant lines to Rowland Woodward:

Seeke wee then our selves in our selves; for as
Men force the Sunne with much more force to passe,
By gathering his beames with a christall glasse;

So wee, If wee into our selves will turne,
Blowing our sparkes of vertue, may outburne
The straw, which doth about our hearts sojourne.

But may we not argue that the fierce inward scrutiny of Puritanism intensified this emphasis, put a “finer edge on the spiritual life” by pursuing methods of analysis that “called for more intelligence and more concentration than any of the Catholic techniques”? I believe that the foregoing chapters will have shown that such a view represents a misapprehension of the devotional techniques of the Counter Reformation. Intense concentration on the “motions” of the self is not a peculiar tendency of Puritanism, though it has some peculiar aspects, deriving from Puritan theology… But so far as self-examination is concerned the fact is that both Catholic and Puritan, while accusing each other bitterly of neglecting the inner life, were pursuing the art of self-knowledge by methods equally intense and effective- methods that had, on both hands, developed a subtlety of self-awareness that went far beyond the popular achievements of the Middle Ages.’

Louis L. Martz, The Poetry of Meditation: A Study in English Religious Literature of the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954)121-122.

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