Satire 3 by John Donne: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Synopsis of 'Satire 3'
  • 2:21 Analysis of 'Satire 3'
  • 6:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

Donne's 'Satire 3' may not have been on your English reading list, but it certainly approaches a subject that many of us are familiar with. Find out more about crises of faith in this lesson with a synopsis and analysis of a poet's spiritual dilemma.

Synopsis of 'Satire 3'

Have you ever had one of those moments when you didn't know whether to laugh, or cry, or scream? The poetic narrator of Donne's third satire, which is a work dedicated to criticism through the use of comedic elements, feels similarly as he addresses the poem's unnamed recipient. Imagine for this lesson the recipient is you and not just a mysterious third party. The speaker's emotional upheaval leads him to question, 'Is not our mistress, fair Religion, / As worthy of all our souls' devotion / As virtue was in the first blinded age?' and reveals the main subject of this particular satire.

From here, the narrator launches into a litany of other questions for you, perhaps most notable among them whether your father would find pre-Christian philosophers in Heaven, but not you. The speaker then claims that fearing such a fate is equal to reverence for the divine, and that this fear is in itself a form of courage. He then scolds you for tempting fate with daring feats (i.e. cliff diving, Northern exploration) for the sake of personal worldly gain. The narrator finds you to be pretending to be bold while unwilling to face your true adversaries: the devil, the world, and your own carnal nature.

'Seek true religion' is what the speaker urges you to do before introducing a number of allegorical figures representative of different religious ideologies, from which you should 'but one allow.' During this process of discerning which faith is the right one, the narrator urges you to recall familial traditions, but also encourages personal introspection.

The poetic narrator warns that this personal journey toward truth takes time and a lot of confused running about. However, he presses you to reach this eventual destination of spiritual truth before old age dulls the mind and prevents you. This is, of course, the Truth, not truths bound to human law, 'by which (one) shall not be tried / At the last day.' This begins the end of the satire, during which the speaker condemns those who idolize human power, an unjust authority unequal to that of God Almighty.

Analysis of 'Satire 3'

Many of us probably have friends who think they're being funny when they're actually being a big drag. The same might be said by many who read Donne's 'Satire 3.' Though the poem has its cheeky moments, such as mention of the 'mutinous Dutch' or contrast between the 'statecloth' (fine clothes) of Anglicanism and the 'rags' of Catholicism, overall, it doesn't feel as fun as many other satires. That's because this piece is really just another example of John Donne's extensive endeavors in metaphysical poetry, verse works of the 17th century marked by their use of complex imagery to explore primarily concepts of love or religion.

It's sort of hard to be too funny when you're dealing with such a serious question; namely, what is the one true religion? This would have been an extremely pointed question for Donne, whose Europe was filled with major belief systems all claiming the title of 'One True Faith.' For the poet, this prompted a need to investigate these claims.

Let's first focus on the work's views on paganism. That investigation begins with a contrast between Christianity and paganism, which is represented explicitly by ancient philosophers (i.e. of Greece and Rome) and generally by really anyone non-Christian. While the poetic narrator acknowledges that the philosophers' 'strict life may be imputed faith,' it's obvious that paganism is rejected as true religion given the incredible nature of the ancients' appearance in Heaven.

Let's look at the view present here on the sects of Christianity. With paganism passed over in favor of Christianity, we now find an examination of its major individual sects at the time. Donne uses three different men to represent these Christian denominations:

  1. Mirreus, Roman Catholicism
  2. Crantz, Calvinism/general Protestantism
  3. Graius, Anglicanism.

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