I see (John Donne's) writing as a testing ground, where theological thought can be applied in new ways in a really different realm.

Alexandra Block

Yet as a picture, or bare sacrament,
Accept these lines, and if in them there be,
Merit of love, bestow that love on me.

So the Renaissance poet, author and preacher John Donne concluded his poem "To Mr. T. W." The poem expresses Donne's distress at being apart from his friend and he finishes by asking that the friend bestow whatever fond feelings are evoked by the poem on Donne, rather than on the words themselves.

For Alexandra Block, an assistant professor of English, a hidden layer of meaning lies in the simple phrase "bare sacrament." At the time Donne was writing, England was in the throes of converting from Catholicism to Protestantism and the meaning of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, was a contentious topic.

"Eucharistic non-conformity was a leading reason for getting burned at the stake in the 16th century," Block said.

Catholics despised the notion of some Protestants that the blessed wine and bread –  the sacrament – were a mere metaphor and not the literal body and blood of Christ. Debate raged even amongst Protestants on the meaning of the sacrament and the unpopular idea that they were nothing holier than a simple reminder of Christ's suffering was dismissed as "bare sacrament."

By using the term, Donne intentionally diminishes his own words, according to Block.

"What that does to the poem is really strip it of its ability to convey Donne to his friend. It becomes no more than a piece of paper with marks on it," Block said. "It's very playful. He is pulling in this serious theological language and he is toying with it and working it against himself so that the poem defeats itself. That is the kind of playful intellect that he had."

As a specialist in Renaissance lyric poetry, Block studies how Donne brought theological ideas of the day into his writing. "I see his writing as a testing ground, where theological thought can be applied in new ways in a really different realm," Block said.

Posted Sept. 22, 2008

Updated Dec. 28, 2009

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