Finders Keepers: A Moment of “Truth” in Donne’s Third Satire

by Harry Heuser

Once More unto the Hill

“On a huge hill, / Cragged and steep, Truth stands,” the tour guide of Donne’s Third Satire declares (79-80).  And although the directions could have been a bit clearer, instead of leaving some of us glancing toward Rome, the path a bit more accessible, instead of leaving some of us groping for notes, and the location perhaps a bit less conspicuous, instead of leaving some of us longing for a more remote spot in Donne’s imaginary landscape, those of us who remain cannot but marvel at the simplicity of these words.  After having been flung from Scylla to Charybdis on ill-chosen alternative routes that force us to “leave th’ appointed field” (32)—from chartered tours of the charnel houses of war that terminate in “ship’s wooden sepulchres” (18), or chilling passages to uncharted territory in search of “frozen North discoveries” (22), to chance jaunts sinking us into the lap of fishy churches—we have finally docked at a rock worthy of our “mind’s endeavors.”  For there, we learn, “Truth stands.”  At last something magnificent, something momentous, something—and here a discordant note begins to make itself heard in the murmur of the crowd of inquisitive visitors—profoundly meaningful has come into our ken.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that poets, scholars, and their dedicated disciples continue to flock to this hillside in attempts to approach the figure—vague to some, Veritas to others—to apprehend or appropriate “Truth” by way of systematic inquiry or mere paraphrase.  Truth still stands, firmly—and floutingly, it seems—to watch each new generation of onlookers, their snares equipped with neologian nooses, fret and falter and fade.

If nothing else, disagreement about the origins of the figure, its significance for the poem’s argument, and the light “Truth” may shed on Donne’s literary, rhetorical, and spiritual models, has certainly kept the fair mistress from falling into the dreaded gulf of oblivion.  In fact, the mountain—and we are, as John R. Roberts insists, “justified in reading hill as mountain, especially since Donne specifically calls it a “huge hill” (112)—has made the figure conspicuous and “plain to all eyes.”  Roberts suggests parallels between Donne’s hill and Biblical bergs such as Mount Sion or Luke’s “Mount” of Transfiguration (112-3).  Discussing the “traditional motif” of the hill, M. Thomas Hester suggests Petrarch’s “Ascent of Mont Ventoux” as a possible influence on—if not the source of—Donne’s satire (“John Donne’s ‘Hill of Truth’” 103-4).  James S. Baumlin, on the other hand, referring to a survey of suggestions offered by W. Milgate, asserts that while

Donne could have drawn on a number of sources for his Hill of Truth, there are obvious parallels in theme and imagery between this allegory and . . . [the] “steep path” [described in Persius’s Satire III].  It is arguable that Donne’s “huge hill, / Cragged and steep” is a deliberate amplification of Persius’s moral emblem; as a statement of general influence, one can say at the very least that Persius suggested to Donne the appropriateness of serious emblem and symbol in satire.  (99)

Even though it is impossible to isolate the three elements of the allegory completely—the figure of Truth, the hill, or the climb—critics often focus their attention on the one that seems to support their particular arguments.  This enables Marotti, for example, to approach the figure of “mistress fair religion” as a thinly-veiled adversary of Queen Elizabeth:

By placing Mistress Truth at the moral center of the world, Donne, in effect, ideologically displaced the idealized Queen Elizabeth, who had herself appropriated some of the features of an older Catholic Mariolatry to enhance her power.  (43)

Surely, to keep all three elements attached would mean to make Donne’s metaphors less malleable.

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