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

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

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.

Yet whereas Hester, writing in 1982, could still sum up his survey of literary scholarship by remarking that “critics have reached little agreement about [Satyre III’s] central meanings and strategies” (Kinde Pitty 54), the phrase “central meanings” alone may provoke both “brave scorn” and “kind pity” in some of today’s readers who, unlike the scholars of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s (decades during which pilgrimages to the hill of Truth appear to have enjoyed particular popularity) have all but lost confidence in the efficacy of such exercises in meaning-stabilizing.  Roberts, reconsidering the satire in 1968, still tries to impart the poem’s “whole meaning,” to assist readers in arriving at “a correct understanding of the poem” (106).  These days, it seems, critics of the Third Satire are far more anxious to challenge notions that have hitherto remained uncontested.

Paul R. Sellin, for example, arguing that the dating of the poem “has depended almost exclusively on speculative argument regarding Donne’s spiritual biography rather than on historical or bibliographical facts” (“The Proper Dating” 275), seeks to dismantle the commonly held notion that the Third Satire was composed in the 1590s by comparing the description of Truth on a hill to a golden medallion commemorating the Synod of Dort with which Donne was honored in December of 1619 (282): “Donne’s adjectives for the “hill”—”huge,” “cragged,” “steep”—characterize the mountain depicted on the medal aptly, for it displays exactly these features” (284).  The hoped for “change in the dating,” Sellin concludes, “should lead to revision of some notions still current about Donne’s religious attitudes” (303).1

In the 1990s such revisionism all but eroded the enormous piles of historical evidence that have directed—and perhaps obstructed—the mountain view for generations of readers.  As Eleanor McNees puts it:

Although several critics have tried to demonstrate Donne’s allegiance either to Calvinism or Roman Catholicism, Donne’s poetry actually defies such labeling. . . .  [T]he Anglican compromise between Roman Catholicism and Puritan Protestantism probably tempted Donne because of its ability (like paradox) to balance two extremes and renounce neither.  (37)

And whereas scholars used to debate whether the prime influence on the style of the Third Satire is to be sought in Horace, Juvenal, or Persius, recent criticism has raised doubts about the poem’s very genre.  “The study of Donne’s poetry according to genre or historical source is a tricky one,” Deborah Aldrich Larson suggests, “because few of Donne’s poems correspond exactly to the traditions” (17).  Sellin reminds us that “we cannot be sure that the titles we have are Donne’s” (“Satyre III No Satire” 86), and that “we cannot be absolutely sure from printed or manuscript evidence that ‘Satyre III’ was the third in order or that it was composed as part of a suite of satires with which we connect it” (87).  Hester sees the Third Satire as “a satirical meditation,” as “satire and devotion simultaneously” (Kinde Pitty 57) and approaches the Truth-on-a-hill passage in this spirit.

My mind’s endeavors shall not be entirely exhausted in tracing Donne’s Truth on a hill in the valleys of criticism.  This would mean retreading a path already taken by Larson, who, in her study John Donne and Twentieth-Century Criticism, documents how certain trends in literary criticism have impacted on the position of Donne’s poetry in the canon, as “New Criticism’s darling” reached new fame, for example, only to “lose favor” when faith in formalism began to fade (15).  Nor shall I succumb completely to the temptation of taking the satirical back road by turning the Third Satire into something akin to Pope’s Essay on Criticism, namely by reading the warnings the speaker of Donne’s poem offers to the seeker of Truth among the women in “divers habits” and his insistence on skepticism (“Doubt wisely”) as words of caution directed toward ill-judging and frustrated critics who, dazzled by literary fashions, all too frequently fall for fraud, or who, failing in their courtship and claim of true art, find themselves lowering their standards: “Who could not win the mistress, wooed the maid” (Pope 105).  As Donne puts it in a sermon on John 14:26:

The Schooles have made so many Divisions, and sub-divisions, and re-divisions, and post-divisions of Ignorance, that there goes as much learning to understand ignorance, as knowledg[e].  (Stanwood and Asals 103)  

Yet while it is true that explicators of the Third Satire, who (if but for the sake of publication) cannot afford to be as evasive as Phrygius or as indifferent as Gracchus, seem to be faced with as much divisive churchism, with as much narrow-minded dogmatism as Mirreus, Crants, or Graius, such finger-pointing is likely to end in shoulder-shrugging.  Even Pope cannot but conclude that “[i]f faith itself has different dresses worn, /What wonder modes in wit should take their turn?” (446-47).

If, in the course of this discussion, I will furnish yet another illustration of this apparent lack of critical consensus, I shall do so for a reason other than deriding what I, luxuriating in self-satisfaction, may argue to be the vaingloriousness of certain Donnean scholars.  I shall do so in order to establish how the Truth-on-a-hill passage has overshadowed, how the elusive yet dazzling figure of Truth has all but outshone subsequent lines of the poem, and how this, in turn, has impacted on several diverging interpretations of the Third Satire.  After all, while critics of the Third Satire cannot agree on what to find, Donne’s poem appears to leave little doubt where to look for it.  Few readers of the Third Satire would deny that the “poem’s most famous passage, the image of the hill of Truth” (Strier 303) is also “one of the most moving in Donne’s poetry” (Brodsky 64), that the “picture” it creates is so “unforgettable” (Leishman 118) that “perhaps no single poetic image by Donne [has become] more familiar” (Hester, “John Donne’s ‘Hill of Truth’” 100).2  If criticism is as inevitable as breathing, the climb Donne’s hill requires and the view it affords seem to have made next to impossible any attempt of the reader, gasping for air, to get over it entirely.

Soul Searching and Soil Sampling

Just why is the Truth-on-a-hill passage if not insurmountable, so at least irresistible to critics? Of course, the poem is very episodic in nature, and, Donne’s enjambments notwithstanding, lines 79 to 88 constitute such a recognizable segment, a unit in which the phrase “Truth stands” is indisputably central.  And even if we don’t pluck it from the passage in which it lies embedded, “Truth stands” is a ready target singled out for us, because the declarative nature of the phrase stands in such sharp contrast not only to the series of interrogatives and imperatives through which the poem’s argument unfolds—an argument about whose path and purpose (the care for the listener’s soul or the “cure” of the speaker’s own “worn maladies” [4]) there is less than certainty from the start—but also to what is figured forth for us here.

The provocation of “Truth stands”—an affirmation that, to borrow from Sidney’s Defence of Poesy, “nothing affirms”—lies in the speaker’s insistence on telling in the absence of showing.  The listener is not presented with clear answers revealed in concrete images, but is agitated out of passivity into a continual quest for truth, as the declarative statement is followed by yet another admonition: “and he that will / Reach her, about must, and about must go” (80-81).

The difference between this general piece of advice and the personal addresses employed elsewhere (caveats such as “fear this” or “Know thy foes”) is significant.  While another direct address could have enhanced further both the urgency of the passage and the intimacy between listener and rhetor by creating the verisimilitude of an encounter of the figure on the hill and the reader—rather than everyman “he”—the speaker appears to have resisted such dramatic and rhetorical techniques in order to keep Truth distant and uncorrupted.  Instead of becoming a presence, or, more precisely, instead of coming into the reader’s presence, Truth is but a promise here.

Nor is the ideal of truth compromised by being wrapped up in attractive word-garments, suitable for public display.  Instead, there is something in Donne’s conceit of Truth on a hill—a “huge,” “cragged,” and “steep” heap of adjectives—that at once lures and frustrates the reader as it “stand[s]” there without fully materializing, as it remains Truth in name only without being concretely figured.  As Claudia Brodsky puts it:

Departing radically from the formal complexities of the conceit, and from the factual referents figured throughout the poem (i.e., historical events and individuals; actual religious trends), the poet presents a highly persuasive portrait of truth while suspending the dilemma of logical persuasion.  His convincing narrative of resistance overcome also provides, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, a perfect summation of the observations made by otherwise differing critics as to the difficulties involved in discerning his own poetry’s significance.  “Truth,” the final term of the poem’s structural analogy, and the final test of significance for the poetic conceit, is imaged without access to analogical comparisons and in the absence of even a modest display of Metaphysical wit.  (64-65)

Brodsky’s argument already suggests why the Truth-on-a-hill passage of the Third Satire has attracted so many “differing critics”: it intrigues as poetic figure and rhetorical device, and it invites speculations not only about the speaker’s (and, alas, the poet’s) religious position, but also about the poem’s investigations of the nature of religious poetry in general, and the poet’s role as poietes and vates in particular.  The depiction of the steep hill seems to be in keeping with the Horatian axiom “ut pictura poesis”; Truth, however, is not a figure drawn, but withdrawn; and if, as Brodsky puts it, Truth is “the final test of significance for the poetic conceit,” it is the reader who is subjected to this test, rather than being its administrator.

In Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation, Ernest B. Gilman discusses the “competitive relationship between image and text” (8) as apparent in the Third Satire’s “subtle play on the image of truth” (118).  He remarks that the figure

has also dissolved into paradoxical “mysteries” at once evident . . . and yet impossible to behold.  It is as if the blinding illumination to be gained on the summit should serve, like the satire as a whole, to question the conventional representations of truth we may have (untruthfully) pictured when we stood with the poet at the foot of the hill, before answering the poem’s call to exercise the “mindes endeavours.”  (118)

Surely the movement from the foot of the hill to its summit contributes to the reader’s sense of having been put to a test of endurance.  Few readers, having experienced the arduous path toward Truth as an uphill battle, “a struggle well expressed by the rambling circularity of the syntax itself” (Baumlin 98), will find much truth in Carey’s remark that the

poem’s effort is to make out that choosing a religion is purely intellectual business, as unemotional as mountaineering.  Donne needed to convince himself of this, in order to allay his personal turmoil.  So the Satire is not an account of a crisis but an operative part of one.  It was, for its author, a necessary poem, and its inconsistency and misrepresentation are part of its vigorous life.  (Carey 29)

The turmoil of the search is certainly felt by readers willing to go for the hurdle-laden ride, willing to stumble over the rocky commas that lie in their path rather than hovering over the work in a cirrostratus of critical detachment.  For an “unemotional” journey to the peak we may refer pedestrian travelers to the uninspired blandness of Parnell’s “Dr Donne’s Third Satire Versified”:

On a large mountain, at the basis wide,

Steep to the top, and craggy at the side,

Sits sacred Truth enthron’d; and he who means

To reach the summit, mounts with weary pains,

Winds round and round, and every turn essays,

Where sudden breaks resist the shorter ways.  (Smith 187)

After some tottering, caused by cumbersome caesurae, no “sudden breaks resist the shorter ways,” ways that will swiftly transport us back to the agitated metrics of the Third Satire, Donne’s “tacit plea for liberation, not for the straight-jacket” (Partridge 43).

What makes the Truth-on-a-hill passage particularly effective is the way in which

[b]oth the syntax and diction of Donne’s emblem enforce the spiral motion of the pilgrim up and round the hill.  The alteration [sic] of short phrases (“on a huge hill”—”Cragged, and steep”—”and hee that will”) around the strong spondee “Truth stands” connote the circular path of the seeker.  (Hester, “John Donne’s ‘Hill of Truth’” 100-1)

The result, Hester argues, is a

vivid reproduction in meter of the circular shape of the eternal hill and the circling of it by the rational soul in the pursuit of Truth itself.  The circularity of the hill described in these lines is then combined with the view of it horizontally in the next line: “And what th’ hills suddenes resists”—”winne so,” in which the long introductory clause describing in long rhythms the height of the hill is offset by the short, imperative “winne so.”  (101)

Cathcart remarks that this

image of a person traveling around a mountain on a circular path, with each revolution coming closer and closer to the truth, is precisely illustrative of Donne’s method in his poetry.  Carefulness, energy, determination, the willingness to probe indefinitely will bring one to a truth which one cannot reach by direct apprehension.  (130)

Yet the “description of the pilgrim’s motion as spiral provides” not only, as Hester suggests, “an exemplary contrast to the fugacious motions or inactivity of the fools whom the satirist ridicules” (“John Donne’s ‘Hill of Truth’” 102), it also contrasts strongly with the critic’s task.  For even if readers of Donne’s satire are able to avoid the fads and trappings of scholarly idolatry and engage instead in the climb with their minds open, none can afford to settle for the search alone, or for an account thereof, but expects—and is expected—to come away from the mountain with some findings, a sizeable soil sample at least, offered for inspection to equally eager colleagues as the ocular proof of time well spent.

Thus, whereas responsible readers, drawn to the “huge hill” and compelled into searching, may sense that they “about must, and about must go,” just as the speaker of the Third Satire demands it of the earnest seeker of Truth, this circular movement, so prominent in Donne’s reasoning, seems to be at odds with critical impulses, with the scholarly hankering after the documental or the demand for straightforward arguments supported by an accumulation of evidence.  The very thought that such perambulations could prove inconclusive, hence futile, due to a lack of extractable evidence from the poem under scrutiny frequently causes quandary-stricken critics to resort to the quarries of other rock formations deemed scholarly solid.  Yet even an oft consulted source such as Donne’s sermons seems to keep us in a circular mode.

“Fixe upon God any where, and you shall find him a Circle,” Donne writes in a sermon on Psalms 63:7 (Stanwood and Asals 251), and being with God means remaining in constant circular motion: “He is with you now, when you fix upon him; He was with you before, for he brought you to this fixation; and he will be with you hereafter, for He is yesterday, and to day, and the same for ever” (251).  In a sermon on Micah 2:10 Donne insists:

We are bidden to rise: that is, to leave our bed, our habit of sin; and then not to be idle, when we are up, but to depart; not onely to depart from Custome, but . . . to depart into another way, a habit of Actions, contrary to our former Sins.  And then, all this is pressed, and urged upon us, by a Reason: The Holy Ghost appears not like a ghost in one sodain glance or glimmering, but he testifies his presence, and he presses the businesse, that he comes for; And the Reason that he uses here, is, Quia non requies, because otherwise we lose the Pondus animae, the weight, the ballast of our soule, rest, and peace of Conscience: for howsoever there may be some rest, some such shew of Rest, as may serve a carnall man a little while, yet, sayes our Text, it is not your Rest, it conduces not to that Rest, which God hath ordained for you, whom he would direct to a better Rest.  That Rest, (your Rest) is not here; not in that, which is spoken of here; not in your lying still, you must rise from it; not in your standing still, you must depart from it; your Rest is not here: but yet, since God sends us away, because our Rest is not here, he does tacitly direct us thereby, where there is Rest.  (Stanwood and Asals 100-1) 

The Truth-on-a-hill passage certainly succeeds in fixing our attention and in recreating this experience of constant strife and continued searching.  The speaker, having already identified the errors of the seeker and the falsehood of his aims, refuses to satisfy our iconolatry by providing a clear image of Truth upon whose existence he nonetheless insists.  Thus, whereas Sister Geraldine asserts that Donne “speaks all through the verses to the teachable, reasonable, convincible reader” (119), Donne may also address—and test—the gullible reader who, easily convinced, expects to be shown the “right,” the “true religion.”  “If the search for truth raises the problem of giving her a form ‘plaine to all eyes,’” Gilman argues, “Donne’s evoking and then retracting ‘her’ image seems to move doubtfully between adoration and scorn” (118); it is problem that Donne sets up for the reader who may perceive Mirreus, Crantz, or Graius as misguided fools, but who still relies on proper guidance from the speaker of a satire.

Unlike the traveler in Christina Rossetti’s “Up-Hill,” neither the listener nor the reader of Donne’s satire can expect a positive reply to a nonetheless tempting question: “Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?” (13).  The listener is never allowed to rest at “the top of the cragged and steep hill where truth stands,” where “all is peaceful, calm, and good; religion, divine power, and virtue—all the immutable values—reside there” (Andreasen 71).  And no matter how many layers of earth we remove from the mountain, no matter how many commemorative coins from Dort or copies of Ripa’s Veritas we heap upon it,3 the hilltop will not provide us with conclusive findings—it won’t let us take our ease.  

Yet if the Truth-on-a-hill passage is unmistakably the climax of the Third Satire, what, one wonders, remains for us in the denouement? How many times do we need to be told that the listener won’t receive the answer to “O where”? Or can we expect any further elucidations after having been teased with the discordia concors that “mysteries / Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes” (88-9)?

Finding Treasures, Treasuring Findings

As mountaineering critics kept bumping into one another, concern grew about the efficacy and expediency of such focused attention.  In “Donne’s Use of Uncertainty as a Vital Force in Satyre III,” Moore begins his discussion by objecting quite vehemently to scholars like Herbert Grierson, Clay Hunt, J. B. Leishman, and William R. Mueller, arguing that “since they concentrate on selected passages of the poem taken out of context—and completely ignore the first forty lines of the poem—they distort its overall meaning” (41).

Surely, among scholars dedicated to the detection of “central meanings,” this is a justifiable objection; and Moore claims to rectify the readings of an allegedly misguided critic like Helen Gardner, who, Moore opines, “does not fully understand the religious position that Donne is advocating” (43), by focusing not only on a few central lines, but on the poem in its entirety.  It appears that Moore heeds his own advice, since he comments—and actually supplies—most of the 110 lines of the Third Satire (namely lines 1-9, 11-32, 43-71, 74-88, and 93-110) in order to reveal Donne’s “religious position”:

Neither the intellect nor anything else can offer a sure way to Truth.  Man must use his intellect, but if he ever begins to rely confidently on its power of attaining and keeping Truth, he will have lost the uncertainty that the satire insists must be the basis of the search.  (43)

In this argument, whether it be Donne’s, the speaker’s, or merely Moore’s, theology appears to have been reduced to tautology.  If finding truth means losing uncertainty, does the speaker of the poem insist on the active pursuit of Truth (“Be busy to seek her”; “To will, implies delay, therefore now do”) through focused mental and physical exertion (“To sleep or run wrong” means “to stray”) only to keep doubt alive? Critics like Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, who sees Donne as “the first major English poet in the devotional mode whose lyrics are influenced by a distinctive Protestant poetics” (282), have suggested just that, emphasizing such elements of doubt and uncertainty by reading Donne’s poetry strictly in Pauline terms.  Yet does the speaker of the poem steer us past the “plain, simple, sullen” and “unhandsome” church of Geneva only to present us with an equally “coarse” and “unhandsome” Protestant countryside as the scene of a spiritual drama in which any “endeavours” to reach Truth are rendered futile? Or does the poem, after the vivid depiction of an arduous search on the huge hill, throw a rescuing line—something resembling Herbert’s “sunne-beam,” a “silk twist let down from heav’n”4—toward the groping hopeful who have been stirred into action to seek “the best”?

“Keep the truth which thou hast found” (Donne 89); this advice immediately follows the Truth-on-a-hill episode—and it is one of the few lines that Moore omits in his discussion.  The concept of uncertainty is certainly an important feature in Donne’s poem; yet a critic who rejects selective readings should not, perhaps, build on the reader’s uncertainty about passages that may interfere with his argument.  The poem’s “emphasis,” Moore insists, “is on the total destruction which will befall those who trust only in man’s power.  The possibility that man should trust in God or that his efforts will be supplemented by God’s grace is barely mentioned” (49).  In this case, it seems, it is the critic, rather than the poet, who “barely mentioned” such possibilities.

I am not suggesting, however, that Moore is willfully misleading, or that he is disingenuous when he concludes that the “primary effect Satire III has on its reader is to destroy whatever confidence he may have had in easy ways of finding true religion” (48).  Moore, writing in 1969, seems to continue what Roberts lamented only one year earlier:

Much of the previous criticism of Satyre III has centered attention too exclusively on the mere struggle that is involved in climbing the “huge hill” with the suggestion frequently implied that the climb in and for itself is the end and not the means, and that at best man will be rewarded in some undefined way for his heroic efforts, even though the end he seeks will ultimately elude him.  (111)

Dazzled perhaps by the rays of “mysteries,” a number of critics who have commented on the search for Truth in Donne’s Third Satire have either omitted any mention of line 89 or have read the concluding lines of the poem as expressive of a continued search.  Roberts, for example, points to line 89, only to return immediately to his discussion of truth-seeking:

In Part III of the poem Donne begins with an exhortation to keep the truth “which thou hast found,” by which he means those glimmerings and perceptions, no matter how fragmentary, warning that God’s law is above mere human law.  Just as vainglory and false or secular courage catalogued in Part I of the poem, secular or religious power is also a potential threat to those who seek truth in religion.  (114; emphasis added)

Similarly, Thomas O. Sloan, offering a discussion of the rhetorical dimensions of Donne’s poem in order to make readers more aware of its structure, argues that in the confutation (the final part of the poem’s proof or support of a position) the speaker

confirms two right ways by which true religion should be sought: 1) by actively seeking Truth, deep assurances of our own convictions, or religious faith, and 2) by keeping the Truth which we have found.  The difference between his confutation and his confirmation is the difference between the questions, Where should religion be sought? and, How should religion be sought? (21)

The argument that the advice “Keep the truth” should be read as a way “by which true religion should be sought” strikes me as rather peculiar.  Doesn’t “Keep the truth” suggest instead that the finder is cautioned against sharing such a treasure?

Apparently, “Keep,” not in keeping with arguments stressing uncertainty, is kept out of many discussions.  Strier suggests that the advice given in line 89

precisely recapitulates the central ambiguity of this section of the poem.  On one reading of the line, the aim is to keep that part or aspect of the objective truth that you may have managed to recognize (“Keepe the truth which thou hast found”); on the other reading, you are to keep what has impressed you as the truth (“Keepe the truth which thou hast found”).  The first reading asserts the primacy of truth; the second asserts the primacy of conscience—even over truth.  The poem hesitates between these views, but it is important to see that the second is a genuine historical possibility.  (305)

I would like to suggest a third reading that relies on the emphasis of the first word of the imperative: “Keep the truth which thou hast found.”  What follows after this advice, then, is not a continuation of misguided searching, but a warning against sharing:

Or will it then boot thee

To say a Philip, or a Gregory,

A Harry, or a Martin taught thee this? (95-7)

In this section of the poem, the speaker not only, as Sister Geraldine suggests, “inveighs against the deliberate shaping of one mind by another” (118), but he also cautions against the surrender of truth to religious and secular authorities that may coerce and corrupt truth, as well as the finder.  This insistence upon a defense of truth against intrusions is voiced more vehemently in the Fourth Satire:

At home in wholesome solitariness

My precious soul began, the wretchedness

Of suitors at Court to mourn, and a trance

Like his, who dreamed he saw hell, did advance

Itself on me, such as men as he saw there,

I saw at Court, and worse, and more; low fear

Becomes the guilty, not the accuser; then,

Shall I, none’s slave, of high-born, or raised men

Fear frowns? And, my mistress Truth, betray thee

To th’ huffing braggart, puffed nobility? (155-64)

In the Third Satire, however, “Truth” is not addressed.  Nor is there any causal relationship between seeking Truth on the hill and keeping the truth, once found; the crucial event of the discovery and apprehension of truth is never described.

As Scodel points out, Donne “collapses the distinction between philosophy and faith by setting both ‘true religion’ and ‘Truth’ itself as the goal of his simultaneous philosophical and religious inquirer” (498); the third and final mention of truth, “the truth which thou hast found” also collapses the distinction between inaccessible ideal (“fair religion”; “Truth”) and personal faith.  Yet the moment of epiphany has not been communicated; it falls instead into the silencing lacuna—a gap by any other name—that separates lines 88 and 89.  It is this moment of silence in an otherwise noisy performance that suggests most strongly the speaker’s conundrum: communicating that which may best be left unsaid.

While the Third Satire is neither tame nor tentative in its warnings against the dangers of idolatry, it is nonetheless troubled from its onset by an uncertainty not so much about the success of seeking and finding truth, but about the expedience of sharing knowledge about truth.  The value of verbal communication is doubted from the start, as the poem begins with a series of failed attempts at capturing the emotional state of the speaker and an opening question (“Can railing then cure these worn maladies?”) that remains unanswered.  As the rhetor makes clear, spoken words, such as the cry of “Goddess!” (27), only reveal falsehood or “mere contraries” (98).  Imploring quarreling factions to consider whether not “both sides” can “say so” is unlikely to result in peace; but it is downright impossible to arrive at certainty about the “right” religion by means of diplomacy.  Nor will sharing his faith “boot” the speaker, since this will position him either among—or, more likely, at the mercy of—authorities he clearly distrusts.

Thus, unlike the speaker of the Fourth Satire who retreats into the privacy of “wholesome solitude,” the rhetor of the Third Satire seizes the public platform to recommend silence.  Donne does not only seem “preoccupied,” as Gilman posits, with the “ambivalent distinctions between private and public places” (122), but also with the distinctions between private discovery and public display, between seeking Truth, “plain to all eyes,” and keeping truth, plainly, from all our eyes.  Donne, Partridge suggests, “argued from the position of a seeker after truth, amid bigots and schismatics, and his wavering solution was refuge in a personal faith” (43).  The concluding lines of the Third Satire, “So perish souls, which more choose men’s unjust / Power from God claimed, than God himself to trust” (109-10), emphasize such a refuge.  They also signal the speaker’s distrust of any acts of mediation, including speech, since, as Roberts suggests, “it is from God alone that man will receive the ultimate answers, not from any secular or religious institutions or persons” (114).

Sister Geraldine states that, while less “persuasive and less effective than the inspired word of the sermon,” the

satiric word, if it issues from a high-minded desire to right the devious thoughts of man, is one kind of “word,” and Donne can dare to make it broadly analogous to the “Word.”  It is not strange that the young intellectual was easily persuaded that his satirist’s role was subsidiary to that of the preacher, and that his writs might one day be esteemed “Canonicall.”  (130-01)

Yet even though the Third Satire does seem to issue from such a “desire to right the devious thoughts of man,” it is also a self-conscious performance aware of the corruptive and coercive nature of language from which the speaker shelters both immutable Truth and the moment of its discovery.  After its descriptions of both false and honest attempts at seeking Truth, a figure at once luminous and obnubilated, enshrined yet enshrouded, and before its warnings against the surrender of Truth to religious and secular authorities, the poem treasures the intimate moment of truth-finding, the nascence of a personal faith, in the silencing interstice which separates lines 88 and 89.

Coda: Heaps and Hills

With great effort—and after considerable circling—the crazy carriage has managed to cross the creaking planks that were meant to bridge the lacuna.  The planks fall; Truth, it is reported, still stands.  There is not soil enough to cover the numerous gaps of Donne’s hill; nor are there rhetorical tools enough to level the mount.  Yet such covering and levelling shall be attempted again, as new generations of readers approach Donne’s imaginary landscape with hubris, humus, and—one may hope—with humor too.  Percy Bysshe Shelley once suggested that whatever

talents a person may possess to amuse and instruct others, be they ever so inconsiderable, he is yet bound to exert them: if his attempt be ineffectual, let the punishment of an unaccomplished purpose have been sufficient; let none trouble themselves to heap the dust of oblivion upon his efforts; the pile they raise will betray his grave which might otherwise have been unknown.  (792)

Comforted by the thought that the task of the critic is not nearly as daunting as that of the truth-seeker, since the latter risks eternal damnation, the former but a damaged reputation, another mountaineer folds his map, brushes the dust off his spade, and strolls into what he hopes to be a dazzling sunset.


1.    “I stand by it still,” Sellin writes in 1991 (“Satyre III No Satire” 87).  And even though this might have served as a reminder, rather than a defense, considering the sparsity of responses to Sellin’s argument, the quick dismissal of Sellin’s evidence by Arthur F. Marotti (304) was to be expected, since questioning the date of composition would challenge Marotti’s claim that the poem is expressive of Donne’s opposition to the Elizabethan Oath of Allegiance (42).

2.    John R. Roberts, however, may have too much confidence in the solidity of American college education—to say nothing of the implied petrifaction of the canon—when he asserts that “nearly every student and critic can quote from memory lines 79-82 of Satyre III” (105).

3.    It is Gilman who suggests such parallels between Donne’s Truth and the Veritas described in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1611), parallels that the satire both invites and discourages (117-8).

4.    “Mattens”: “Teach me thy love to know; / That this new light, which now I see, / May both the work and workman show: / Then by a sunne-beam I will climbe to thee” (17-20); “The Pearl.  Matth. 13-45”: “Yet through these labyrinths, not my groveling wit, / But thy silk twist let down from heav’n to me, / Did both conduct and teach me, how by it / To climbe to thee” (37-40).

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H., et al, editors.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  5th ed.  2. vols. Norton, 1986.

Andreasen, N. J. C.  “Theme and Structure in Donne’s Satyres.”  Studies in English Literature 3, 1963, pp. 59-75.

Baumlin, James S.  “Donne’s Christian Diatribes: Persius and the Rhetorical Persona of ‘Satyre III’ and ‘Satyre V.’”  The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne.  Ed. Summers, Claude J., and Ted-Larry Pebworth.  U of Missouri P, 1986, pp. 92-105.

Brodsky, Claudia.  “Donne: The Imaging of the Logical Conceit.”  ELH 49.4 (1982).  Rpt. in Bloom, Harold, ed.  John Donne and the Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poets.  Chelsea House, 1986, pp. 51-67.

Carey, John.  John Donne: Life, Mind and Art.  Oxford UP, 1981.

Cathcart, Dwight.  Doubting Conscience: Donne and the Poetry of Moral Argument. U of Michigan P, 1975.

Donne, John.  “Satire III.”  The Complete English Poems.  Edited by A. J. Smith.  St. Martin’s, 1974.

Geraldine, Sister M.  “John Donne and the Mindes Indeavours.”  Studies in English Literature, vol. 5, no. 1, 1965, pp. 115-31.

Gilman, Ernest B.  Iconoclasm and Poetry in the English Reformation: Down Went Dagon.  U of Chicago P, 1986.

Herbert, George.  The Works of George Herbert.  Ed. F. E. Hutchinson.  Clarendon, 1941.

Hester, M. Thomas.  Kinde Pitty and Brave Scorn.  Duke UP, 1982.

—.  “John Donne’s ‘Hill of Truth.’”  English Language Notes, vol. 14, no. 2, 1976, pp. 100-5.

Larson, Deborah Aldrich.  John Donne and Twentieth-Century Criticism. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989.

Leishman, J. B.  The Monarch of Wit.  1951.  Harper Torchbook, 1966.

Lewalski, Barbara Kiefer.  Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric.  Princeton UP, 1979.

Marotti, Arthur F. John Donne, Coterie Poet.  U of Wisconsin P, 1986.

McNees, Eleanor J.  Eucharist Poetry.  Bucknell UP, 1992.

Moore, Thomas V.  “Donne’s Use of Uncertainty as a Vital Force in ‘Satyre III.’”  Modern Philology, 1969, pp. 41-49.

Partridge, A. C.  John Donne: Language and Style.  Andre Deutsch, 1978.

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Criticism.  Abrams, vol. 1, pp. 2214-32.

Roberts, John R.  “Donne’s Satyre III Reconsidered.”  College Language Association Journal, vol. 12, no. 2, 1968, pp. 105-15.

Rossetti, Christina.  “Up-Hill.”  Abrams, vol. 2, p. 1508.

Scodel, Joshua.  “The Medium Is the Message: Donne’s ‘Satire 3,’ ‘To Sir Henry Wotton’ (Sir, more than kisses), and the Ideologies of the Mean.”  Modern Philology, vol. 90, no. 4, 1993, pp. 479-511.

Sellin, Paul R.  “The Proper Dating of John Donne’s ‘Satyre III.’”  Huntington Library Quarterly 43, 1980, pp. 275-312.

—.  “Satyre III No Satire: Postulates for Group Discussion.”  John Donne Journal 10, 1991, pp. 85-89.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  Preface.  Prometheus Unbound.  Abrams, vol. 2, pp. 699-730.

Sloan, Thomas O.  “The Persona as Rhetor: An Interpretation of Donne’s ‘Satyre III.’”  Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 51, no. 1, 1965, pp. 14-27.

Smith, A. J., ed.  John Donne: The Critical Heritage.  Routledge, 1975.

Strier, Richard.  “Radical Donne: ‘Satire III.’”  ELH, vol. 60, no. 2, 1993, pp. 283-322.

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