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Vol II No. 5

John Donne's Litany

by
David K. Anderson

In the winter of 1609, stricken with painful and protracted neuropathy, John Donne was forced to endure “imprisonment in bed.” (1) It is unsurprising that Donne, for whom poetry had become a form of prayer, should in such a moment try his hand at a poetic litany. He had pressing reasons to supplicate God: debilitating pain, the possible approach of death, and a years-long struggle to raise a growing family in a state of poverty that hardly merited the qualifier “genteel.” It was at about this time that the one-time Catholic seems to have become serious in his commitment to the Church of England, and so we can imagine him sitting, in night-time quiet beside a tallow candle, turning over the leaves of Thomas Cranmer’s Great Litany, contemplating how he might both emulate and answer it in verse.

The resulting poem, simply titled “A Litany,” follows the movements of the Great Litany over the course of its 252 lines and echoes much of its phrasing. However, the many supplications it lays before God seem as far-removed from the straightforward ones laid down in the official litany as they are from the concrete problems that were besetting the poet. Consider, for example, Stanza 14. If we scrutinize the structure of Donne’s poem — a structure I will describe below — we will note that 14 not only comes at a point of transition, between

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