This poem follows the Order of Mass in that it mimics the order in which the congregation asks the various divine and holy entities to pray for them: the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost, the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the angels, the patriarchs, the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs, the confessors, the virgins, and the doctors (teachers). To this litany the poet prays to be free from anxiety, temptation, vanity, misdirection, sin and, ultimately, death.
“The Litanie” was written at a dark time in Donne’s life, probably in 1613. At this time Donne had recovered from a long and serious illness, probably the “spotted fever” epidemic of that time. Stubbs suggests that Donne wrote “The Litanie” as a penance (246) because he had been near death in his illness. While recovering from this illness, Donne was still very weak, and perhaps he thought he might not live through his convalescence.
The 28 nine-line stanzas can be termed as holy “lyrics” (Warnke 86) in the sense that a lyric is a personal poem, usually about a subject pertaining specifically to the writer. Donne was fond of the Biblical book of Psalms, and in fact one-fifth of his surviving sermons take this Old Testament book as their text (Novarr 142). In many ways this poem is like the Psalms, as each stanza is a song of praise to a divine (or canonized) person or set of persons. Yet, these stanzas are not merely praise and worship; they are intellectual exercises overlaying a sincere desire to perfect the poet.
It is tempting to see these stanzas as Donne’s prayers, though it is always tricky to identify the poetic persona with the poet himself. “The Litanie” betrays some of Donne’s Catholic leanings (he came from a Catholic family but chose to advance his career in the Anglican faith) in that the form adheres mostly to the Catholic Mass, although it also can be interpreted as an Anglican devotion. He shared this poem with other literary men of his time, and some of its ironies seem to be intended for an audience, yet this poem may well be primarily a personal poem, written sincerely on his recovery from his deathbed.
The stanzas are tetrameter, with a trimeter insertion in the sixth line. They rhyme ababcdcdd, a regular but decidedly solemn scheme, which draws far more attention to the subject matter than to the meter or poetic devices. It could easily be sung like many medieval litanies, but it just as easily lends itself to rereading and prayerful study. Its short lines and frequent proper nouns, around which each stanza focuses, encourage contemplative thought. The lines are generally end-stopped, but not ruthlessly (see especially lines 8 and 9 of each stanza, which often express one thought).
The poet calls to each entity descriptively, in the manner of praise, but without turning off his mind. When he addresses the Trinity as “O Blessed glorious Trinity,/Bones to Philosophy/but milke to faithe,” the reader wonders: How deeply does he doubt the Trinity as such? The concept of the Trinity, one God in three divine Persons, challenges philosophical logic but is a central concept of Christian faith, providing a paradox that appeals to Donne’s poetic mind. Rather than reject it, he finds it an apt metaphor for the divine attributes of power, love, and knowledge (Father, Son, and Spirit).
In the litany the poet appeals, in most stanzas, to the entities’ characteristic qualities in order to draw away from him the errors of his humanity. His stanza on The Virgin Mary takes a less than conventional stance on the mother of God. Rather than ask her to pray for him, he addresses the divine in thanks for her prayers and for her “Whose wombe was a strange heav’n for there/God cloath’d himself, and grew” (39-40). Addressing the different figures in the Christian faith of his time is a standard method of religious meditation used in many faiths today.
Perhaps even more than other Christian religious poets such as Hopkins (Roston 157), Donne portrays his character as a curious combination of conscious flaws and arrogance. The poet’s flaws are on display here, but his arrogance cannot be entirely hidden by it, and he demonstrates his wit even as he struggles with humility. Donne was not so far removed from medieval thought and practice when it came to religion, and like many a medieval contemplative, Donne focuses on the sinfulness of humanity even though most of his attention is on his own faults. The paradox in many people is that the same person who is afraid of his own lack of worth is also proud of his good qualities. Donne cannot resist little intellectual flourishes, such as in the lines “Temptations martyr us alive; a man/Is to himself a Diocletian” (98-99), yet in stanza 21, he prays, “When we are moved to seem religious/Only to vent wit ; Lord, deliver us.” (Diocletian was a Roman emperor who persecuted Christians.)
The critic Murray Roston argues that the tension in the poet’s arrogance and humility arises because Donne made this poem something of a religious exercise rather than a personally sincere devotion (157). The fact that Donne takes the general and public format of the liturgy (litany) as his pattern makes the poem far less personal than his other religious lyrics, such as the best of his Holy Sonnets.
Donne’s arrogance or, if it is not arrogance, his choice not to abandon his intellectual fancies as he prays, shows the uniting of logic and intellectual rigor with his faith. This is perhaps the most significant revelation of his personality. Donne, the learned, brilliant man, would not let go of his rapidly associative mind when praying or writing poems of faith. He needs to see, think about, and understand the paradoxes involved in embracing both reason and faith, just as he works to understand the Trinity as both three and one, hoping to reconcile faith and reason in himself and in his reader. His stanza on the Patriarchs reveals this point well: “Let not my minde be blinder by more light/Nor by Faith, by Reason added, lose her sight” (62-63).