Marine Transgressions

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Early Modern Jonahs: John Donne, Thomas Dekker, and the Paradoxes of Submersion

It is a commonplace in early modern writing about the lives of mariners that the constant threat of submersion suspends those who travel at sea in a condition of premature death. In literary representations of maritime struggle, compromised rites of baptism and exorcism are used to shape anticipated and endured encounters with saltwater and its depths. When writers of imaginative literature turn their hand to write in a devotional vein, commonplace liturgical metaphors seem particularly charged and fluid, and in this paper, I analyse the language and imagery of the petitionary prayers authored by the seventeenth-century pamphleteer Thomas Dekker, and three works by the poet, preacher and satirist, John Donne. Donne’s paired poems ‘The Storme’ and ‘The Calme’ were written during 1597 and respond to the challenging physical and spiritual conditions of the Islands Expedition; world, waters, and the displacement of the mariners from their home soil, conspire to fashion the temporary community as inhabitants of a sickened prison in the author’s mind. Donne, who went on from his military career into the church, perhaps retained the memory of his voyaging when he came to write his defence of suicide, Biathanatos (composed 1608), which takes an interest in the biblical figure of Jonah and his wish for death at sea. Published the same year, Dekker’s prayer book, Foure Birds of Noah’s Ark (1608), represents a temporary break from Dekker’s own efforts as a satirist, and demonstrates the importance attached to the ability of seafaring men to find the right words to confess their sins and to pray that their labours are not forsaken. In his ‘Prayer for a Mariner going to Sea’, for example, Dekker imagines the figure of the crucified Christ as a swimmer, activating longstanding homologous connections between blood and the saline waters of the deep. The prayer also evokes the imagery of the Baptismal rites, and specifically that of the ‘Red Sea Prayer’, found in the Book of Common Prayer, as if to ward off the idea that submersion in water could only be associated only with transgression; it is on this paradox that the paper ultimately focuses.
Period7 Jun 2018
Event typeConference
LocationBristol, United KingdomShow on map