Views on Colonialism in Donne's Elegy XIX and Wroth's Sonnet 22
In the midst of Lady Mary Wroth's sonnet cycle, a sudden reference to the colonialist discoveries of dark skinned natives appears. Bringing to mind her participation in Jonson's "Masque of Blackness," she depicts dark-skinned Indians worshipping the sun as their god. In the midst of her ruminations on love and her preoccupations with her unfaithful lover, Amphilanthus, this sonnet touches on issues close to her personal life as well as some of the preoccupations of her era on the nature of colonialism. In particular the role of religion in England's colonialist efforts was of prime importance. An examination of John Donne's Elegy XIX, "To His Mistris Going to Bed" may give some insight into how Wroth's Sonnet 22, "Like to the Indians Scorched with the Sun" deals with the controversies surrounding imperialism.
Both authors had close personal ties to England's colonialist efforts in the New World. Lady Mary Wroth's uncle, Sir Philip Sydney, was an investor in Raleigh's attempted colony at Roanoke. This venture ultimately failed, however, and would later be followed under King James with the Virginia Company.
John Donne was closely tied with the efforts following Raleigh's failed attempt. In 1608, after two failed attempts at securing a secretarial post, first in London and then in Ireland, "the report circulated that he sought to be made secretary of the colony, a position given instead to his friend William Strachey" (Johnson 127). If he had been awarded the position, he would have sailed with the new governor, Sir Thomas Gates. This was the ship that was shipwrecked in Bermuda and that winter the Jamestown colony underwent mass starvation. Only 60 of the original 214 settlers survived (www.apva.org).
In March of 1622, relations with the Algonquin Indians finally dissolved completely and they attacked the colony. Over 300 settlers were killed, however the main settlement was spared due to the last minute warning delivered by the Indians who had been converted by the missionary efforts of the colonists (www.apva.org). In May of this same year, Donne was made an honorary member of the Virginia Company. However, he was not "by either gift or subscription, an adventurer or shareholder" (Johnson 130-131).
Of critical importance to understanding the depth of Donne's preoccupation with this issue of colonialism is the sermon he delivered on November 13, 1622 before the Virginia Company. It was immediately published as "A Sermon vpon the VIII. Verse of the I. Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles" (Johnson 135). The sermon itself is often considered the "first missionary sermon ever preached in England" (Johnson 128). Donne admonishes the investors of the Virginia Company for not placing their duties as missionaries above, or even equal to, their economic interests. "O, if you would be as ready to hearken at the return...