Solemnly or frivolously, the men and women of Donne's poetry argue the question: What are we to do? Should we weep? Should we make love? They confront a central moral dilemma of the human condition: the contrary demands of the laws of God, nature, or man set against the demands of the unique situation in which the speakers find themselves.
Donne's poetry, then, is a poetry of argument—a fact that has been noted by other critics. The brilliance of Cathcart's study lies in its identification and close analysis of the particular kind of argument encountered in the poetry. Donne's speakers, wanting to be in harmony with the general order but stymied because that order is unclear and not reflected in the unique situation, need a particular instrument to reconcile the conflict. That instrument, long familiar to students of moral theology, is casuistry: a method of reasoning and a habit of thought aimed at the resolution of a doubting conscience.
By considering Donne's Songs and Sonnets in light of the methods of 16th- and 17th-century casuists, Cathcart demonstrates that, more clearly than any other collection of poems from the Renaissance, these are poems whose motive, subject, structure, setting, tone, and premises are those of moral argument. Not only does this approach relate Donne's thought to the major lines of post-Reformation and post-Tridentine casuistry, it also illuminates the special force of Donne's images and metaphors, the special tone and private ironies embedded in his poetry. Explicating his subject with consistent lucidity and wit, Cathcart has provided an essential work for the study of John Donne and his era.