What are some distinct characteristics of John Donne's "Holy Sonnets"?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Some of the traits often found in John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” are already apparent in the sonnet usually printed as the first in the collection – the sonnet beginning “Thou Hast Made Me.” Here are some traits found in this poem that are also found in many of the other “Holy Sonnets”:

  • Direct address to God (“Thou has made me” [1]).
  • A willingness to question God (“and shall thy work decay?” [1]).
  • The speaker’s sense of his own spiritual corruption and of his need for God’s intervention if the speaker hopes to achieve spiritual restoration (“Repair me now” [2]).
  • A pervasive worry that physical and spiritual death may be rapidly approaching:

. . .  for now mine end doth haste;

I run to death, and death meets me as fast . . . (2-3)

  • A sense of being trapped or caught between equally unattractive opposites (“I run to death, and death meets me as fast” [3]).
  • An intense focus on the personal self rather than on all persons in general (“all my pleasures are like yesterday” [4]).
  • A strong sense of fear (“I dare not move my dim eyes any way” [5]).
  • A tendency to personify abstractions (“Despair behind, and death before doth cast / Such terror” [6-7]).
  • A sense of both physical and spiritual weakness:

. . . my feeble flesh doth waste

By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh (8-9).

  • A fear not simply of physical death but more significantly of spiritual death (as in the just-quoted reference to “hell”).
  • A strong sense that God, through his omnipotence, has the power to save any sinner whom he chooses to save (“Only thou art above” [9]).
  • A strong sense that salvation depends utterly upon God’s grace, not on the merit of any individual, as when the speaker says that he can only look to God if God gives him “leave” (or permission) to do so (10).
  • A strong sense of the power of evil, not only within persons through sin (8) but also because of Satan (“our old subtle foe” [11]).
  • A strong sense that humans themselves cannot sustain themselves spiritually without God’s help (“not one hour myself I can sustain” [12]).
  • A tendency to use memorable and forceful imagery, as when the speaker tells God

Thy grace may wing me [that is, give me wings] to prevent his [Satan’s] art,

And thou like adamant (that is, a powerful magnet) draw mine iron heart. (13-14)

  • A sense of uncertainty about whether God will, indeed, intervene to save sinners who are completely dependent on his grace.

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