John Donne’s religious poetry is collectively known as the Divine Poems; among these, the largest group is the nineteen Holy Sonnets. Donne began writing his love poetry in the 1590s, while still single, and did not turn to religious poetry until 1609, eight years after he had married Anne More, which resulted in his banishment from the royal court. During this time he had begun to renounce his Roman Catholic faith but had not yet converted to the Church of England, which he did in 1615. He became a minister two years later. The dramatic character of the Holy Sonnets suggests that Donne probably read them aloud to his friends, enhancing their argumentative tone, years before he began circulating them in manuscript form. Although not necessarily biographical in nature, the sonnets do reflect Donne’s meditation on his religious convictions and address the themes of divine judgment, divine love, and humble penance. However, just as the persona of Donne’s love poems speaks with passion, wit, and tenderness in seducing or praising his beloved, so the speaker in these sonnets turns to God in a very personal way, with a love passionate, forceful, and assertive yet fearful, too. Although the sonnets are predominantly Petrarchan, consisting of two quatrains and a sestet, this form is often modified by an inclusion of a Shakespearean couplet or other variation in structure or rhyme. Donne probably wrote all but two of the Holy Sonnets between 1609 and 1611. Dating Sonnets 18 and 19 is more difficult because they were not discovered until the nineteenth century. Along with the love poems, the first seventeen Holy Sonnets were published in the collection Love Songs and Sonnets in 1633, a few years after Donne’s death.
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