Holy Sonnets by John Donne Themes

Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

John Donne, foremost of the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, wrote some of the most famous love poetry and religious poetry in the English language. Born in 1572 to an established Roman Catholic family, whose ancestors included the martyr Sir Thomas More, Donne as a young adult converted to Anglicanism. He studied law and served in public life before becoming an Anglican priest in 1615, eventually becoming the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, although always struggling to support his wife, Anne More, and their twelve children. His sermons and love poems are still widely read, but he is most known for his Meditation 17 (“No Man Is an Island,” from which Ernest Hemingway took the title for his 1941 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls) and for his nineteen devout and emotional “Holy Sonnets,” composed from about 1607 to 1619 and published posthumously.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” are in the rough form of a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines of verse (an octave followed by a sestet) in iambic pentameter (with an occasional trochee for emphasis). The rhyme scheme is mostly abbaabba cddcee. In Donne’s hands, this gives great emphasis to the concluding couplet, which Donne masterfully exploits for an arresting or ironic resolution of the preceding verses.

Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” are best understood not individually but as a group. In isolation, they can present a misleading conception of Donne’s faith; together they reveal the pattern of Donne’s devotion. Although there is no facile resolution to Donne’s restless yearnings, the drama of his belief emerges clearly. The following analysis summarizes each individual sonnet in the sequence in which they are conventionally numbered, but with an eye to their collective pattern. (Chronological and textual variations exist in different editions of the “Holy Sonnets.”)

In sonnet 1, the poet bemoans the tendency of his “feeble flesh” toward pleasure and sin. In the final couplet, he prays for God’s grace to overcome these temptations and to draw his...

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Holy Sonnets Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Donne’s religious training in the Catholic and Anglican churches, the religious controversies of his age, and his own personal faith all contribute to the intense emotionalism and erudition of the “Holy Sonnets.” Their dense reasoning at times gives them an air of brilliantly logical yet personal sermons, compacted into a few lines. Although each sonnet addresses a classic theme of Christian life, taken together they suggest a progression in the devotional life of the poet. The poet’s striving for union with God is testament to a prayerful and heartfelt faith, and is a gift of God.

The “Holy Sonnets” begin with the poet wrestling with his sinful nature and progress toward an acceptance of God’s radical otherness. In sonnets 1-3, he seems enslaved to sin and Satan. In sonnets 4-6, the poet expresses his first sense of hope. His repentance in Christ outweighs his sinfulness; his trust in God’s mercy is stronger than his fear of judgment. In the final couplet of sonnet 6, he is confident that God will impute him righteous, and he will “leave the world, the flesh, and devil.” In the following sonnets, the poet turns to contemplation of death and judgment.

In sonnet 11, he turns his gaze away from himself and toward God. In the final sequence of sonnets, he addresses God’s Trinitarian nature, the incarnation and passion of Christ, his will, and the nature of divine grace. The last two sonnets, which Donne did not necessarily...

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Holy Sonnets Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Archer, Stanley. “The Archetypal Journey Motif in Donne’s Divine Poems.” In New Essays on Donne, edited by Gary A. Stringer. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur Universität Salzburg, 1977. Argues that the image of the journey as a motif runs through most of the divine poems and gives them a thematic unity that has been neglected by earlier critical analyses of Donne’s religious poetry.

Britten, Benjamin. The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Opus 35. London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1946. A musical composition set to the lyrics of nine of the “Holy Sonnets.”

Davies, Stevie. John Donne. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. A study of the entire spectrum of Donne’s poetry and his major sermons, reflecting the religious and political influences on Donne.

Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. This attractive volume in the Everyman’s Library series offers an introduction and ample textual glosses by C. A. Patrides, a noted authority on Donne. The book’s substantial bibliography lists important sources on Donne’s poetry.

Donne, John. The Divine Poems. Edited by Helen Gardner. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. Gardner’s long...

(The entire section is 449 words.)