Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
It is generally agreed that the nineteen “Holy Sonnets” were written over a period of several years in John Donne’s life, the first of them as early as 1609 and some after the death of Donne’s wife in 1617. The poems fall into various groups according to the way they are read. One authority sees them as disconnected pieces; another sees four distinct groups, two of six poems each, one group of four, and one of three. Other readers find a unifying principle that makes all nineteen poems a sequence. The fact that at their first appearance they were given the title “Divine Meditations” suggests that early editors saw in them a common thread, that of a liturgical exercise, which borrows heavily from the Scriptures, especially the book of Lamentations and the Psalms.
The power and intensity of the sonnets derive from the way Donne yokes together into one brief exercise an abundance of wit and many traditions, allusions, and emotional states. The poems are at once very formal and very private as they depict the drama of a religious individual working through a formal exercise in very personal ways. The poems are a record of a soul’s quest to demonstrate and to experience faith, and the language and imagery convey a struggle to resolve deep conflicts. The struggle is marked by anguish and, at times, despair.
One of the thematic strains evident in the sonnets is the effort to subdue natural feelings by binding them with doctrinal...
(The entire section is 1734 words.)
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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.