What are some similarities and differences in the ways John Donne and George Herbert treat religious experience in their poems?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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John Donne and George Herbert are two of the greatest religious poets in the English language. As might be expected, their religious poems reveal a number of similarities, including the following:

  • Both poets often strongly emphasize an attitude of humility toward God.  Herbert stresses humility, for instance, in such a poem as “Love III,” while Donne highlights the same attitude in many of his Holy Sonnets. Donne, however, tends to be more extreme in stressing his speakers’ sense of unworthiness in facing God; often their humility seems somewhat abject.
  • Both poets often use highly memorable and unusual imagery when discussing their relations with God.  A famous example of such imagery occurs in Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 (“Batter my heart, three-personed God”), while an equally famous example from Herbert can be seen in such a poem as “The Collar.”
  • As the title of “The Collar” suggests, Herbert often employs puns and other kinds of verbal ingenuity in his poems, and the same is true, of course, of Donne (as in the startling use of the word “ravish” in Holy Sonnet 14). The writing of both poets is often witty, clever, and unconventional, and thus it is not surprising that both have been considered members of a “metaphysical” school of poetry.

However, the religious poems of Donne and Herbert reveal various differences as well, including the following:

  • The tone of Donne’s poems tends to be darker, even somewhat desperate, when compared with the tone Herbert’s. In many of the Holy Sonnets, the speakers seem unsure about their salvation – about whether God will intervene to prevent them from suffering spiritual death.  A typical example appears in the opening lines of Holy Sonnet 1, which are addressed explicitly to God:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?

Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste . . . .

Herbert’s poems, by contrast, tend to express a strong sense of assurance about God’s love. Herbert’s speakers often seem to trust that God will indeed intervene in their lives to redeem them, and in fact such redemption is often explicitly described or presented in the poems.  Thus, in the final line of the aptly titled “Redemption,” the speaker, who has been seeking God in order to ask for mercy, suddenly finds him.  Before the speaker can even say a word, however, Christ immediately says, “‘Your suit is granted’” (14). Here as so often elsewhere, Herbert implies that God loves us, knows our needs, and provides for those needs before we can even request his help.

  • To make a broad and obviously simplistic generalization, God inspires fear and uncertainty in many of Donne’s speakers, but he inspires confidence and reassurance in many of Herbert’s speakers. Donne’s speakers are often presented as appealing for salvation in highly emotional terms (as in many of the Holy Sonnets); Herbert’s speakers are often presented as surprised and overwhelmed by God’s grace and graciousness, as at the very end of “The Collar” and also at the very end of “Love III.”
  • The tone of Herbert’s religious poems is often lighter, more joyous, more celebratory than the tone of Donne’s.  Herbert’s speakers see evidence of God’s presence practically everywhere in the world.  Donne’s speakers, on the other hand, tend to imagine a more distant God whose presence and intervention cannot at all be taken for granted.

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