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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The poem usually presented as the first of the Holy Sonnets -- the poem beginning "Thou hast made me" -- exemplifies many of the thematic and stylistic traits of the sequence as a whole. Such traits include the following:

* Direct, dramatic address to God ("Thou hast made me" [1]).

* A frequent tendency to ask questions and even to question God directly ("and shall thy work decay?" [1]).

* A tendency to beg God for help ("Repair me now" [2]).

* A pervasive awareness of the threat of death ("for now mine end doth haste" [2]).

* A tendency to emphasize paired opposites or paradoxes, as well as a tendency to use personfication ("I run to death, and death meets me as fast" [3]).

* A sense of gloom and even depression ("all my pleasures are like yesterday" [4]).

* A pervasive sense of fear ("I dare not move my dim eyes any way" [5]).

* A tendency to use balanced phrasing ("Despair behind, and death before" [6]).

* A tendency to emphasize the corruption of the body ("my feeble flesh doth waste" [7]).

* A strong personal conviction, by the poems' speakers, of their own spiritual corruption (as in the referenece to "sin" [8]).

* A frequent sense that God is the only answer to the speaker's sinfulness ("Only thou art above" [9]).

* A strong sense that only God can even initiate the process of salvation (as in the reference to God's "leave," or permission [10]).

* A tendency to emphasize sudden and unpredictable shifts, as in these lines:

. . .  I rise again;

But our old subtle foe [Satan] so tempteth me

That not one hour myself I can sustain. (10-12)

* A tendency to use puns, as in line 12 (I cannot sustain myself; I cannot sustain my Self, my being).

* A repeated emphasis on God's freely given "grace" (13), which cannot be earned or taken for granted.

* A repeated emphasis on the great and irresistible power of God, who is able to draw a sinner to him as a magnet draws a piece of iron (14).

Donne employs many of these traits repeatedly in the Holy Sonnets, but he does so in ways that rarely seem merely repetitive or stale.