How does John Donne characterize God in his poetry?

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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John Donne's poetry evolved over his lifetime from witty and cynical to profoundly religious, and also reflected his conversion from the Roman Catholicism into which he was born to Anglicanism, and his eventual ordination as an Anglican priest in 1615.

Central to Donne's notion of God is his sense of himself as a sinner, incapable of separating himself from sin by his own will, but instead requiring an act of God known by Calvinist theologians as irresistible (or efficacious) grace: the position that man's free will can ultimately not resist God's determination to save the elect. That position is expressed in Donne's Holy Sonnet:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Donne often portrays divine grace as a sort of struggle in which corrupted human will fights against God and the promise of salvation while simultaneously longing for them. In many of his religious poems, God the Father evokes such metaphors of struggle, while Jesus is often associated with more benign emotions of peace, mercy, and safety, as in "A Hymn to God the Father":
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
                And, having done that, thou hast done;
                        I fear no more.
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