John Donne's Holy Sonnets Questions and Answers
by John Donne

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What is the paraphrasable meaning of sonnet 17 from John Donne's Holy Sonnets?

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Donne's 17th "Holy Sonnet" can be paraphased to determine its obvious "meaning," but it can also be analyzed to explore its effectiveness as a poem. The poem was almost certainly written in response to the death of Donne's own wife, who passed away at age 33 after having just given birth to their twelfth child.

Donne opens the poem by saying that his wife ("she whom I loved")

hath paid her last debt

To Nature" (1-2)

In other words she has died, and although he speaks of his affection for her in the past tense ("loved"), the poem's very existence implies his continuing love for her. She has "paid her last debt / To Nature" (a standard phrase for dying, suggesting that we all live on borrowed time).

She can no longer do herself nor him any earthly "good" (2), since her spirit has been taken up into heaven prematurely and unexpectedly (3). Therefore, the speaker vows to focus his mind entirely on "heavenly things" (4), including his wife but including much else. Her death has reminded him of...

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