Although each of John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” is by definition a unique and distinctive poem, the “Holy Sonnets” as a group nevertheless often share common traits. Among these traits are the following:
- All the poems are sonnets with the conventional 14 lines and with a division between the first eight lines (the octave) and the last six lines (the sestet). The octave rhymes in the manner associated with the Italian poet Petrarch: abbaabba. The sestet closes with a couplet. Lines 9-12 can vary in rhyme patterns. The sonnets' lines typically consist of ten syllables with a basic iambic pattern (in which the even syllables are emphasized), although Donne plays wonderful variations on this basic scheme. Other formal elements frequently consist of puns, paradoxes, similes, metaphors, alliteration, assonance, etc. – in other words, the full arsenal of techniques that make for effective poetry. Consider, for instance, the opening lines of sonnet 14:
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend . . .
Here Donne emphasizes strong and heavily accented verbs; he invokes a standard Christian paradox (somehow God is “three personed”); he addresses God directly, thus giving the poem powerful dramatic force; the first syllable of the first word is strongly stressed; the list of verbs in the second line consists of forcefully accented monosyllables, and so on.
- The moods of the “Holy Sonnets” are often dark, bleak, despairing, pleading, and dramatic, although the poem beginning “Death, be not proud” is a memorable exception to these general rules. The speaker of the poems is usually fully aware of his own sins, fully willing to confess them, and fully cognizant of his utter dependence on God’s grace.
- Sin, death (both physical and spiritual), and a yearning for salvation are all common themes in these poems. The speaker frequently seeks God’s grace, asks God to transform him, seeks to learn repentence, yearns for God’s mercy, wonders at God’s glory, and in general does not take his salvation by any means for granted.
- The imagery is often striking, even stunning, and highly memorable. Consider such examples as the following: “black sin hath betrayed [me] to endless night” (5.3); “Pour new seas in mine eyes” (5.7); “thou hadst sealed my pardon with thy blood” (7.14); “lecherous goats” and “serpents envious” (9.3); “Spit in my face ye Jews” (11.1); “Blood fills his frowns” (13.6); “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me” (14.3); “A holy thirsty dropsy” (17.8); and so on.
- The situations of the poems often depict the speaker in spiritual torment and totally at the mercy of God.