What are the salient features of devotional poetry of the seventeenth century?
Among the most noticeable features of devotional poetry of the seventeenth century are meditations on sin, redemption, and salvation. In John Donne's Divine Meditations 4, the speaker wonders if he can ever be worthy of God's grace:
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
Oh make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin.
In Donne's Divine Meditations 14, the speaker beseeches God to help him rid himself of sin:
Batter my heart, three-personed 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 became a deacon, and then an Anglican priest in 1615, and though he took Holy Orders, it was only at the insistence of King James I.
George Herbert expresses similar sentiments about sin, redemption, and salvation in some of his poetry. In Easter Wings, for example, the speaker explicitly seeks a connection with God to end his sinful existence and achieve the victory of salvation:
My tender age in sorrow did beginneAnd still with sicknesses and shame.Thou didst so punish sinne,That I becameMost thinne.With theeLet me combine,And feel thy victorie:For, if I imp my wing on thine,Affliction shall advance the flight in me.
I would I had in my best partFit rooms for thee! or that my heartWere so clean asThy manger was!But I am all filth, and obscene;Yet, if thou wilt, thou canst make clean.
The devotional poets of the 17th century were men like John Donne and George Herbert. Like most poetry during this time period, these men wrote lyrics, which were often short and not necessarily narrative in nature, but full of expression, emotion, and religious conviction.
Devotional poetry (even today) is considered meditative in nature. It reflects the poet's spiritual passions and religious convictions, and attempts to persuade the reader to feel similar feelings. In the 17th century, much of this poetry was a turning away from the "church" (most likely the Catholic church) but a turning toward a closer intimacy with God. It was very personal, it was very introspective, and it often reflected on natural beauties in the world (which would point to God).
Additionally, 17th century devotional poetry can often be read as love poetry. In much of it, God is not mentioned nor specifically named. Therefore, the devotion is to an unnamed something. Purposefully ambiguous, this kind of poetry is adaptable and applicable to several situations, rather than be limited to a "religious" box.