John Donne, foremost of the English metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, wrote some of the most famous love poetry and religious poetry in the English language. Born in 1572 to an established Roman Catholic family, whose ancestors included the martyr Sir Thomas More, Donne as a young adult converted to Anglicanism. He studied law and served in public life before becoming an Anglican priest in 1615, eventually becoming the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, although always struggling to support his wife, Anne More, and their twelve children. His sermons and love poems are still widely read, but he is most known for his Meditation 17 (“No Man Is an Island,” from which Ernest Hemingway took the title for his 1941 novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls) and for his nineteen devout and emotional “Holy Sonnets,” composed from about 1607 to 1619 and published posthumously.
Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” are in the rough form of a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet, consisting of fourteen lines of verse (an octave followed by a sestet) in iambic pentameter (with an occasional trochee for emphasis). The rhyme scheme is mostly abbaabba cddcee. In Donne’s hands, this gives great emphasis to the concluding couplet, which Donne masterfully exploits for an arresting or ironic resolution of the preceding verses.
Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” are best understood not individually but as a group. In isolation, they can present a misleading conception of Donne’s faith; together they reveal the pattern of Donne’s devotion. Although there is no facile resolution to Donne’s restless yearnings, the drama of his belief emerges clearly. The following analysis summarizes each individual sonnet in the sequence in which they are conventionally numbered, but with an eye to their collective pattern. (Chronological and textual variations exist in different editions of the “Holy Sonnets.”)
In sonnet 1, the poet bemoans the tendency of his “feeble flesh” toward pleasure and sin. In the final couplet, he prays for God’s grace to overcome these temptations and to draw his...
(The entire section is 862 words.)