Christian Themes

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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 “iron heart.” Sonnet 2 heightens the same theme, as the poet, in a startlingly sensual image, asks God why he allows the devil to “ravish that’s thy right.” In the ironic final couplet, the poet fears that God will abandon those whom he loves, while the devil hates him and yet holds him firmly in his grasp. Sonnet 3 explores the grief of the sinner, who suffers for his drunkenness, thievery, lechery, and pride; the sinner prays that his earthly suffering be converted into true repentance. Sonnet 4 is once again the plea of a sinner but one who is now suffused with hope, as he trusts in Christ’s blood which “dyes red souls to white.” In sonnet 5, the poet appears regenerated, having “found new spheres, and of new lands can write.”

With sonnet 6, the poet begins to meditate on death, “my plays last scene . . . my pilgrimages last mile.” In sonnet 7, the poet envisions the last judgment, as the departed souls are summoned by the final trumpet. In sonnet 8, he sees the glorification of the faithful souls and the weeping of the false believers. His meditation on judgment is resumed in sonnet 9, where he marks the irony of people’s use of reason, which makes them alone of God’s creatures subject to divine wrath. In sonnet 10, the most famous, the poet collects and concludes his meditations on death. “Death be not proud,” he proclaims, because death is itself subject to the vicissitudes of life and even more to people’s eternal destiny. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be...

(This entire section contains 862 words.)

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no more, Death thou shalt die.”

In sonnet 11, the poet turns his gaze from human sin and death to God and to the Incarnation. In sonnet 12, he marvels that the Creator of all creatures died for humans, the most corrupt of his creations. In sonnet 13, the poet brings a picture of the crucified Christ to his soul’s mind, confident that he will find forgiveness in Christ’s passion. Sonnet 14 is the first to directly address God as Trinity, beginning with the famous supplication: “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” In language both violent and passionate, the poet implores God to break through his resistant will and earthly ties. In the paradoxical final couplet, he pleads that only imprisoned by God can he be free, and he cannot be made chaste, “except you ravish me.” Sonnet 15 is another meditation on the Trinity and the Incarnation. In sonnet 16, the poet plays on the phrasing of the “two wills” of Christ, a term of both theological and historical importance. In sonnet 17, the poet again longs for God, imploring to be shown divine love.

In sonnet 18, the poet anguishes in symbolic language over the question of which is the true Christian Church: Catholic, Lutheran, or Anglican. In the final couplet, he implies that true worship of Christ is “open to most men.” In the last sonnet, 19, the poet returns to the theme of his inconstancy, and his fear of God’s punishment. However, this fear is itself holy, and in a final irony in the last couplet, he affirms that in his inconstant life, “those are my best days, when I shake with fear.”

Christian Themes

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Donne’s religious training in the Catholic and Anglican churches, the religious controversies of his age, and his own personal faith all contribute to the intense emotionalism and erudition of the “Holy Sonnets.” Their dense reasoning at times gives them an air of brilliantly logical yet personal sermons, compacted into a few lines. Although each sonnet addresses a classic theme of Christian life, taken together they suggest a progression in the devotional life of the poet. The poet’s striving for union with God is testament to a prayerful and heartfelt faith, and is a gift of God.

The “Holy Sonnets” begin with the poet wrestling with his sinful nature and progress toward an acceptance of God’s radical otherness. In sonnets 1-3, he seems enslaved to sin and Satan. In sonnets 4-6, the poet expresses his first sense of hope. His repentance in Christ outweighs his sinfulness; his trust in God’s mercy is stronger than his fear of judgment. In the final couplet of sonnet 6, he is confident that God will impute him righteous, and he will “leave the world, the flesh, and devil.” In the following sonnets, the poet turns to contemplation of death and judgment.

In sonnet 11, he turns his gaze away from himself and toward God. In the final sequence of sonnets, he addresses God’s Trinitarian nature, the incarnation and passion of Christ, his will, and the nature of divine grace. The last two sonnets, which Donne did not necessarily intend to be the last in this series, stand apart. For example, sonnet 18 is the only sonnet addressing ecclesiastical questions. Undoubtedly reflecting Donne’s agonized conversion from Catholicism to the Established Church, the poet puzzles over the fragmentation of Christianity.

Donne wrote exquisite love poetry when young and much of the same sensual imagery is employed to express his passionate yearning for God. His sense of the divine presence is almost palpable as he implores God to “ravish” him, to batter his stubborn soul, to “like adamant draw my iron heart.” The slowness of God to answer Donne’s prayers is one of the most enduring puzzles of the “Holy Sonnets.” Commentators have pointed to the stern Calvinist influences on Donne or his modern sense of alienation. However, in the end, the sonnets accept that a person’s difficult struggle to attain God is itself an act of faith. To live fully in the warmth and embrace of God’s love awaits the poet only on his entrance into heavenly judgment.


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Sources for Further Study

Archer, Stanley. “The Archetypal Journey Motif in Donne’s Divine Poems.” In New Essays on Donne, edited by Gary A. Stringer. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur Universität Salzburg, 1977. Argues that the image of the journey as a motif runs through most of the divine poems and gives them a thematic unity that has been neglected by earlier critical analyses of Donne’s religious poetry.

Britten, Benjamin. The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Opus 35. London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1946. A musical composition set to the lyrics of nine of the “Holy Sonnets.”

Davies, Stevie. John Donne. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. A study of the entire spectrum of Donne’s poetry and his major sermons, reflecting the religious and political influences on Donne.

Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. This attractive volume in the Everyman’s Library series offers an introduction and ample textual glosses by C. A. Patrides, a noted authority on Donne. The book’s substantial bibliography lists important sources on Donne’s poetry.

Donne, John. The Divine Poems. Edited by Helen Gardner. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. Gardner’s long introduction includes a critical reading of the “Holy Sonnets” and a discussion of the dates of their composition. Her essay-length commentaries provide further help in understanding Donne’s divine poems.

Eliot, T. S. The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry. San Diego: Harvest, 1996. Eliot’s seminal 1921 essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” elaborately praised the intellectual quality of Donne’s poetry. Includes Eliot’s eleven Clark and Turnbull series lectures, with bold insights on Donne.

Flynn, Dennis. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Emphasizes the influence of the powerful Catholic families, including Donne’s own, in shaping Donne’s life and work.

Grenander, M. E. “Holy Sonnets VII and XVII: John Donne.” In Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne’s Poetry, edited by John R. Roberts. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975. A close study of two sonnets that focuses on the emotional development in the poems and its relation to their structure. Grenander’s approach offers a guide to those wishing to study other sonnets in this group.

Nutt, Joe. John Donne: The Poems (Analyzing Texts). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. An introduction to analysis of Donne’s poems, including commentary from major contemporary Donne scholars.

Peterson, Douglas L. “John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and the Anglican Doctrine of Contrition.” In Essential Articles for the Study of John Donne’s Poetry, edited by John R. Roberts. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1975. Peterson argues that the “Holy Sonnets” are a sequence that is unified by Donne’s attempt to express and realize contrition.