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 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...
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