John Donne's Holy Sonnets

by John Donne

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1734

It is generally agreed that the nineteen “Holy Sonnets” were written over a period of several years in John Donne’s life, the first of them as early as 1609 and some after the death of Donne’s wife in 1617. The poems fall into various groups according to the way they are read. One authority sees them as disconnected pieces; another sees four distinct groups, two of six poems each, one group of four, and one of three. Other readers find a unifying principle that makes all nineteen poems a sequence. The fact that at their first appearance they were given the title “Divine Meditations” suggests that early editors saw in them a common thread, that of a liturgical exercise, which borrows heavily from the Scriptures, especially the book of Lamentations and the Psalms.

The power and intensity of the sonnets derive from the way Donne yokes together into one brief exercise an abundance of wit and many traditions, allusions, and emotional states. The poems are at once very formal and very private as they depict the drama of a religious individual working through a formal exercise in very personal ways. The poems are a record of a soul’s quest to demonstrate and to experience faith, and the language and imagery convey a struggle to resolve deep conflicts. The struggle is marked by anguish and, at times, despair.

One of the thematic strains evident in the sonnets is the effort to subdue natural feelings by binding them with doctrinal imperatives and to place reason and wit at the service of religious faith. By nature irreverent, Donne persistently views the sacred through profane eyes and the profane through the eyes of a devout Christian. As a result, the sonnets have the unpredictability and individuality that is characteristic of Donne’s secular poetry. Donne is undaunted by the sanctity of his religious feelings and the holiness of his enterprise. Christ is shown to be jealous, God is called upon to “ravish” the supplicant poet, and Christ’s “Spouse” is most pleasing and true when embraced and “open to most men.”

This mingling of the sacred and profane is strikingly evident in the poetic form Donne chose to achieve his artistic and emotional aims, the sonnet, for that form represents the interplay of individual expression and formal restrictions. He says in one of the sonnets, “I am a little world made cunningly/ Of Elements . . .” and he shapes his thoughts and emotions according to the demands of the sonnet form. Although the above line reflects the notion that humans are microcosms and that God made humans in his image, it also shows Donne’s awareness of the relation of his art to his religion. To become a fully realized Christian, he must, as it were, become a fully realized sonnet.

To get to that point, Donne chose a structure that divides into distinct parts. The first eight lines of the sonnet, the octave, are patterned after the Italian sonnet, which rhymes abbaabba. The final six lines divide into four lines that rhyme cddc or cdcd and are followed by a concluding couplet. This structure allows for a dramatic shift in tone and argument as the poet passes from the octave to the sestet and for a strong closure of two lines. Donne’s image of the “little world” aptly describes the nature of the sonnet wrought by a mind struggling with fear and doubt, for the sonnet “contains” in two ways: It holds the poet’s thoughts and feelings and holds them in by giving them form. Each sonnet is held together by the tension between...

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the poet’s impulse to overflow the boundaries of his form, which symbolizes doctrinal restrictions, and the need to conform to the demands of the sonnet.

The impulse to go beyond what is permitted or wise is evident in the first sonnet of the sequence, in which the poet exclaims that he runs toward Death. The sonnet sustains the image of the Christian soul trying to outrun Despair. The poem’s tension derives in part from conflicting images. On the one hand, the individual runs, yet he “dare not move.” He is tempted by the devil and looks to God for rescue. He is pulled toward hell by his sinful nature and by the weight of his past sins, yet he is drawn toward heaven by his desire for redemption. He is active in sin yet passive in his relation to God, his heart of iron attracted to God’s magnetic presence. The symbolic nature of the sonnet contributes to the tension as well, representing the poet in the act of creating—seeking—though his redemption requires only that he be drawn to God like iron to a magnet.

Contrary states at war within the Christian’s soul find abundant expression throughout the sonnets. While the poet is helpless and dependent on God’s mercy for redemption, he has long been active in the life of sin that made him unworthy. The poet’s anguish is in no little part the result of the dilemma he expresses in the second sonnet: He is pursued by the Satan who hates him, and he fears he is rejected by the God who loves him.

The dilemma extends to the nature of his own sins, as the third sonnet shows. Whereas drunkards, thieves, and lechers can remember their past joys and thereby gain relief in their future punishment, he has no such relief, for his profane love was itself filled with grief and therefore was at once the effect of sin and its cause. In the next sonnet, the poet’s dilemma is that of the thief who wishes to be freed from prison, yet, because he is under a sentence of execution, wishes to remain imprisoned. Rescue from these dilemmas is possible through repentance, but that may not be enough or it may be out of reach, for, he asks, who can help him begin? In sonnet 8, he pleads to be taught how to repent. Time and again he finds himself at God’s mercy, for he can do little more than pray and hope, ever conscious that sin has betrayed both his body and his soul.

The poet’s sense of hopelessness is lightened somewhat by the mood of the most famous of the “Holy Sonnets,” which begins, “Death be not proud. . . .” The poet’s fear and doubt are momentarily suspended as he contemplates the awful image of Death reduced to a short sleep, after which he shall wake eternally and find that Death itself has died. This positive mood reappears in sonnet 17, where the poet seems assured of ultimate redemption, for God not only woos the poet’s soul and offers all his Love but even fears the poet will give his love to saints and angels or that the seductions of Satan and this world will drive him out. This more optimistic mood is rare, however. The dominant note of the sonnets is fear and trembling, born of the poet’s full and painful awareness of his own sinfulness, which causes him to doubt that his soul will ever attain heaven.

At times, the poet’s self-loathing is so intense that the imagery becomes violent, as in sonnet 11: “Spit in my face you Jewes, and pierce my side,/ . . . crucifie mee,/ For I have sinn’d, and sinn’d.” The repetition of “and sinn’d” reinforces the poet’s sense of being damned, separated from God, and unworthy of God’s grace. In sonnet 14, images of violence take on sexual overtones as well: Only in being ravished will the poet become chaste. The entire sequence of sonnets ends, fittingly, with a sonnet that begins with the poet confessing that contrary mental states meet in him; he alternately suffers cold faithlessness, hot remorse, and fits of devout faith. His best days are those in which he shakes with fear, as with a fever.

While the Christian soul is expressing his sense of unworthiness and depicting the nature of his dilemma, another conflict is taking place between the poet’s faith and reason. Sonnet 9 suggests that reason is partly to blame for the poet’s predicament, for it seems to make his sins worse in the eyes of God. Why, he asks, is he punished for sins that result from the use of reason, which God gave man and which sets man above animals? Sonnet 14 answers this question: Human reason is God’s viceroy; as such, it should protect man against sin, but it is the slave to sin and proves weak and faithless. Reason and its companions, wit and logic, cannot penetrate God’s mysteries, yet reason’s very nature, at least in Donne, is to question and probe.

The “Holy Sonnets” represent not only the poet’s sense of his unworthiness and the uncertain nature of his redemption but his attempt to mitigate his sins and demonstrate the earnestness and the sincerity of his faith. His demonstration takes many forms, not the least of which is to confess his sins and to offer his contrition. At the same time, the sonnet offers God further proof of the poet’s earnestness. Those elements that unsettle the poet’s little world include the logic that subverts logic and brings the sonnet and the poet to the paradox that reason can only accept, not unravel. Faith, not reason, will get the poet to heaven, and faith makes reason not only useless but ridiculous.

The best way to demonstrate the point, Donne seems to be saying, is to subvert reason by reasoning oneself into a paradox. The poet does so repeatedly, ending sonnet after sonnet at the point where he has reasoned himself into a logical knot: Satan hates him but does not want to lose him; his sins have caused grief, yet he is punished for them; Christ’s red blood cleanses his soul and makes it white; Death shall die; he will never be chaste until God ravishes him; and his best days are those filled with fearful trembling. Ironically, reason is the principal instrument of his damnation and the principal cause of his dilemma, yet it is also the principal instrument of his salvation. It resolves the poet’s moral dilemma by defeating itself, opening the way for faith to make the leap and for God’s grace to shine down on him.


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Last Updated on June 22, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 283

John Donne’s religious poetry is collectively known as the Divine Poems; among these, the largest group is the nineteen Holy Sonnets. Donne began writing his love poetry in the 1590s, while still single, and did not turn to religious poetry until 1609, eight years after he had married Anne More, which resulted in his banishment from the royal court. During this time he had begun to renounce his Roman Catholic faith but had not yet converted to the Church of England, which he did in 1615. He became a minister two years later. The dramatic character of the Holy Sonnets suggests that Donne probably read them aloud to his friends, enhancing their argumentative tone, years before he began circulating them in manuscript form. Although not necessarily biographical in nature, the sonnets do reflect Donne’s meditation on his religious convictions and address the themes of divine judgment, divine love, and humble penance. However, just as the persona of Donne’s love poems speaks with passion, wit, and tenderness in seducing or praising his beloved, so the speaker in these sonnets turns to God in a very personal way, with a love passionate, forceful, and assertive yet fearful, too. Although the sonnets are predominantly Petrarchan, consisting of two quatrains and a sestet, this form is often modified by an inclusion of a Shakespearean couplet or other variation in structure or rhyme. Donne probably wrote all but two of the Holy Sonnets between 1609 and 1611. Dating Sonnets 18 and 19 is more difficult because they were not discovered until the nineteenth century. Along with the love poems, the first seventeen Holy Sonnets were published in the collection Love Songs and Sonnets in 1633, a few years after Donne’s death.