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 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,...
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