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Setting and Character

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A sense of place does not seem significant to the Holy Sonnets, but each does invoke a particular moment of time that is important to the speaker. These moments are related to the state of the speaker’s soul and cause him to speak, addressing a particular audience, who is usually God but is sometimes his soul, Christ, Death, or angels. As a result, the Holy Sonnets have a distinctly dramatic tone between speaker and audience, although the problems of the speaker are seldom resolved in the course of the poem. He frequently expresses his ardor for God through metaphors of sexual passion, demanding a relief attained only through physical pain that will purify him of his sins. In Sonnet 1, for example, the speaker opens by asking “Thou,” who is God, to “repair [him] now” for he “run[s] to death” and feels “terror” because of his sins. Only when he looks upon God, continues the speaker, can he “rise again,” a metaphor of sexual desire as well as redemption. Sonnet 5 uses images and figures of speech to create a natural world with an “endless night,” “new lands,” and “new seas,” all functioning as ways to show contrition, and the speaker concludes his address with an imperative that commands more than asks God to “burn” him in order to “heal” him, thus evoking an image of fire that paradoxically connotes purification as well as lust. The speaker in Donne’s Holy Sonnets is a man who sometimes orders, sometimes pleads with, and other times questions God or Death. He considers himself a sinner in constant battle with a foe that is the Devil, needing God’s grace to win this fight and become, in effect, freed of the world and the flesh, cleansed for an eternal life after death.

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