Donne’s Holy Sonnets were probably read very little during his lifetime, in part because of the sometimes scandalous manner in which he referred to God. In reading the sonnets, one frequently hears echoes of Donne’s most passionate love poetry. Some critics have said that, had the Holy Sonnets been circulated, they would have constituted a black mark on his reputation as an earnest and godly preacher. However, it is this very quality that keeps Donne’s devotional poetry alive in the public imagination today. The Holy Sonnets offer a unique voice, thrilling readers as they transgress the decorous bounds of devotion.
Bracketing the shocking treatment of God and sin in the Holy Sonnets, later generations of critics such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope faulted Donne’s poetry for the lack of regularity in its rhythm and the sometimes contorted language of its conceits. Dryden first used the term “metaphysical” to criticize Donne’s “excessive use of philosophy,” and Samuel Johnson used it to describe poets who wrote to “show their learning.” Johnson also criticized Donne for what became known as the “metaphysical conceit” in which (said Johnson) “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” As a result, by the eighteenth century, John Donne as a poet was forgotten. It was not until the twentieth century that John Donne was resurrected as one of the greatest of English poets. This was in large part due to T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), which praised that which Dryden and Johnson condemned. Eliot argued that Donne’s poetry possesses a capacity to synthesize emotional and intellectual experience so that the reader can “feel...thought as immediately as the odor of a rose.” Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, critics have studied Donne to understand the tension, paradox, and ambiguity in his poetry. In addition, scholars are often concerned with the religious ideologies contained in the Holy Sonnets, their meditative structure, and the extent to which they speak of the biography of the man John Donne.