John Donne's Holy Sonnets Analysis

John Donne

Sonnet 10: Death, Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

A mixture of the Petrarchan and Elizabethan forms, Sonnet 10 is structured with an abba, abba, cddc, ee rhyme scheme. Each of the first two quatrains consists of a single sentence that apostrophizes Death, and the concluding sestet shapes itself as a four-line question followed by a succinct though paradoxical answer in the concluding couplet to the central issue of the poem: Death should not be proud, because it, like human beings, “shalt die.” The poem is argumentative in tone, with the speaker attempting to humble Death partly in an effort to quell his own fears that he will physically die but partly to assert his spiritual faith that a greater eternal life makes a physical death ultimately insignificant. Ironically, in his argument that Death should not be proud, the speaker himself becomes rather arrogant, for in putting Death “in its place” he, the speaker, feels stronger and less fearful.

The first quatrain introduces the central metaphor of personifying Death as “mighty and dreadful” only to dismiss these qualities with a quick “for thou art not so” and the condescending adjective “poor,” as if Death simply does not understand how really unimportant it is in the grand scheme of God’s plans. The rhyme of “thee” and “me” establishes...

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Sonnet 11: Spit in My Face

Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn’d, and sinne’, and only He,
Who could do no iniquity, hath died.
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety.
They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify Him daily, being now glorified.
O let me then His strange love still admire;
Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment;
And Jacob came cloth’d in vile harsh attire,
But to supplant, and with gainful intent;
God cloth’d Himself in vile man’s flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

The speaker opens the first quatrain of this poem with a meditation on the suffering of Christ by addressing “you Jews,” whom he imagines as responsible for the crucifixion, following the misunderstanding current in the seventeenth century. He is so conscious of his own sins that he tells the Jews to do to him what they did to Christ: “Spit in my face...pierce my side, / Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me.” The six vivid verbs gain in intensity, following the stages of Christ’s suffering, and we can feel the speaker’s meditative identification with the scene on Calvary. Sibilants predominate, dragging out the effect of the experience, and the speaker’s pain is great for he realizes that he is guilty of wrongdoing and, therefore, deserves such treatment, while Christ “Who could do no iniquity, hath died.” The colon that concludes the quatrain announces the shift in tone in what follows, indicated by “but,” for the speaker now broods as he explores the theological significance of the scene of the crucifixion. His own death, much less his suffering, cannot atone for his sins, which surpass “the Jews’ impiety,” for although they killed “once an inglorious man,” the speaker crucifies Christ “daily, being now glorified.” His point is that the Jews did not know they were murdering the Son of God, but the speaker...

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Sonnet 14: Batter My Heart

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,

Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

In this sonnet, the speaker addresses God in a violent tone carefully contained within a blend of the Petrarchan and Elizabethan forms of the sonnet, as if he is using structure to control the experience he is expressing, which is a desperate plea for spiritual renewal. The first quatrain presents a series of emotional commands, and the second explains more calmly why he needs God’s help. The beginning of the sestet, “Yet dearly I love you,” signals another change in tone, only to revert again to emotional commands as the poem winds up in the final couplet with powerful sexual imagery containing one of Donne’s most famous metaphysical conceits—that of the speaker imagining himself as a woman wanting God to “ravish” him.

The verbs of the opening quatrain are in triplicate, reflecting the “three-person’d” God the speaker addresses. “Batter my heart,” he begins, using a conceit of a tinker mending pots, escalating from “knock, breathe, shine” to “break, blow, burn.” The alliteration of these verbs as well as their...

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Sonnet 17: Since She Whom I Loved

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt

To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,

And her soul early into heaven ravished,

Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.

Here the admiring her my mind did whet

To seek Thee, God; so streams do show the head;

But though I have found Thee, and Thou my thirst hast fed,

A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.

But why should I beg more love, when as Thou

Dost woo my soul, for hers off’ring all Thine:

And dost not only fear lest I allow

My love to saints and angels, things...

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Abrams, M. D., et al., ed. 1986. “John Donne.” Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th edition, Vol. I. New York: W. W. Norton. This anthology provides helpful footnotes that explain some of the language in the poems.

Clements, Arthur L., ed. 1992. John Donne’s Poetry: A Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition. New York: W. W. Norton. This essential scholarship offers authoritative texts as well as gloss and notes on the poems. Also included are a series of essays tracing important scholarship on Donne. One section provides an overview of seven different treatments of “Batter My Heart.”

Gardner, Helen. 1952. John Donne: The Divine Poems. Oxford: Clarendon. Gardner explores the “meditative exercise,” which she says Donne learned from the Jesuits, that provides the foundation for the first sixteen sonnets. “The influence of the formal mediation lies behind the Holy Sonnets not as a literary source but as a way of thinking,” she explains.

Gardner, Helen, ed. 1961. John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Although current only up to the mid-twentieth century, the collection traces and clarifies the changing literary attitudes toward Donne.

O’Connell, Patrick F. 1981. “The Successive Arguments of Donne’s Holy Sonnets.” Philological Quarterly, Vol. 60, pp. 323-342. O’Connell tries to group the sonnets according to their argument, seeking a logical development in their order.

Warnke, Frank J. 1987. John Donne. English Author Series. Independence, KY: Twayne. Warnke provides an overview of Donne’s biography, reputation, and influence as well as some characteristics of his different types of poetry.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Archer, Stanley. “The Archetypal Journey Motif in Donne’s Divine Poems.” In New Essays on Donne, edited by Gary A. Stringer. Salzburg, Austria: Institut für Englische Sprache und Literatur Universität Salzburg, 1977. Argues that the image of the journey as a motif runs through most of the divine poems and gives them a thematic unity that has been neglected by earlier critical analyses of Donne’s religious poetry.

Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. This attractive volume in the Everyman’s Library series offers an introduction and ample textual glosses by C. A. Patrides, a noted authority on Donne. The book’s...

(The entire section is 475 words.)