Donne treats themes of sin, grace, and redemption in his Holy Sonnets, for his God, though loving, righteously will punish the transgressions the speaker very adamantly admits. The Devil lurks, ready to tempt him, and so he calls on God to make him strong enough to resist the Devil or to purify him after he succumbs to temptations: in either case, the speaker suggests, punishment is necessary. Thus, one thematic treatment of divine love involves fear and despair rather than hope and trust. The speaker desperately wishes to go to Heaven and to escape Hell but generally presents himself as such a miserable sinner that his chances of getting there are remote, for God would be just, if harsh, in banning him from eternal happiness. Significantly, however, the speaker’s tone suggests that he experiences an emotional intensity in the relationship he has with God, sometimes eagerly asking for the punishment he deserves so that afterward he will be united with the God he loves. In this way, “teach me how to repent” (Sonnet 7, line 13) becomes a main theme of some sonnets, as does “Satan hates me, yet is loathe to lose me” (Sonnet 2, line 14).
However, sometimes the speaker seems to blame God, complaining about ill treatment rather than humbly petitioning for grace. In such moments, the tone (which becomes argumentative, petulant, or accusing) modifies the themes of sin, grace, and redemption. When in Sonnet 2 the speaker cries out, “Why doth the Devil then usurp in me? / Why doth he steal, nay ravish that’s Thy right?”, he does so as though it were God’s fault that the speaker plunges himself into sin. He seems to deliver God a moral ultimatum: “Except Thou rise and for Thine own work fight, / Oh I shall soon despair.” The speaker arrogantly puts all the responsibility on God, having in the first part of the poem set out in lawyerlike terms the contractual relationship of creature and Creator, sinner and Redeemer. Somewhat differently, Sonnet 16 uses metaphors of law such as “jointure,” “legacy,” “two wills,” “invest,” “statutes,” “law and...
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- Critical Essays