Illuminations of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets

How to Read the Holy Sonnets

by Guest Columnist and Artist, Kelly Kruse

The Holy Sonnets are admittedly a difficult read. Donne was a brilliant poet who was very honest about his spiritual struggles, making his poems complex and seemingly contradictory at times. One moment you think he means one thing, and the next you’re convinced he holds the opposite belief. Roz Kaveny wrote of John Donne, “Donne’s analogies between conversion and [the breaking of betrothal and rape] could seem trivializing, but that fierce urgency makes them powerful statements of psychological truth beyond his religious beliefs. To start to believe in something passionately that you didn’t consider seriously before hurts. That is a truth beyond religion and beyond God.” I believe Ms. Kaveny is onto something. Conversion hurts.

Each Holy Sonnet is written in Donne’s unique sonnet form, which is a blend of the Italian (Petrarchan) and English (Shakespearean) styles. Each sonnet has fourteen lines made up of ten syllables each. Each line alternates between unstressed and stressed syllables, always ending with a stressed syllable. This gives you an indication of Donne’s desired word stress. As Modern readers, we are tempted to impose our own stress upon Donne’s work, but the form is intentional and word stress is deliberate. Donne’s work had a specific meaning for him, and he did not try to obscure his intentions. For example, you can see the first four lines of Holy Sonnet II with the stressed syllables underlined:

As due by many titles, I resign
myself to thee, O God. First I was made
by Thee and for Thee, and when I was decay’d,
Thy blood bought that, the which before was Thine.

At times, Donne even sacrificed form for meaning by throwing the rhythm off. If there appear to be a wrong number of syllables or the rhythm gets off track, you see that Donne’s priority was in his theology or perhaps even in jarring the reader. Donne did not write these works to show off his technique, but to urgently examine his beliefs. When this happens, it should perk our interest. Why did Donne make that choice? It is up to us to contemplate this.

Donne crafted each of his Holy Sonnets with its own spiritual and theological debate. He mastered rhetoric during his study of law, and he used his skills to strengthen his poetry, making it more clever and serious. Today, we know Donne as a metaphysical poet, though the term was not used by Donne himself. Metaphysical poetry is known for its “excessive” use of philosophy and its tendency to teach the reader a lesson. One of the hallmarks of this type of poetry was the use of a device called a conceit, which is effectively an extended metaphor used throughout a poem that gives its argument a deeper impact. An example of this can be found in Holy Sonnet XIV, where Donne compares his heart to a city under siege for much of the poem. The bulk of the Holy Sonnets were written between 1609 and 1610, though scholars believe Donne worked on some of them as late as 1617, and they were not published until 1633, after his death. The years he wrote the sonnets were a time of extreme financial hardship for Donne, during which he was being recruited to take holy orders as an Anglican priest.

Many students of literature and some scholars question the integrity of Donne’s faith and his conversion, pointing to his early life of debauchery and the later circumstance of extreme poverty as the motivating force for his conversion to Anglicanism. If Donne converted, steady, lucrative, and prestigious work awaited. In the first decade of the 1600s, Donne was a man who had few prospects and no money with a wife who bore a child nearly every year of the first five of their marriage. At one point, three of his children under the age of ten had died, and Donne couldn’t even afford to bury them. In this desperate state of mind, he contemplated suicide, even going so far as to write a prose piece in defense of the act. It is not hard to imagine a man in those circumstances renouncing his faith to care for his family. It is important to note, however, that in our postmodern (and post-enlightenment) culture, we have no real grasp of the seriousness of apostasy (renouncing the Catholic faith) for an English Catholic in Donne’s era. Donne saw his apostasy not just as a matter of earthly life and death, but as a battle for his immortal soul. I submit that the Holy Sonnets are some of the best arguments for the integrity of Donne’s faith. One of his contemporaries, Bishop John Earle, is quoted as saying about Donne, “He has sounded both religions and anchored on the best, and is a Protestant out of judgement, not faction, not because his country but his reason is on his side. The ministry is his choice not refuge, and yet the Pulpit not his itch but his fear…and his life (is) our religion’s best apology.”

With all of that information, we are able to see how layered and unique these sonnets are. Donne used his poetic gifts to work through opposing philosophical and theological perspectives, asking very difficult questions in each sonnet. As you read the sonnets, try to look for tensions between these theological ideas. There are examples of these tensions in Holy Sonnet IV, for instance, where Donne compares the values of penance (O make thyself with holy mourning, black) and repentance (Or, wash thee in Christ’s blood). Sonnet form, which had previously been a place for Donne to cleverly expound on his sexual escapades (though in these, too, can be found a deep preoccupation with his spiritual unrest) became a place where Donne began to grapple with the true questions of his soul. Scholars believe Donne may have practiced Ignatian Contemplation, a Catholic practice that he likely would have been taught in young adulthood. This practice involved up to four weeks of spiritual exercises aimed at rigorous examination of one’s own sin combined with meditation on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This practice often resulted in heightened states of emotion and turmoil, and the grief and tension that can be found in many of the sonnets is likely a result of a spiritual practice like this.

At the time of his death, John Donne was best known as a celebrated preacher and the respected Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. His poetry was forgotten until T.S. Eliot and other contemporary authors discovered his work in the twentieth century. It is arguably Ernest Hemingway’s obsession with Donne’s Meditation XIV and the line, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,” that made Donne the celebrated poet and thinker we know today.