Noded university homework. Probably not that thrilling if you haven't read them, but the texts are all over E2. Concerns why we should look at the sonnets primarily as a group, not individually.
The first thing a reader may notice when reading the sequence in context is how often Donne affirms his belief in the Calvinist tenet of salvation by grace alone. He regularly refers to the impossibility of attaining heaven by any other means, and how Christ’s sacrifice provided the only possible route to redemption:
in sonnet II
Thy blood bought that the which before was thine;
in sonnet IV
...Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might
that being red, it dyes red souls to white;
in sonnet VII
‘Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou had sealed my pardon with thy blood.
...and so on. These are merely the first examples, of many. It is interesting to note that when these lines were written, Donne was a deeply troubled convert from Catholicism
, and was very likely in the throes of a deep internal struggle over his decision to become a priest - a decision which took him years to make. It is reasonable, then, to suppose that, as one of the most fundamental dichotomies between Catholicism
was in their attitudes to the route to salvation
, he may have been trying to convince himself of this truth as much as the reader; particularly given his inevitable fear of damnation
as a convert to a religion which held that his destiny was preordained. Given, too, that fear of damnation could lead to damnation - one had to believe in one’s salvation to be saved - he was in a tight theological corner. We might ask the same question as Wilbur Sanders
, in a slightly different context: ‘Does he really mean what he says? Or does he only mean to mean it?’
The affirmations of this concept are so fervent and so often repeated that we may believe he protesteth to much. If so, it throws a new light on the sonnets. Often the language he uses to talk of God is fearful: not, as is often the case, ‘fearful’ meaning humble and aware of God’s infinite power, but more straightforwardly scared about what He might do to Donne. Consider
In his stern wrath why threatens He?
Blood fills his frowns, which from his pierced head fell
Tomorrow I quake with true fear of His rod.
Donne is not unaware of the apparent contradiction of love and fear, and indeed implicitly confronts it in Sonnet II:
...thou lovs’t mankind well, yet will not choose me
And Satan hates me, yet is loathe to lose me.
brings in his sermon on virga irae:
Be angry with me O Lord, O Lord be angry with me, lest I perish!
and also the last lines of ‘Good Friday’:
O think mee worth thine anger, punish me,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee; and I’ll turn my face.
(She also notes quite rightly that these lines demonstrate a greater depth of religious feeling than anything in the sonnets.)
His relationship with God, then, is a somewhat dysfunctional one. Sonnet II’s fear of God’s abandonment might be compared with his recurring doubt of any woman’s ability to love him constantly in the Songs And Sonnets - ‘nowhere lives a woman true and fair’ in Song, ‘Now thou hast loved me one whole day/Tomorrow when thou leav’st, what wilt thou say?’ in Women’s Constancy. A picture of a man deeply afraid of rejection, from all quarters, beings to emerge.
This brings us to the curious carnal imagery and comparisons used throughout the Holy Sonnets. Again and again, Donne either discusses God and his faith in terms of visceral, carnal, and concrete realities; or compares his pure spiritual love for God with the inferior erotic earthbound version. I use the word carnal not only in a sexual sense, but (albeit to a lesser extent) to refer to all worldly pleasures. So as early as the first sonnet:
All my pleasures are like yesterday
Donne is reminded of the ephemerality of everything but God. And in Sonnet II
...till I betrayed
myself, a temple of Thy Spirit divine.
The implication is of course that the ‘temple
’ has been defiled by his sinning.
Sonnet XIII, with its suggestive reference to ‘the world’s last night’ and its curious juxtaposition of the beauty of the narrator’s mistresses and Christ, belittles the ‘sins of the flesh’ in order to glorify God. But though his intent is clearly to contrast the fallible and limited beauty of humanity with God’s grace, it is still strange in itself that he should make the comparison at all. His conceit here is most unorthodox - that he can be convinced of the infinite mercy of God because of Jesus’ physical beauty (though ‘beauty’ is really the wrong word: what is really suggested is a physical representation of the love of God, rather than a straightforward aesthetic) - and is at odds with the underlying subject matter of the poem.
This tension is repeated and amplified in sonnet XIV, which uses a quite extraordinary metaphor. The narrator implores God to rape him or her. Whilst not explicitly stated, this can be clearly inferred from the repetition of words of violence like ‘batter’, ‘knock’, ‘break’, ‘blow’, and ‘burn’ in the early lines of the poem; and then by the line
I, like an usurped town,to another due,
Labour to admit you...
In the sestet it becomes still more obvious:
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.
Sanders suggests that ‘in the final quatrain there is a return to the torment and fascination of the basic sexual metaphor, as the battering insensitivity of this God’s forced entry is both invoked and rhythmically enacted.’ Whilst ‘ravish’ does not necessarily mean rape, it certainly carries that sense of violence as well as pleasure. This one word, with it’s twin senses of joy and invasion, contains in miniature the paradox of the sonnet - that Donne’s narrator wishes to be united with God but fears it terribly. In the context of the times, referring to God by any kind of sexual metaphor would be more than a little risky; even today, portraying God as a kind of invited rapist is a shocking idea. This is what Samuel Johnson was referring to when he said of the metaphysical poets that in their work ‘The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.’ But it works: it effectively captures the conflict between what the poet wants to do and what he feels he needs to, the tension between his fear of God and his love of Him, the peculiar paradox that he wants to be enfolded in God’s love and to renounce earthly sins, but is paralysed by his love of the material pleasures they offer. In this sense he is a little like Faustus (and, indeed, every Christian who has ever lived) - except that rather than finally confirming his divorce from God with a kiss, he begs God to release him from his betrothal to the devil, to ‘untie or break that knot again’, by means of a sexual act. It is all very odd.
Freud would have been fascinated with this choice of metaphor, but we should be careful about reading too much into it: it is, ultimately, only a metaphor, a way of expressing something else. Still, it fits neatly with his attitude to God in many of the other sonnets, simply taking it to an extreme.
Sonnet V, in referring to ‘my world’s both parts’, contains an illusion to the base and visceral and the pure and holy, again contrasting the two sides of Donne’s nature. And sonnets II and VIII both contain references to his ‘idolatry’; that is, the period in his life when he worshipped women above God. This is naturally a very different voice from that which speaks in the Songs and Sonnets. Sonnet XVII refers again to God’s ravishing of a soul, and hints at erotic love in
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet,
albeit in the context of marriage. Sonnet XVIII uses the old characterisation of the church as Christ’s bride, but twists it in the context of the schism with the question of which is his true wife: he also yearns to achieve a higher, more spiritual existence in
...Let mine amorous soul court thy mild Dove.
Again Donne confronts his base self - ‘amorous’ surely hints at carnal love - and wishes to be something better. Finally, in sonnet XIX:
As humorous is my contrition
As my profane love, and as soon forgot.
Some critics might consider all these references inappropriate. It might be argued that all these references to sexuality and the sensory are inherently out of place in what are essentially a set of paeans to God, and also that by consistently rejecting the human, Donne once again ‘only means to mean it’. But such an interpretation is misguided. The religious must deal with the human and even the profane, and not hide behind holiness: if it does not do so, it is more or less pointless. Similarly, Donne does not deny that he has this side to his character, as all humans must: rather, he accepts it, but yearns to be better. The impossibility of attaining perfection after the Fall does not mean that it is not his Christian duty to try and lead a purer life. It is almost funny: he continues to sin, though he repeatedly affirms his intentions to live more like Christ. We might be reminded of James Hogg’s justified sinner:
That I was a great, a transcendent sinner, I confess. But still I had hopes of forgiveness, because I never sinned from principle, but accident; and then I always tried to repent of these sins by the slump, for individually it was impossible; and though not always successful in my endeavours, I could not help that; the grace of repentance being withheld from me, I regarded myself as in no degree accountable for the failure.
Perhaps this is not really fair to Donne. He never indulges in this kind of hypocrisy. But there is certainly a tension between his love poetry and his religious poetry, one he admits himself by his references to his past idolatry, and it should not be ignored.
The point about looking at these poems as a group is that, whether consciously or not, there are certainly themes which run through all of them. When we consider each one individually these general principles may not be as apparent: but if we consider them collectively, we can gain new insight which can then be reapplied on the most focused level, looking at individual words and lines. The poems can take on new and fascinating dimensions hard to see if they are considered in a vacuum. When we look at the poems like this, we can see a man fighting against religious doubt and insecurity; a man trying desperately to escape from his ‘Yahoo’ side and live a purer life; a man with exactly the same basic desires as the rest of us. Ultimately, we see a human being trying to make sense of his relationship with God, and we feel extraordinarily privileged to bear witness to it.