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John Donne

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Holy Donne
John Donne was an English poet and probably the greatest metaphysical poets of all time. He was born in 1572 to a Roman Catholic family in London. His father died when John was young leaving his mother Elisabeth to raise him and his siblings. Throughout Donne’s life his experiences with religion were full of trials and tribulations, something that can be clearly seen in his poetry over time. He remained Catholic early in life while he attended both Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Interestingly enough he never received a degree at either university because doing so would have required him to take the Oath of Supremacy, a doctrine that was the core of the Anglican religion recognizing the King as head of the church. Being Catholic, this would have gone completely against his beliefs. He went on to study law at Lincoln’s Inn during his twenties (Menon 1).
Donne received a comfortable inheritance when his mother died. It is said that he spent most of it on “wine, women, and song.” It was assumed that he would begin a career in law, but instead partook in a two-year naval expedition against Spain in 1596. When he returned he received a job as the private secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, which was entitled, “Keeper of the Great Seal” (Ross 1).
During this time period Donne wrote two of his major works, the Satires and the Songs and Sonnets. It was also during this time that he met Anne More, the sixteen-year-old niece to Sir Thomas Egerton. In 1601 they married, despite the disapproval of her family. Her father had Donne put in jail for a small amount of time for illegally wedding a minor, after he was released he lost his position with Sir Thomas Egerton. Thus the couple never received Anne’s dowry, which left them impoverished (Menon 1).
Donne did his best to make a living by writing poetry, but such an occupation did not have much to offer financially. Donne once described his life with Anne as “John Donne, Anne Donne, undone,” which has often been thought to be a clever way to imply that even though they were very much in love, their love brought them many struggles throughout their lives together. When Donne was twenty-two he made the decision to convert to Anglican after his closest brother Henry died in prison where he was being held for harboring a priest. John and Anne began their family only furthering their financial troubles. At this point Anne’s father finally reconciled with John and Anne and paid his daughter’s dowry. This helped the financial situation significantly and Donne also worked as a lawyer and continued to write, penning the Divine Poems in 1607.
During this time in his life Donne displayed a strong knowledge of the Anglican faith, and penned a few anti-Catholic poems, gaining him the respect of King James who encouraged him to become ordained. This position would drastically help his family’s financial status as his family had grown significantly. Done eventually accepted the position reluctantly.
In 1617 Anne died giving birth to her twelfth child, who was stillborn. Stricken with grief, Donne was prompted to write the Holy Sonnets that conveyed the love shared both physically and spiritually between Anne and himself. Donne never remarried, and raised his seven remaining children on his own. He became very prominent throughout London for his unique style of preaching, which many were very attracted to and found mesmerizing. In fact, many of his sermons went on to be published (Ross 1).
In 1621 Donne became dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. However, it seemed his last ten years of life were plagued with an obsession of death. He suffered great illness and as he knew that his time of death grew nearer, much of his preaching and writing conveyed his fear of death, until Donne passed away in 1631 (Menon 1).
Donne’s literary works enjoyed great popularity and received great admiration during his lifetime and for a good generation after his death. His reputation as a writer was exclusively enjoyed by the intellectual elite. His sermons were greatly admired during his lifetime and frequently published during the following generation. Some works as the Pseudeo-Martyr and the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions attracted the attention of the privileged and powerful Kings James I and Charles I (Lovelock 12).
Some of John Donne’s literary accomplishments were his Divine Poems (1607) and the prose work Biathanatos, in which he argued that suicide is not essentially sinful. Whatever the subject, Donne’s poems reveal some characteristics that exemplify the work of the metaphysical poets. The incredible wordplay, often explicitly sexual; paradox; surprising contrasts; complex psychological analysis; and striking imagery selected from nontraditional areas such as law, physiology, philosophy, and mathematics (Melon 1).
Donne had many influences throughout his poetry. Some poets that influenced Donne and his writings were Ben Jonson, Abraham Cowley, and John Dryden. Many of Donne’s poems certainly owe more to the popularity of the work in which they were expressed at the time, than they do to the popularity of influence of Donne (Sullivan 47). Printings of his verses also show that Donne’s influences in the seventeenth-century Germany and the Netherlands was also both earlier and more extensive than previously thought (Sullivan 49).
Donne met many fascinating poets and other influential people from all over the world that either admired his works or influenced Donne. Such poets are William Hazlitt, George Saintsbury, Samuel Coleridge, Herbert Grierson, W.B. Yeats, and C.S. Lewis. Criticism of Donne’s work ranges from praise to disapproval. For example, referring to the work of Donne, Herbert Grierson once said,
Donne’s love of poetry comes from two sides: from those who are indisposed to admit that passion, and especially that the passion of love, can ever speak so ingeniously; and from those, and these are his more modern critics, who deny that Donne is a great poet because with rare exceptions, exceptions rather of occasional lines and phrases than of whole poems, his songs and elegies lack beauty. (Lovelock 84)
In addition, Grierson continues to explain that Donne’s love of poetry is a complex phenomenon, but the two dominate strains in it are just these: the strain of “Dialectic, subtle play of argument and wit, erudite and fantastic; and the tension of vivid realism, the record of a passion which is neither ideal nor conventional” (84). Another well-known writer that admired Donne’s writings like Grierson was W.B. Yeats, who learned much about Donne from Grierson’s writings. Yeats explains that he has been using Donne’s poems constantly and can understand Donne and his point of view in his poems. Yeats learned that the more precise and learned the thought the greater the beauty and the passion, “The intricacy and subtleties of Donne’s imagination are the length and depths of his passion for writing” (Lovelock 99).
Scholars before 1921 had no doubts about Donne’s place in English literary tradition. They did however have a few exceptions, “They believed that he had rebelled against his contemporaries’ Petratchan conventions to write a new kind of poetry. Donne was often discussed with late Elizabethans like Drayton and Daniel” (Larson 113). Thus Donne is in an historical period and uses ideas both from his present and from the past that the Elizabethans so admired to create his own poetry. His originality and innovations in using these traditions along with the many possible “sources” cited for his works point to the difficulty of placing his works in the standard literary traditions (Larson 135).
Though Donne’s life was wrought with financial duress and emotional obstacles, he wrote amazing poetry. The hardships he faced and the stubborn nature of his will placed him in positions that breed the sort of emotion needed to create such powerful intense poetry. The death of his wife along with the pressure he received from King James to become a priest surely perpetuated his writing. As he grew older, death would have become more of an immediate reality.
The concept of death belabors the sound mind into abject submission. This power terrifies and humbles the greatest amongst men. The fear of death or dying brings humanity together in a dark sense. It crosses cultures, race, class and religion with little to no respect for any set of beliefs. Dreadful as death may be, John Donne had enough strength in his convictions to write a poem that personifies death and through this personification makes death appear to be no more than an unruly ruffian that cannot hold power over man. The sonnet reads thus:
1 Death be not proud, though some have called thee
2 Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
3 For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
4 Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;
5 From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
6 Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
7 And soonest our best men with thee do go,
8 Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
9 Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
10 And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
11 And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
12 And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
13 One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
14 And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
Holy Sonnet number ten starts its first line “Death be not proud, though some have called thee” and ends abruptly. There is an enjambment that continues in the second line, “Might and dreadful, for, thou art not so,” (Clampitt 111). Death is a state of being and cannot feel emotions let alone pride, but Donne personifies death and thus makes death tangible or at the very least mortal and fragile. Donne negates the idea that death is “Mighty and dreadful,” and in the third and fourth lines he elaborates. “For, those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,” and then the fourth, “Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;” (Clampitt 111), which is a direct reference to his Christian beliefs that death is not an end, but a new beginning. Donne explains in lines five and six that rest and sleep are merely shadows of death and this should further humble death. Lines seven and eight explain that even though men die, death is the caretaker of the bones, while the soul is delivered to some other fate. This is the end of the first octave which has an unobtrusive rhyming patter of “ABBAABBA.” This pattern of rhyme holds the poem to the sonnet form and the effect it achieves is an inconspicuous rhyme that does not seem to rhyme, thus mimicking the sound of speech.
The turn comes after line eight like in an Italian sonnet, but the poem continues with a quatrain and a couplet to round the last 14 lines. The sonnet is a hybrid of English and Italian sonnets. The ninth line says death is a slave; not similar to or like, but an actual slave to such things as “Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men.” These all have power to command death and rule it. The next line explains that death is in consortium with poison, war and sickness, but in the eleventh line Donne writes that other things like opium and charms can give eternal sleep just as death can, and do so even better than death as it says in line twelve.
The turn in line 13 takes all the attributes of death and explains why they do not matter. “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,” means that eternity is waiting after a small stint with death and the last line is an irony that completes the poem., “And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.” Death can have no hold, because of eternity, therefore death must cease to exist and becomes a victim of its own definition. Death shall die.
The lines scan in pentameter and the meter is iambic. There are a plethora of trochees, spondees and phyrrics, which all play roles within the poem. The first foot is a trochee followed by a iamb, “Death be not proud.” This opening line is an imperative; it calls and commands death right away, immediately setting the tone of the poem, placing Donne in control of death. Line four has this same feel of commanding death, “Die not, poor death,” opening with a spondee as if to capture death’s attention once more. Line nine, the first after the turn, begins with an iamb as if to emphasize how inconsequential death is, “Thou art, slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men,” but quickly moves to use a spondee, a trochee and then another spondee (beginning with “fate”) to give supremacy to those things that too control death. The last couplet scans in almost perfect iambic pentameter, except the last two feet, “Death thou shalt die.” By using a trochee to place the stress on death, Donne once more commands death; and this time he commands death to die.
The poem is permeated with commas. The uses of commas as well as the variation in feet create an effect of speech. The poem uses the language of a preacher on a pulpit, with its highs and lows, enjambment, alliteration and consonance. The sharpness of speech is created with the repetition of hard T’s and D’s and even some TH’s such as “Those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow.” The poem uses an incredible amount of poetic techniques that all add to the goal of making this poem less sing-song and more like normal speech patterns. This can also be seen in the following sonnet, which, as in the previous, exemplifies Donne’s writing techniques and style:
Holy Sonnet XIV: Batter my heart, three-person'd God
1 Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
2 As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
3 That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
4 Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
5 I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
6 Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
7 Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
8 But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
9 Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
10 But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
11 Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
12 Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
13 Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
14 Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Donne generally writes his "Holy Sonnets" in an irregular manner to show powerful emotion. Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV is written in iambic pentameter and has varying lengths. It is hard to scan, not unlike most of Donne’s poems. The opening line, "Batter my heart three-person’d God, for You," uses an initial trochee then the second line changes and includes a spondaic substitution in the third foot in order to add strong emphasis to the series of actions being described. In this case, "Breathe" probably has a fairly strong secondary stress rather than a true primary stress, but since emphasis is clearly intended, it is treated as a primary stress for ease of the sonnet.
Donne became the greatest preacher in all of England. For that reason, this poem reads similar to a sermon. Many words in this poem could have a variety of meanings, which could be sexual, violent or moral. In the first line he is demanding that god break into his town (life, soul or body) and allow the trinity to follow. "Batter my heart" tries to establish the theory that this poem is about a divine rape, it has been mentioned that the word "heart" was also "Elizabethan slang for the vagina" (Payne 2). "The battered heart becomes the attacked city which becomes the ravished vagina." (Kerrigan 355). While sexual undertones are present they are not necessary in order to understand the poem. "The sexual imagery, apparently so out of place in a 'holy' sonnet, is there because Donne recognizes the double truth of love, the fact that love is both opposition and attraction" (Cathcart 162).
Donne uses metaphor to compare his life to a usurped town. Donne uses this strange comparison to entice the reader to think outside the norm. In line two he is complaining about how God has done very little to push his way into the town (Donne’s soul). He says, “o’erthrow me,” the poet paradoxically asks God to knock him down so that he may stand. What he means by this is for God to destroy his present self and remake him as a holier person. William Kerrigan addresses the element of violent struggle in these lines of the poem by pointing out that John Donne could only imagine God from a human perspective. Language has no other way of describing a realm that is completely unknown to humans; therefore God's actions often resemble those of humans, as in this example, "As a father God raises his son to a position of full equality. But as a father God also requires the sacrificial murder of his son to atone for our disobedience" (Kerrigan 360).
The fourth line talks about how God’s power could break into the town and make it new, this could mean to take over Donne’s soul and make it free of sin so he can start over with a clean slate. Donne uses strong verbs like “break, burn, and blow” to describe God’s power. Donne tells God that he desires to let him into his heart but that he is failing in the attempt. In line six, there is possibly another sexual connotation; 'Labour to' admit you' perhaps implies a dual identification with a mother, both in the process of giving birth ('Labour') and in passive intercourse ('admit you') (Steig 55). Steig takes the sexualization of the poem to an extreme by developing images of people and situations that have nothing to do with Donne's struggle to admit God into his heart (Kensinger).
In line seven Donne changes his tone of self-responsibility to self-remorse and criticizes God’s reason of viceroy (ruling him and his life). The tone of the poem changes in line eight because Donne begins to demand things of God. This is something that would be more like traits of God’s enemies (the devil and sin). Donne feels so close to God’s enemy that he feels helpless. He desires a union with God but he does not have the strength to fight hardship. While these lines could be interpreted more sexually or worldly, they do not contain anything blatantly sexual.
Line nine begins as "the speaker says he is like a woman who loves one man (God), but is betrothed to another (Satan) and wants to be rescued even by force" (Giubbory 141). In the next two lines Donne pleads for God’s help. This is seen in the phrase “divorce me, break that knot again, take me to you.” He is pleading with God to help him break free of evil or the devil. These lines could also mean that the speaker knows he wants to serve God, yet he cannot break the sinful patterns of his life (Kensinger). This image is understood in non-sexual terms because a virtuous person serves or unites with God and it is only natural that a sinner would have loyalty to Satan (Kerrigan 352). Donne pleads for action by saying “ravish me and enthrall me.” Donne is telling God that he will never be pure or virginal unless God rapes him (cleanses him of sin) and will never be free unless God enslaves him (takes over his life and soul). Payne's opinion is that the suggestion of the speaker being raped by God does not seem sacrilegious; he views the act as something to be desired (2). This adulterous image makes comparisons between romantic love and religious love. Here there is an apparent forced relationship between man and God that is like the dysfunction of a relationship or marriage (Kensinger). These lines according to Kerrigan could be understood in a more moral sense by meaning that the 'three person'd God' is named as the lover, so we recognize that sexual rape is here a metaphor for “The forcible entrance of the deity into an otherwise impenetrable soul” (354).
The love or rape theme as well as the holy or moral theme produces a major contrast from one interpretation to another. Donne uses metaphor very well in this sonnet to help the reader visualize the emptiness he feels without God and the need for God to have this strong and complete power over his life and soul.
Donne’s strong ties to religion along with his experience on the pulpit created poems filled with strong, stark emotion. His mastery of poetic technique allowed him to relay these emotions to an audience. Donne’s life is constantly reflected in his work, from the bleak early days to those before his death writing sermons, a constant battle is seen waged between religion and love. The complexities inherent in Donne were transferred to his work and stand as a testament of a life lived with passion, love and faith.

Works Cited
Cathcart, Dwight. Doubting Conscience. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1975.
Clampitt, Amy. The Essential Donne. New York: The Ecco Press, 1988.
Guibbory, Achsah. The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry Donne to Marvell.
Ed. Thomas N. Corns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Kensinger, Chrissy. “A Matter of Forced Salvation: The Sexual Imagery of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV.” Oxford College: The Oxford Review, 1998.
Kerrigan, William. "The Fearful Accommodations of John Donne." English Literary Renaissance. 1974: 337-363.
Larson, Deborah A. John Donne and Twentieth-Century Criticism. Cranbury: University
Press, 1989.
Lovelock, Julian. Donne Songs and Sonets: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1973.
Menon, Sindhu. “John Donne.” The Literature Network. 2002-2004. Jalic LLC. 28
Februrary 2005.
Payne, Craig. "Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV." Explicator. v54 1996: 209-213
Ross, David. “John Donne.” Britain Express. 2000. Britain Express. 28 Februrary 2005,
Steig, Michael. "Donne's Divine Rapist: Unconscious Fantasy in Holy Sonnet XIV."
University of Hartford Studies in Literature: A Journal of Interdisciplinary
Criticism. 1972: 52-58.
Sullivan, Ernest W. The Influence of John Donne. Missouri: Columbia, 1993.
Wanninger, Mary Tenney. "Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV." Explicator v28 1969: Item 37.


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