by John Donne
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eNotes: Table of Contents
1. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Overview 2. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: John Donne Biography 3. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Setting and Character 4. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Themes 5. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Four Sonnets Analyzied ♦ Sonnet 10: Death, Be Not Proud ♦ Sonnet 11: Spit in My Face ♦ Sonnet 14: Batter My Heart ♦ Sonnet 17: Since She Whom I Loved 6. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Critical Overview 7. John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Bibliography
John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Overview
John Donne’s religious poetry is collectively known as the Divine Poems; among these, the largest group is the nineteen Holy Sonnets. Donne began writing his love poetry in the 1590s, while still single, and did not turn to religious poetry until 1609, eight years after he had married Anne More, which resulted in his banishment from the royal court. During this time he had begun to renounce his Roman Catholic faith but had not yet converted to the Church of England, which he did in 1615. He became a minister two years later. The dramatic character of the Holy Sonnets suggests that Donne probably read them aloud to his friends, enhancing their argumentative tone, years before he began circulating them in manuscript form. Although not necessarily biographical in nature, the sonnets do reflect Donne’s meditation on his religious convictions and address the themes of divine judgment, divine love, and humble penance. However, just as the persona of Donne’s love poems speaks with passion, wit, and tenderness in seducing or praising his beloved, so the speaker in these sonnets turns to God in a very personal way, with a love passionate, forceful, and assertive yet fearful, too. Although the sonnets are predominantly Petrarchan, consisting of two quatrains and a sestet, this form is often modified by an inclusion of a Shakespearean couplet or other variation in structure or rhyme. Donne probably wrote all but two of the Holy Sonnets between 1609 and 1611. Dating Sonnets 18 and 19 is more difficult because they were not discovered until the nineteenth century. Along with the love poems, John Donne’s Holy Sonnets 1
the first seventeen Holy Sonnets were published in the collection Love Songs and Sonnets in 1633, a few years after Donne’s death.
John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: John Donne Biography
Born into a prosperous Roman Catholic family in 1572, John Donne was educated by Jesuits before he entered Oxford and then later studied at Cambridge, and scholars find that the meditative form of the sonnets reflect his Jesuit schooling. He did not graduate from either school, however, because his faith led him to refuse to take the Oath of Supremacy, which acknowledged the king as the head of the Church. After participating in several military expeditions, Donne accepted a post as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, an important member of the court. In 1601 he became a member of Parliament, but his political aspirations were dashed when he secretly married Egerton’s seventeen-year-old niece. After spending a few weeks in Fleet Prison as a result of his elopement, Donne was dismissed from his post and began a quiet and not particularly successful career in law. However, during this time he continued to write his love poetry, which he had begun in the 1590s. He also started writing anti-Catholic polemics, signaling his renunciation of Catholicism. Although he converted to Anglicanism, scholars debate to what extent he...