"Death be not proud" - John Donne and his Holy Sonnets

Portrait of John Donne.
Portrait of John Donne. | Source

The Holy Sonnets

John Donne was a complicated man and this definitely showed up in his writings. His metaphysical conceits are intellectual, unique, and even quite bold. His poetry is full of his genius conceits. His prose writings, his sermons and meditations, are full of his unique imagery and conceits.

Now, come his Holy Sonnets. Written in sonnet form, they are the most conventional of all his writings as they follow all the rules, adhere to a rhyme scheme, and metrical lines. But, his imagery and comparisons are still quite extraordinary for his time period.

His Holy Sonnets were written in the years 1609-10, during a time of great turmoil in his life, with a few of them written a bit later in his life. There are nineteen sonnets total in number and they are conventional in their rhyme scheme and broad metrical pattern. Critics have described them as rhythmically bold, powerful in their imagery and marked by deep emotional coloring.

The Holy Sonnets are the documents we have today that tell us of John Donne's deep religious beliefs, and they also record and mingle anguished despair with no less anguished hope. Donne's religion was never a secure or comfortalbe experience for him, hence the reason for not wanting to take priestly orders originally. He only did so on the insistance of King James I. He took his Anglican priest orders in 1615 and if you notice, most of his Holy sonnets were written before that time. Donne was originally born a Roman Catholic, and did not become an Anglican until he took the orders in 1615.

You will note throughout the sonnets I have here a combination of strong imperatives and protestations of abject helplessness which determines the tone of Donne's religiou beliefs. I have chosen only three sonnets, but these are my favorite ones by Donne. Donne's religious beliefs were just as complicated as his metaphysical conceits. Here are Sonnets number ten, fourteen and eighteen.

Source

Sonnet # 10 - Death be not proud

This is, of course, is Donne's most famous of the Holy Sonnets and the one most quoted. Donne faces Death in the face, so to speak, and is not afraid of him nor will he be conquered by Death. Donne holds his steely gaze with Death and tells him, that in the end, it will be Death that dies, not Donne, for he will have eternal life.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art so;

For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleep, which but they pictures be,

Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee do go.

Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery,

Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,

And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well

And better than thy stroke, why swell'st thou then?

One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


Sonnet #14 - Batter my heart

In this sonnet, Donne's faith rises to a series of knotted paradoxes involving coercion and submission, which would be revolting for the time. But, Donne is so sincere in his mind, that he is able to get away with his thoughts. He requests God to do something, to help him. Donne is being occupied by this paradox and wants God to "break down the door", so to speak, and help him find the way. The paradox, as Donne sees it, is that in the Christian religion man must lose his life in order to save it.

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for You

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labor to admit You, but O, to no end;

Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love You, and would be loved fain.

But am bethrothed unto Your enemy.

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.

Source

Sonnet # 18 -Show me, dear Christ

In this sonnet, Donne is concerned with the question, What are the marks of a true church? This was the interdenomenational religious debate going on in the 17th century, Few Anglican clergymen would have expressed an indecision as universal as Donne's in this sonnet. The Church of Rome is, "she which goes richly pointed on the other shore." She (the Catholic Church) is contrasted with the reformed churches "in Germany and here." He sees "her" as the wife of God.

Show me, dear Christ, Thy spouse so bright and clear

What! is it she which on the other shore

Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,

Laments and mourns in Germany and here?

Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?

Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?

Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore

On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?

Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights

First travel we to seek and then make love?

Betray, kind husband, Thy spouse to our sights,

And let mine amorous soul court Thy mild dove,

Who is most true and pleasing to Thee then

When she is embraced and open to most men.

I think Donne wrote to express himself and express all the paradoxes he sees in life and within himself. This is nothing more than what we do here on HubPages. I am not slighting Donne, but uplifting us as writers. We feel the same emotions and things as Donne does, so his writings are universal and timeless. That is why we are so drawn to his writings. He merely expresses what we all think about, also.

I think I have completely covered the different types of writing Donne did throughout his life. Instead of giving you more of the same, you can research his other poems, meditations, sermons, and sonnets to read for yourself. He wrote such a large canon of works that you could study him for ages.


Source: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume I.

Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved

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Comments 26 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

Very nicely done my friend! He was a fascinating man. Hope Amy gets around to reading this!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Why thank you. I think I have covered John Donne now. LOL Hope Amy sees this, too. Thanks so much for the visit and for reading and commenting. So appreciated!


Curiad profile image

Curiad 4 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

Interesting writing and subject. Yes I agree, Amy would like to read this.


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Wow, I love his Holy Sonnets! You have done a magnificent job here in this piece, as always. Very well written and informative, and very interesting. God bless. In His Love, Faith Reaper


josh3418 profile image

josh3418 4 years ago from Pennsylvania

Suzette,

Another fascinating review of history. What a beautiful poet whose wisdom and depth of emotion could clearly be seen in his writing. Thanks Suzette!


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for this. As you know I write sonnets. This well written piece illustrates that ABAB CDCD EFEF GG is not the only accepted pattern.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

He really was a most interesting man. How I wish I could write so yearningly like he did. You have helped many of us to know the man behind the gorgeous sonnets. Thank you.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

You are the epitome of the finest in academia, Suzette. Your article manages to not only present John Donne, but stir my curiosity and leave me with food for thought and the desire to know more.

In reading your favorite selections of Donne's religious sonnets, Sonnet #18 resonates with me, as I am certain it did with anyone who does not subscribe to blind faith. I would imagine it was and remains, even today, controversial. I see John Donne with his strong belief in God, struggling with the duality/hypocrisy of organized religion. The one item that surprises me is John Donne's acquiesence to King John I's insistence that he take the Anglican priest orders in 1615. Since he did not originally, I assume it was a choice, and I wonder what the consequences were in refusal. Since my history background is weak, I will research it to find out. Thank you so much, Suzette, for another fascinating, multi-faceted look at a poet I am now driven to study.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi all: Well, am I a goof or what? I forgot to uncheck the little box to print Sonnet #10, which is the one that goes with my title of this article. The sea photo took like six times to take and I couldn't figure out what was wrong and I was so absorbed into getting the photo to take I didn't realize I didn't have the sonnet with it. So, now, Sonnet # 10 is visible where it should be. So, if you read this and wondered "where is sonnet #10?", this is what happened. I'll be back shortly, I actually have something to do this evening in Ohio.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

My comment disappeared, Suzette. I will have to come back to rewrite it. Sorry.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Fascinating man, and its strange how we recognise so much of his work but just never knew it was his! all these were so familiar, thanks for another interesting look at the life of John donne, nell


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Curiad: Thank you so much for reading. I will be getting to some of you hubs shortly. I appreciate your visit!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Faith: Hi and thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment. Yes, his Holy Sonnets are great and really some food for thought. #10 is my personal favorite and probably his most famous of all. His words have just resounded with me all my life since high school when I was first introduced to his works. They truly are timeless. Thanks for the visit - most appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Well, you are welcome, josh. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I am so glad you have enjoyed Donne's poetry. He is quite inspiring. Thanks for the visit - most appreciated!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mhatter: Thanks so much for reading. Yes, there are various rhyme schemes for sonnets. Actually, Donne wrote in the Shakespearean form and the Petrarchan form. I know you write sonnets and your sonnets are beautiful - you can rival Donne in my opinion. Sonnets are not easy to write, but you do them very well. Thanks so much for visiting - I always enjoy your limericks and your sonnets!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Thanks so much for stopping by to read these, Hyphen. Yes, Donne certainly had a full and interesting life. I felt I had to do three hubs on him to really do him justice. He certainly was not a one dimensional person and his thoughts and writings took so many different forms. Thanks so much for your interest! Most appreciated!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I left a detailed, lengthy comment for you, Suzette, and then another, but neither appeared. Rather than try to reiterate, I just want to say that I enjoyed your topic immensely and learned that I want to pursue reading more about this unique, interesting poet, John Donne. Thank you for writing inspirational, enticing articles that give my brain a stimulating workout!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Hi Amy: Thank you so much for reading these hubs on John Donne. I am so pleased that his poetry has intrigued you and inspired you. I am just the conduit through which you learned of his poetry. This is so thrilling to me that you feel you have learned so much from these. I never dreamed anyone would respond to these as you have. You are so intuitive and insightful and you really understand great poetry. I know, it almost breaks my heart, when I read sonnet #18 and see the struggle Donne was going through with his beliefs. James I, being king, actually gave Donne and order to take his Anglican priestly orders, so Donne really had no choice. I think he put it off as long as he could but couldn't outright refuse. So, I think he was always a little torn about becoming the Dean of St. Paul's. I'm so glad you enjoyed this piece and I am so appreciative of all the kind comments you have made.


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: Don't feel bad - there are glitches sometimes on HP. I'm so glad these pieces have piqued your interest in John Donne. Your poetry has certainly piqued my interest and I enjoy reading it so much. Your unique vision is as unique as Donne's in my opinion. It is so fun to read each other's work and gleem something from it - we are all just learning from one another in a stimulating environment. Best wishes always!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Nell, thanks so much for reading these pieces on Donne. I'm so thrilled you enjoyed them and got so much out of them. I can't believe one man could produce so much quoted work. I know, we have heard these lines all our lives. Thanks so much for your visit - most appreciated!


Faith Reaper profile image

Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

Went back and read #10, and I can see why it is one of your favorites! Wow, that is powerful to say the least. No worries, we are all human. Great hub. In His Love, Faith Reaper


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Faith, I know, that one is powerful and I enjoy his "message" to Death. Sometimes, I'm so tired when I finish one of these hubs, I'm in sort of a zombie state. LOL I appreciate your kind comments!


KrisL profile image

KrisL 4 years ago from S. Florida

Thanks for highlighting three of Donne's great sonnets.

I did not know he wrote them while still officially Roman Catholic.

I agree with Faith that the sonnet on death is a masterwork.

Voted up and Beautiful, and shared with followers.

The final couplet of the one on the church is rather naughty in a way that reminds me of the pre-pious Donne, though also theologically insightful: Christ's spouse is "most true" and faithful when "embraced and open to most men."


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

KrisL: Thanks so much for the visit and I'm glad you enjoyed these sonnets by Donne. He had quite an internal conflict going on religiously and it is interesting the time period he wrote these. Yes, isn't that couplet interesting? I wonder what he truly meant by it? I think "she" refers to the Church. Thanks for reading! Much appreciated!


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 15 months ago from California

Beautiful, beautiful hub!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 15 months ago from Taos, NM Author

Thank you Audrey and I am glad you enjoyed this. John Donne is one of my favorite poets and writer.

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