Recent Post

July 17, 2013

Essay on John Donne's Holy Sonnets

                                            John Donne’s Holy Sonnets
John Donne was an English poet and preacher. He is considered to be a forerunner of metaphysical poetry in his period. His poetry which mainly includes sonnets, epigrams, satires, sermons, and elegies is characterized by religious overtones, its realistic and sensual style. He distinguished himself from his contemporaries using vibrant language and inventing metaphors.
His ingenious poetic style is marked by paradoxes, dislocations, conceit images, and abrupt openings. Coupled with recurring dramatic speech rhythms, syntax and eloquence, his poetry was an expression opposed to the conventions of Elizabethan poetry. Another important theme in Donne’s poetry was the idea of true religion, which was something that he spent a lot of time considering and theorizing about. He wrote secular poems as well as erotic poems and love poems. Donne is particularly famous for his master of metaphysical conceit. (Edward 1965)
His famous metaphysical poetry in the 17th century was full of vigor, profundity of thought, and craving for healthy pleasures of life. Unlike his contemporaries, he made extensive use of wit, intellect and most of all conceits in his sonnets.  Known as a master of metaphysical conceit, his sonnets blend two very different ideas into a single whole through heavy use of imagery.  
For instance, he equates lovers with saints in his sonnet “The Canonization.” He breaks away with the traditional use Petrarchan conceits. His conceits dig deeper to compare two unlikely objects.  His sonnet “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is one fine example in which he compares two estranged lovers to the legs of a compass. The structure of his sonnets naturally invites jagged rhythms infusing casual speech.  
In another sonnet “The Good-Morrow,” the speaker, through gleaming metaphorical jump, employs the motif of spheres to move from a description of the world to a description of globes to a description of his beloved’s eyes to a description of their perfect love. Instead of simply praising his beloved, the speaker compares her to a faultless shape, the sphere, which has no corners or edges. The comparison to a sphere also highlights the way in which his beloved’s face has become the world. In “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” the speaker brings into play the spherical shape of tears to illustrate associations with pregnancy, globes, the world, and the moon. As the speaker weeps, each tear has a tiny reflection of the beloved, yet another instance in which the sphere serves to exhibit the idealized personality and physicality of the person being addressed.
He uses blood to symbolize varying experiences of life such as erotic passion and religious devotion. In “The Flea” (1633), a flea crawls over a pair of would-be lovers, biting and drawing blood from both. As the speaker envisions it, the blood of the pair has become too intermingled, and thus the two should become sexually involved, since they are already married in the body of the flea. Inthe Holy Sonnets, blood represents unwavering and passionate devotion to God and Christ. According to Christian belief, Christ sacrificed his blood on the cross so that the humankind could be redeemed and salvaged. Beseeching for guidance, the speaker in Holy Sonnet 7 asks Christ to teach him to be penitent, so that he can become worthy of Christ’s blood. Donne’s religious poetry also underlines the Christian relationship between violence, or bloodshed, and purity. For instance, the speaker of Holy Sonnet 9 prays that Christ’s blood purge off his sin, its haunting memory and purifies him again.
“Donne's poems integrate so many elements typical of modern musical composition: mathematics, science, spontaneity, emotion, sensuality, complex rhythms, expressiveness, and the love of the contradictory, that one could say his writings are the products of a man making music...... but getting caught too.”(Jarrett)
John Donne’s work has invited stark criticism over the years, especially regarding his metaphysical form. Donne's successors in poetry saw his works with ambivalence while the neoclassical poets regarded his conceits as an abuse of the metaphor. However, romantic poets like Coleridge and Browning revived the legacy of Donne.
Sir Thomas Wyatt was a contemporary of Johan Donne. He was a lyrical poet who is said to have introduced sonnets into English.  Wyatt's professed object was to experiment with the English tongue, to civilize it, to raise its powers to those of its neighbors.(Tillyard 1929) He also translated various sonnets written by the Italian poet Petrarch. He also wrote sonnets of his own.
Besides imitating the works of classical writers such as Seneca, and Horace, he also experimented with stanza forms. He also experimented with epigrams, songs, satires, ottava rima, and rondeau. In his poetry he made use of monorime, triplets with refrains, quatrains with different length of line and rhyme schemes, quatrains with codas, and the French forms of douzaine and treizaine. He was the first to use poulter’s measure drawn from Alexandrine couplets of twelve syllable iambic lines alternating with fourteener—fourteen syllable line.  Most of all, he is hailed as the master of iambic tetrameter.
Wyatt's poetry resembles classical and Italian models. So much so, he was a big admirer of Chaucer as his diction has some similarities with him.  His famous poems deal with the trials and tribulation of romantic love. Other poems are viewed as biting and satirical condemnation of hypocrisies going unchecked at the Tudor court by courtiers.
Wyatt was skilled in employing metaphors of animals and nature to pin down the true undercurrent of his poems – sexual in nature. The famous Flee from Me is no exception. The sequence of the poem is irregular iambic pentameter, reducing to nine syllable lines and even tetrameter in line thirteen: “Therewithal sweetly did me kiss,” (13). It consists of twenty-one lines with irregular rhyme (A/B/A/B/B/C/C/D/E/D/F/F/G/H/I/H/I/I/J/J). As is typical of Wyatt, the diction and language of the poem is relatively plain without having any apparent didactic purpose.
The first seven lines of the poem are almost a discourse about the animals that the speaker was familiar with.  The first hint at this is within the second line of the poem, “With naked foot stalking in my chamber.”  The metaphor “naked foot” demands appreciation. Upon close reading and comparing this lines to others, it becomes apparent that “naked” does not signify a hoof or foot of any animal; rather it resembles more like skin of a human foot.

In the remainder of the eight lines (bearing in mind the explication above) the metaphor can be explicated in the same manner:

I have seen them gentle tame and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themselves in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range
Busily seeking with a continual change. (3-7)

Critical opinions regarding his work have varied widely significantly. Warton, the eighteenth century critic, considered Wyatt 'confessedly an inferior' to his contemporary Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey and that Wyatt's 'genius was of the moral and didactic species and be deemed the first polished English satirist. Some view his love poetry with its use of conceits as the seed of metaphysical poetry in the next century. If John Donne was the master of metaphysical poetry, he too was the considered to be the father of English sonnet.  

Edward, Le Comte, (1965) “Grace to a Witty Sinner: A Life of Donne”
Jarret Chris, (2007) “John Donne & Music:Paths to an Opera”, retrieved from

Tillyard, EMW,(1929), “The Poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt, A Selection and a Study,” The Scholartis Press, London


Post a Comment