Sunday, 11 March 2018

John Donne's Conflicting Voice in his Holy Sonnets

by PoppyGoad


In Donne’s Holy Sonnets he covers multiple conceits, exploring both his relationship with God and his eventual journey to the afterlife. However, as in many of Donne’s poems, in the Holy Sonnets a conflicted voice appears. Either of confident assertion of his journey to heaven, as in ‘Death be not proud’ Sonnet 10, or a voice of torment and desperation, as in ‘Batter my heart’ Sonnet 14. In which Donne seeks punishment from God for his past sins, by pleading God to physically assault him, in order to form a spiritual connection that will redeem him of his wrongdoings.This conflicted voice, correlates with the emotional torment that is speculated to have been going on whilst he wrote the sonnets. As the death of his beloved wife Ann More in 1617 and his conversion to the Anglican Church from Catholicism could have thrown him into a frenzied seeking of redemption, following the blatant confidence that an afterlife exists where all live on in heaven through God’s love.

Holy Sonnet 10

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not 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 thy 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.

In 'Holy Sonnet 10' Donne addresses Death in a tone of superiority, thus, from the start of the sonnet, through the imperative ‘be’ used as a command, Death is established as inferior to the speaker. This is further emphasised through the dental alliteration of ‘Die not, poor Death’, which reinforces the aggressive and superior tone of the speaker. This assertive tone draws upon the metaphor that Death is as much a ‘slave’ to life as life is a slave to Death, as ‘thou art slave to, fate, chance, kings and desperate men’. This asyndetic list of earthly things reinforces the conceit of Death’s inferiority and strips Death of its omnipotent facade through metonyms that infer the unglamorous slavery of Death. The speaker goes on to argue how ‘dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell’, belittling Death through this triadic structure of disease. This metaphor establishes the idea that Death is a squatter in illness, implying that his power that all mankind fear, is non-existent.

To emphasise Death’s lack of power, Donne concludes by drawing reference to the Christian belief of resurrection, arguing how ‘we wake eternally and death shall be no more’. This suggests that humans can not die as the very nature of heaven precludes this idea. The use of the harsh dental and dissonant alliteration in the final line creates a finality in the argument of the speaker. Thus, through the paradoxical and metaphysical image of death’s own death, as ‘Death, thou shalt die’, a final triumph over Death is concluded.

Holy Sonnet 14

Batter my heart, three-person’d 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 usurp’d town to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly’ I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d 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.

Donne uses the form of a Petrarchan sonnet in Holy Sonnet 14, which further reflects his fervent desire; a desire for God to ‘break, blow, and make me new’. This lexical field of onomatopoeic metalwork, creates the metaphor of God as a blacksmith. The repetition of the monosyllabic verbs to reflect the bashing of metal through the harsh plosive alliteration, is used to further inflate the speaker’s desire to be cleansed by God through brutality. As a blacksmith is used as an analogy for God, so is a woman used as an analogy for Donne’s soul, who, ‘like an usurp’d town, to’another due, Labour to’admit you’. This creates the image of his soul as a helpless victim. The word ‘Labour’ conflates the idea of childbirth and strenuous physical work, to imply the heightened desire of the speaker ‘to admit you’, and also to suggest that the subject of the conceit is feminine.

In the final conceit of the poem Donne equates true religious devotion with sexual assault. Through the paradoxes Donne employs, he implores God to ‘divorce me’. The fact that Donne uses the imperative to command God to break such a sacred bond as marriage, implies the importance of the paradox, in order to cleanse his soul. Donne goes on to argue that in order to rid his soul of sin and to divorce his soul from the devil, ‘except you enthrall me, never shall be free’. Therefore, through the verb ‘enthrall’, connotations of a sexual connection with God are implied. The last line of the poem, ‘nor ever chaste, except you ravish me’ continues to emphasis the sexual imagery created. However, the image that ‘ravish’ provokes is also of violence, implying how Donne has used this final ferocious and sexual image as a metaphor to explain the paradox of spiritual fulfilment, as only when the feminine speaker is ravished(raped), can she regain her chastity and join God.

Both these poems implicitly express Donne’s underlying desire to reach the afterlife, perhaps to be reunited by Ann. Or the reason could be more self centred, in that, he wishes to work his way into heaven through his own redemption to prove his belief and connection with God.

It is clear however, that although each sonnet has a different  conceit, both sonnets are fueled by a voice of fervent intensity that could only have stimulated from a tragic or significant event.

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