The Secular as a Religious Lesson: Spiritual Metaphors in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Hymns

 

There are important features that characterize the England of the 1600’s.  First, explorers, intent on expanding the English empire overseas, created new tools to aide sailors in navigating dangerous waters as well as constructing diagrams of the lands they would come to exploit for their gain. However, despite this national spirit urging workers to spread their influence across the globe,  growing civil war also threatened to disband the ties that kept the motherland intact (The English Civil War had not yet occurred but was on its way). The English monarchy, long despised by those who desired more civil liberty in politics and economics, seemed to be crumbling. Englishmen and women debated as to whether or not it was their duty to submit themselves to civil authority, and this rupture in opinion put everyone in the country in perpetual unrest. Resolutions were scarce.

 

Yet, in the midst of all the turmoil, Christianity, the religion that England had long used as the basis of their society’s structure, stood as the ultimate truth one could find peace and meaning in. John Donne, religious pastor and poet, writes about his world in relation to the one he admires above all: God. He uses poetry as a means to express both his knowledge of the world and religion. Thus, in his Holy Sonnets and Hymns, Donne employs secular metaphors to illustrate the spiritual truths of Christianity.

 

In Holy Sonnet XIV, “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” the speaker begs God to turn him away from his sins and back to holiness by using His own transformative power. Theologically, Donne illustrates that, unless the Holy Spirit convict the speaker’s heart of his own iniquity and bring him to repentance, the speaker will remain lost in his wickedness. In her article, “Donne’s Holy Sonnets: The Theology of Conversion,” Stephenie Yearwood explains that, “Conversion, for Donne, means an emotional adjustment that enables one to embrace doctrine. It also involves the difficult process in coming to accept one’s utter helplessness and total dependence on the divine will” (211). The speaker cannot love God with holy zeal unless God conditions him to so through His divine grace. Free will is not an option. The heart, being the seat of the emotions, needs to be spiritually regenerated if God is to be pleased with the speaker’s life.

 

But how does the speaker illumine this truth through secular images? Interestingly, the speaker compares God’s convicting power to the violence associated with the English civil war, how there was unrest in the public sphere. God is called on to “break, blow, and burn” (line 4). Each repetition of the “b” consonant gives the reader a feeling of destructive impact, like the force of a battering ram. By hearing these harsh intonations, the reader receives a sense of the destruction rampant in England, how protesters would resort to violent means to achieve their ends, whether political or religious or both. In this way, Donne draws from the unrest in his society to illumine the need for God’s might to convert the erring sinner from his sinful paths. Doors are broken down by thieves, fighters deal blows with one another, and houses and heretics are burned in broad daylight. These forces are similar to God’s sovereign abilities in their fierceness. In his trapped state of evil, the speaker says, “I, like an usurped town, to another due/ Labor to admit you” (lines 5-6). The speaker, in his failed struggle to escape sin, is like a town being seized by invaders. Likewise, dissenters from the English monarchy would seize provinces for themselves in the rage of the war, regardless of their right to do so, thereby robbing others of their rights.

 

In discussing the origin of the speaker’s struggle with sin, Donne draws from the subjects of another sonnet, Holy Sonnet IX: poisonous minerals, goats, and serpents. Donne’s biblical lesson will be the Fall of mankind from paradise due to disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. But first, the speaker must relate the secular manifestations (minerals and animals) to the depressing truth of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. The speaker opens the sonnet with “If poisonous minerals, and if that tree/ Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us, /If lecherous goats, if serpents envious/ Cannot be damned, alas, why should I be?” (lines 1-4). The conjunction “and” in the first line links the “poisonous minerals” to “that tree,” namely, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree is poisonous for Adam and Eve in a physical and spiritual sense; because they eat from the tree, they bring sin and death into the world. Therefore, mankind is doomed from their disobedience. And the speaker describes sin itself by linking the animals with the negative adjectives “lecherous,” and “envious.” The goats, indulging in sexual immortality, and used as metaphor by Christ Himself for unbelievers, will suffer God’s wrath. The serpents, desiring what others have, stand for the Devil, as the even book of Genesis indicates.

 

Such a depressing spiritual reality makes the speaker question God’s rationale in judging him: “alas, why should I be?” By using Reason, Donne draws on the dominant secular philosophy during his time period. Individuals asserted that, in spite of obeying the religious dogma of the English monarchy, one should obey one’s rationality instead. And in this way, one can pursue liberty even against God’s law that government was created by Him and for His people. But the speaker quickly abandons his interrogation of God with the phrase “But who am I that dare dispute with thee?” (line 9). In “The Rhetoric of Passion in Donne’s Holy Sonnets,” Tina Skouen explains that “the speaker is well aware, though he pretends otherwise, that animals cannot be blamed for their lack of self-control; humans, on the other hand, can because they can willfully succumb to their desires” (169). Because he has a responsibility for his spiritual state, the speaker cannot accuse God of being unfair in possibly damning him. John Donne, personally, for that matter, cannot reject God’s truth simply because he does not understand it. He accepts the inevitability of his sin and the consequences that will arise because of it.

 

What will Donne do now that he must accept death as the recompense of his iniquity? His response is to sing “A Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness.” The speaker parallels the most hopeful and significant lesson in the Christian faith with the art of cartography, an important trade in Donne’s era that assisted people in traveling unchartered seas to expand the English empire. He does this at a moment when he suffers an acute disease that threatens his life. The speaker says that “I joy, that in these straits, I see my West; / For, though their current yield return to none, / What shall my West hurt me? As West and East/ In all flat maps (and I am one) are one, / So death doth touch the resurrection” (lines 11-15). The speaker compares the aspects of an explorer’s map, fashioned by curious, finite man, to not only his own body but also to the Christian teaching of the Resurrection on the Last Day. In the Bible, Christ promises the believer that, even after physical death, there is a regeneration that will occur, engendering new life for eternity. Though the Christian may experience death as a punishment from the Fall, they will later rise from the dead in a new glorified body to enjoy Heaven forever. As a result, the speaker has great hope in the midst of the despair and wrath his sin brings upon him. The paradox of birth and rebirth is rampant in Donne’s poetry overall, according to John E. Parish: “the central lesson of Christianity is the paradoxical relationship between life and death” (300). Though Parish is speaking mainly about Holy Sonnet XIV, this same logic can be applied to most of Donne’s poetry.

 

In light of Donne’s techniques of using secular aspects of life to highlight the even more important spiritual ones, what can we conclude about his thinking about life in general? We can see that he believed that the relationship between the finite and infinite was important, not to be questioned. Such a belief connects rationale with abstract thinking. He seems to be asking the question as to whether or not 1600’s England was slowly submitting its traditional insistence on Christianity to more down-to-earth solutions to difficult problems. The complex relationship between these two beliefs highlights the world Donne lived in, at the very least, causing turmoil in the political arena. Yet, for Donne, the solace he finds in Christ is the ultimate conclusion: he would have the reader look deeper than the positive and negative concretes they experience every day and discover deeper truths about the universe. The Gospel, specifically, Christ’s redemption of sinners from God’s wrath, is the final conclusion to his life. He simply uses poetry that draws from tangible, everyday experience to express this exceedingly hopeful answer.

 

WORKS CITED

Parish, John E. “No. 14 of Donne’s Holy Sonnets.” College English 24.4 (1963): 299–302. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.

Skouen, Tina. “The Rhetoric of Passion in Donne’s Holy Sonnets.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 27.2 (2009): 159–188. Web. 21 Apr. 2014.

Yearwood, Stephenie. “Donne’s Holy Sonnets: The Theology of Conversion.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 24.2 (1982): 208–221. Print.

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One response to “The Secular as a Religious Lesson: Spiritual Metaphors in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Hymns

  1. Pingback: The Secular as a Religious Lesson: Spiritual Metaphors in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Hymns | The World According to Devin Stevens

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