John Donne – Holy Sonnets 11, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19

Sonnet 11 begins with an intentionally disturbing image where the author identifies himself with Christ during Passion and encourages Jews to torture him. But in line 3 Donne explains why he wishes for that: he is a sinner and he deserves it, in contrast to Jesus. Even his death would not be a sufficient atonement for his sins. Jews crucified Jesus but once while he crucifies Jesus daily with his sins. Kings may pardon the condemned men, but Jesus went one step further, himself bearing our punishment. And Jacob, according to Genesis, wore goatskins, but he did it only for worldly gain and to trick his brother Esau out of the special blessing his blind father wanted to give to his firstborn. On the other hand, Jesus “clothed himself in file man’s flesh” to suffer together with us.

Sonnet 13 starts with a question: what if it is the world’s las night? It’s a scary thought, so the poet addresses his soul, asking it to meditate upon Christ on the cross and wonders if his face can scare it. Even though it is covered with tears and blood, it is not scary and Jesus, who forgave his enemies, cannot doom anybody to eternal punishment. The poet admits he used to use Neoplatonic language to his earthly mistresses, trying to convince them that a beautiful face is a sign of compassionate nature. By the same logic, wicked spirits are ugly and Jesus is beautiful, therefore he is going to be merciful.

Sonnet 14 is maybe the most famous one of the whole cycle and one of the most shocking, using the extensive analogy between rape and God storming human heart. It begins with the line using the vocabulary one uses to describe storming fortresses: “Batter my heart, three-personed God…”  Donne compares his soul to “an usurped town”: its inhabitants would like to open the gates to their rightful lord, but they are unable to do so, and Reason, God’s governor, is held captive. Then switching to violent sexual imagery, Donne compares himself to a girl “betrothed unto your enemy”, then expressing in a startling series of verbs his wish to be taken by force. If you don’t make me your slave, I can never be free, he says, “nor ever chaste, except thou ravish me”.

Sonnet 17 is a very personal sonnet, written after the death of Donne’s wife, who died a week after giving birth to their twelfth stillbron child. She is now in heaven and so the poet’s mind is also wholly set on heaven. Admiring her goodness led the poet to God, like following the stream one gets to its source, but he still feel thirsty for love. But why should he miss her if God himself is wooing him, offering himself in her stead? God is now like a lover who in his “tender jealousy” feels Donne loves “saints and angels” (referring to his wife, I guess) more than him and that the world, flesh and devil are going to replace him in the poet’s affection.

Sonnet 18 is a dramatic question: which Church is right? Is it the Church of Rome, richly painted, or the Anglican or Calvinist? Is the truth with us or do we have to set out on a quest, like knights of old? Another sexual metaphor asks Christ to show the believers his heavenly spouse and allow Donne’s “amorous soul” to court her because, unlike in other relationships, the Bride of Christ is the most pleasing to him when she is “open to most men”.

in Sonnet 19 the poet despairs about his inconstancy. Just like formerly in love, he now cannot stay true to God and his resolutions. One day he is so convinced about his sinfulness that he even dares not look toward God, today he courts God “in prayers and flattering speeches” and tomorrow he will again shake in fear of God’s punishment. His fits of devotion are like fits of fever, with the difference that unlike in an ilness, “those are my best days, when I shake with fear”

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