In his poem ‘Jordan’, George Herbert criticises the convoluted nature of Renaissance poetry and urges poets towards straightforward expressions of emotion, particularly religious emotion. He questions ‘Is there in truth no beauty?’ and opens the poem’s third stanza with the memorable line: ‘Shepherds are honest people; let them sing…’ With the pastoral reference and the use of the word ‘honest’, Herbert also seems to be condemning the insincerity of 17th Century courtly life contrasted with a sense of rustic innocence. John Donne himself was acutely aware of this artificiality, evident in his sonnet ‘Oh, to vex me…’ (often printed as the last sonnet in the sequence) in which he reveals the variety of masks he adopts in his poetry. He questions whether he can really demonstrate the real truth of his soul ‘By circumstances, and by signes that be / Apparent in us…’ He looks back at his past and sees only a succession of skilfully-adopted poses: ‘to day / In prayers, and flattering speaches I court God: / To morrow I quake with true feare of his rod.’ He showed a similar awareness in his sermons, as when he discussed the dangers of rhetoric and the power of words ‘to shape that beliefe’ and ‘to powre it into new molds… to stamp and imprint new formes, new images, new opinions in it.’ In his Holy Sonnets, Donne does exactly that: he uses his poetic skill to shape various different identities for himself.
Indeed, Donne’s whole life seems to have been divided into a dual identity. A clear split has been forged between the young and lustful Donne of the Songs and Sonnets and the old and devout Donne of the Divine Poems. This division was partly driven by the mature Donne’s desire to distance himself from the sensuousness of his early poetry, a distance reinforced by Izaak Walton’s biography of Donne, in which he compared the poet to a latter-day Augustine, the saint whose conversion at the hands of St. Ambrose became an influential Christian paradigm. But this division is unhelpful in a number of ways, not least because it is based on the false assumption that the religious poems were written much later than the Songs and Sonnets, an assumption with very little evidence to support it. Moreover, the poems themselves undermine the so-called ‘myth of two Donnes’ in that, throughout the Holy Sonnets, we see the same wit and performance for which the Songs and Sonnets are renowned. As P.M. Oliver points out, ‘Donne’s religious writing… demonstrates a striking continuity with the amatory and satirical verse he had already written.’ True, the matter of the religious poems may be different, but their manner and style are very similar. Like the love poems, the divine poems are often ‘witty, individualistic performances.’ This does, however, leave us with some problems: the idiosyncratic wit and rhetorical skill of the poet often undermines the masks he is attempting to adopt, and to that extent the authenticity of emotion in the Holy Sonnets must be called into question.
Donne adopts two major poses in the Holy Sonnets: the first is that of the submissive and despairing sinner, terrified that his transgressions will lead to his damnation. The second mask he adopts is that of a man assured of his own election, unafraid and almost swaggering. The first mask, that of fear, despair, and melancholy, is typical of devotional verse: Gerard Manley Hopkins adopted a similar personality in his ‘Terrible Sonnets’. The melancholy pose was also typical of the Renaissance man, hence the abundance of young men painted as forlorn youths tortured by unrequited love. Donne himself had one of these portraits commissioned in which he is depicted in darkness with his arms folded – a standard symbol of melancholy – and a large-brimmed hat shading his face. Just as he adopted this pose as a pitiful lover, so in the Holy Sonnets he adopts the pose of pitiful sinner. For example, the fourth sonnet opens with the impassioned exclamation: ‘Oh my black Soule!’ and ends with the embracing of a mournful pose: ‘Oh make thy selfe with holy mourning blacke, / And red with blushing, as thou art with sinne…’ His repentance, then, seems to be a mask in itself, and thus we can infer that the poem’s opening exclamation is no more than an artificiality. Indeed, a number of the poems seem to come across as theatrical and dramatic representations rather than sincere expressions of despair. In her introduction to the divine poems, Helen Gardner notes this ‘almost histrionic note’ and attributes it to ‘the meditation’s deliberate stimulation of emotion.’ The emotions of the poems seem almost fabricated at points, as is suggested by the repetition of ‘oh’ and ‘alas’ in the sequence. These exclamations seem particularly out of context when they follow relatively collected and rational meditations, as in ‘Father, part of his double interest…’ After meditating on the doctrine of the Bible and the various commandments God has given, Donne exclaims: ‘thy last command / Is all but love; Oh let this last Will stand!’ The ‘oh’ makes it seem like the speaker is emotionally involved, but as Oliver points out, ‘the level rationality of the preceding lines’ makes it hard to see the speaker as ‘desperate or hysterical.’
There are similarly histrionic notes in the Songs and Sonnets, again showing why the amatory-religious divide is unhelpful. For example, in ‘The Flea’, when his mistress has crushed the flea with her nail, Donne melodramatically exclaims: ‘Cruel and sudden, hast thou since / Purpled thy nail, in blood of innocence?’ Here, Donne is adopting a tone of sadness in order to inspire the pity of his mistress. Arguably, the Holy Sonnets use a similar tactic, attempting to inspire the pity of God through a pose of despair which often comes across as melodramatic. ‘This is my play’s last scene’ opens very sensationally, with the word ‘last’ repeated four times in the first four lines alone. It’s no wonder, then, that Gardner pointed out the ‘note of exaggeration’ which, ‘in stimulating feeling… may falsify it, and overdramatize the spiritual life.’ But this melodrama is not the only aspect of the Songs and Sonnets which has crept into the religious verse. Throughout the divine poems there are idiosyncratic paradoxes, conceits and puns which, though typical of Donne, seem somewhat out of place in devout religious poetry. For example, in ‘A Hymne to God the Father’, Donne mourns his sinfulness with an authentic voice of fear and despair: ‘Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begunne, / Which was my sin, though it were done before?’ And yet, the first two stanzas end with a paradoxical pun on his name, jarring with the serious tone of the previous lines: ‘When thou hast done, thou hast not done, / For, I have more.’ This mixture of wit and gloom is something that Wilbur Sanders criticised in the Holy Sonnets as a flaw, though perhaps it shows the tension in Donne between a yearning towards seriousness and an inability to completely escape his jocular self. Hence, in the words of Sanders, ‘the personality becomes the prey of inner division.’
This seems to be the underlying flaw of many of the sonnets: though at times they present us with an apparently sincere sense of grief, fear and despair, this is often counteracted by a strange frivolity, as when he plays verbal games with colours at the end of ‘Oh my black Soule!’ Their other major drawback is that they are often dominated by what Sanders calls ‘blatant theological sophistry.’ This is no more evident than in ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ In the octet, the speaker focuses on the picture of Christ crucified and wonders whether Christ will ‘adjudge thee unto hell’ even though he ‘pray’d forgivenesse for his foes’. The sestet opens with a direct response: ‘No, no…’ This audacity in itself is odd, and somewhat hard to believe: perhaps Donne used his poetry as a method of self-assurance. He then argues that the beauty of Christ’s image on the cross ‘assumes a pitious mind.’ But Donne, as a Calvinist, knew that this could not be true, since Christ could not be merciful to everybody: the elect would receive God’s pity, whilst the non-elect would feel his wrath and eventually be damned. Indeed, Universalism (the theory that everybody could be saved) was condemned as a heresy in Constantinople in 553 and again at the Protestant Augsburg Confession of 1530, and so it’s incredibly unlikely that Donne could have believed this sophistic argument. Thus, Christ’s image cannot assure pity for everybody. Moreover, Donne’s reference to his idolatrous past is telling since, as Stanley Fish points out, ‘The assertion that he is not now in his idolatry is undermined by the fact that he here says the same things he used to say when he was.’ So it’s clear, then, that as Sanders says, ‘the consolation does not console’ – Donne’s verbal ability to assure himself of his safety seems to undermine itself, revealing his manifest casuistry. Fish goes on: ‘as the poem concludes, he is no more assured of what he assumes than anyone else, neither of the ‘piteous minde’ of his saviour, nor of the spiritual stability he looks to infer from the saviour’s picture.’
The same can be said for Donne’s famous sonnet ‘Death be not proud’. Throughout his life, Donne was obsessed with the idea of death: as a young Catholic in Protestant England, he was taken to see Catholics martyred, an experience that stayed with him into his elderly years. He also wrote tracts on the morality of suicide, and, most famously, is said by Walton to have ‘preached his own Funeral Sermon’ known as ‘Death’s Duel’, a sermon he gave in the final days of his life. He was terrified by the idea that death takes away our individual essence as humans:
‘[T]hat private and retired man, that thought himself his own for ever, and never came forth, must in his dust of the grave be published, and (such are the revolutions of the grave) be mingled with the dust of every highway and of every dunghill, and swallowed in every puddle and pond. This is the most inglorious and contemptible vilification, the most deadly and peremptory nullification of man, that we can consider.’ (‘Death’s Duel’)
In the sermon, he defeats this fear by concluding that every man must ‘lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection…’ The sonnet ‘Death be not proud…’ follows a similar line, though it is much more bravado in its argument. He addresses personified mortality as ‘poore death’ and bravely says: ‘nor yet canst thou kill mee…’ Death, he says, is ‘slave to Fate’ and asks ‘why swell’st thou then?’ This question in itself, though, supposes that death still assumes a large portion of Donne’s thought, swelling beyond reason into an irrational fear. The poem ends with a theatrical and yet hollow flourish: ‘death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die’. Despite the bravado of this statement, Donne’s declaration is vacuous – as John Stachniewski argues, the fact that it ends with the word ‘die’ ironically demonstrates that death still has power in the poem. Similarly, when Donne says ‘valiantly I hels wide mouth o’rstride’ we see him adopting a peculiarly audacious stance resonating with the precarious assertiveness of ‘Death be not proud’. Thus, whilst these sophistic arguments may have worked in seducing mistresses with wit and humour, they seem incredibly out of place in an eschatological context of salvation or damnation. They may show Donne’s poetic and rhetorical skill, but as Fish notes, ‘The effort of self-persuasion… fails in exactly the measure that his rhetorical effort succeeds.’
In his poem ‘Metempsychosis’ Donne reflects upon the stretching of ‘reasons… to so nice a thinness through a quill / That they themselves break, do themselves spill…’ This stretching of reason is frequently dramatized in the Holy Sonnets, the strength of the sophistic arguments often driven to a ludicrous extent, revealing their weakness. But this is not to say that the poems themselves are weak: this may have been part of Donne’s intention. Perhaps the meaning of the poems is to be found in their note of feigned assurance. As Stachniewski suggests, ‘the argument of Donne’s poems is often so strained that it alerts us to its opposite, the emotion or mental state in defiance of which the argumentative process was set to work. The poem’s meaning lives in the tension between the argument and the emotion.’ Perhaps in ‘This is my playes last scene’ we are not meant to believe with such assurance that Donne’s sins will fall away to Hell whilst he goes up to Heaven. We are, perhaps, urged to question this argument. And so, this self-conscious casuistry is a subtle and effective way of establishing the poetry’s dominant emotions, doubt and fear.
It’s clear, then, that Donne’s poetic style largely stayed with him throughout his career. The same use of wit and paradox can be seen in the Holy Sonnets as was seen in the Songs and Sonnets. It’s also clear that Donne’s poetry is largely a succession of poses, and this is something he himself seems to have been aware of. The sonnets often begin with a pose of despair and then move onto a pose of self-assured certainty. It’s no wonder, really, that the pose of despairing sinner seems, as Gardner says, ‘exaggerated’ to the modern reader given that we no longer live in a country dominated by Calvinism and the fear of God’s wrath – perhaps, then, we can look past this histrionic note as understandable. Moreover, perhaps this tone of feigned emotion simply demonstrates the impossibility of expressing such strong feeling in words. It’s somewhat harder to excuse the strange use of wit and paradox, which seems to undermine Donne’s apparent despair, revealing it to be just a pose (though that’s not to say he never felt despair, just to say that the despair expressed in the sonnets comes across as somewhat feigned). Similarly, the paradoxical sophistry destabilises any sense of self-assurance and comfort, revealing the mask of boldness adopted by the poet. But, as I argued earlier, perhaps this sense of failed assurance was intentional. Though Donne forces his fierce emotions into the restricted sonnet form, and though he apparently attempts to mitigate his despair with theological sophistry which he surely cannot fail to doubt, other emotions inevitably seep out. Just as the highly-wrought passions of ‘Batter my heart…’ seem almost to break free from the strict rhyme scheme and metre (the initial trochee ‘Batter’ being an obvious example), so the despair of the other Holy Sonnets is never really soothed. Perhaps Donne was partly right when he said: ‘Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, / For, he tames it, who fetters it in verse.’ But, as we read the sonnets, we get the sense that Donne never truly succeeded in ‘taming’ his grief and his fear completely. Each line is bursting with tension, uncertainty, and doubt, and it is this that gives the sonnets their excitement.