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John Donne Essay

As a young poet, John Donne often utilized metaphors of spiritual bond in many of his Songs and Sonnets in order to explain fleshly love. Once he renounced Catholicism and converted to the Anglican faith (circa 1597), Donne donned a more devotional style of verse, such as in his Holy Sonnets (circa 1609-1610), finding parallels to divine love in the carnal union. In many ways, however, his love poems and his religious poems are quite similar, for they both address his personae’s deep-seated fear of isolation by women and God, respectively. For example, in Song, “Donne’s speaker tells an unknown person (presumably male) that if he would” Ride ten thousand days and nights he would return. And swear/ Nowhere/ Lives a woman true, and fair? (ll. 12; 16-18).

Similarly, in Holy Sonnet 2, the speaker voices fear that God will not be with him on his day of reckoning: “Oh I shall soon despair when I do see/ That Thou lovest mankind well, yet wilt not chooses me” (ll. 12-13). Whereas many of Donne’s love poems display a speaker’s anxiety and anger about his inability to sustain affection from a woman, Donne transferred that theme of resentment towards women to frustration with God because he personally doubted his salvation. Why would Donne have felt unfulfilled spiritually during the time in which he wrote the Holy Sonnets? Do Witherspoon and Warnke posit that Donne’s religious doubts seem to have been settled because, after his conversion to Anglicanism, he led attacks against Roman Catholicism and published a treatise that encouraged English Catholics to take the oath of allegiance (58).

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While Donne abandoned Catholicism for Anglicanism willingly, records indicate that he did so primarily for reasons of self-preservation and self-advancement (Carey 60). I propose that despite his genuine attempts to embrace the Anglican faith, he encountered seemingly insurmountable liturgical roadblocks that caused long-lasting religious disorientation. To leave one religion in order to embrace another with some fundamental differences with respect to eternal salvation must have troubled Donne greatly. As a Catholic, Donne probably believed that salvation was achieved by true contrition for sins, personal endeavor, and virtuous behavior. As an Anglican, however, he was forced to adopt the Calvinistic approach that personal effort was futile and irrelevant; he must be chosen as one of the elect. Donne, then, reasonably must have felt that he was not one the elect when he converted, for he had sinned merely by being a Catholic.

No longer cushioned by the assurances of Catholicism and its sacraments, he possessed a fear of eternal damnation. This was also a sin, for, in order to be saved by God, one had to believe he was already saved. In essence, fear of condemnation caused condemnation. Donne’s Holy Sonnets reveal his consternation over his unworthiness as a Christian through speakers? repeated attempts to beg God for redemption. In Sonnet 14 the speaker plays the martyr by asking God to brutally force redemption upon him, for the speaker cannot achieve it by the Catholic mode of prayer or the humanistic model of reason. Simultaneously, Donne is able to be the martyr he could never be once he turned traitor to his original faith. Famous for his metaphysical conceits, and his relentless pursuit of a faithful woman, Donne uses the most farfetched paradoxical juxtaposition of all: his speaker begs God to rape him or her in order to become chaste.

Donne employs numerous poetic devices in order to suggest a symbolic rape that would win salvation for his speaker. The hard consonant “B” in the first quatrain alliterates the words “batter,” (l. 1) “breathe,” (l. 2) “bend” (l. 3), and “break, blow, burn” (l. 4) in order to conjure violent images. Notice, however, that these violent images are welcomed, for in an extremely perverse way, “Batter my heart” (l. 1) is an example of the invitation “sub-genre”. The word “heart” was possibly Elizabethan slang for the vagina, and therein lies a very blatant sexual metaphor. Donne uses subtler sexual imagery in the first quatrain when the speaker continues to ask God for physical favors: throw me, and bend/ Your force? (ll. 3-4). From a sexual standpoint, the speaker asks God not to tease and tantalize, but rather to exert force upon him or her.

This relates to Donne’s religious dilemma in that in the first two lines, the speaker states that he or she does not want to be “mend[ed]” by God, but rather spiritually reborn. The speaker’s old self is insufficient, and no amount of prayer will qualify him as worthy of redemption. God must act first and “make [the speaker] new” (ll. 4). In the second quatrain of Holy Sonnet 14, Donne uses the simile of a usurped town to further portray the speaker as spiritually impotent.

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