Three Holy Sonnets
Sonnet 13 (1)*
THOU hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way; 5
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again; 10
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.
There is a sense of despair and terror that is aroused by the thought of death and sin that is then repelled in the final sestet as he turns toward God. While the devil is "our subtle foe" it is Donne that is tempted. He cannot sustain the grace of God but must rely on God to draw in forth. This is a theme that we see again and again in the Holy Sonnets, for example:
Sonnet 10 (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, 5
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should 1 defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy; 10
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.
Sonnet 1 (2)*
As due by many titles I resign
Myself to thee, O God. First I was made
By Thee; and for Thee, and when I was decay’d
Thy blood bought that, the which before was Thine.
I am Thy son, made with Thyself to shine, 5
Thy servant, whose pains Thou hast still repaid,
Thy sheep, Thine image, and—till I betray’d
Myself—a temple of Thy Spirit divine.
Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish, that’s Thy right? 10
Except Thou rise and for Thine own work fight,
O! I shall soon despair, when I shall see 1
That Thou lovest mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.
Of these three my favorite is Sonnet 10 with its stentorian phrases like "Batter my heart" and "break, blow, burn". In Sonnet 13 Donne declares himself unable to combat, by his own efforts the temptation to despair. By the end of the poem, in spite of his sureness in the power of the grace of god he will surmount the devil, but his heart is solid iron, unmoved by him but, perhaps, drawn close by god. And, in Sonnet 10 there is a similar recognition that he is "betroth’d unto your enemy", but can be saved if god will "imprison me". The last lines of this sonnet exemplify the sort of paradox that recurs throughout Donne's poetry. Only if he is imprisoned by god and in his thrall can he be "free".
We see the use of paradox in Sonnet 1 as well when Donne claims that god has made him, and bought him with the blood but having been ravished and stolen by the devil he ends the sonnet with the lines: "That Thou lovest mankind well, yet wilt not choose me, And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me." The legality of all god's actions (note the first few lines of the poem) is upset by the devil's illegality which seemingly trumps that of god. The question becomes one about the nature of the grace of God, whether it is freely given or must be earned. Or, is once given may be stolen by the power of Satan. Note that in the first sonnet above there was a recognition by Donne that he could not maintain this grace. The power of the devil in these sonnets seems to mirror the power of Satan of Milton's Paradise Lost which would appear less than half a century following Donne's death.
Returning to the issue of death, it seems that is the only escape from the battle with the devil and that the only hope of the believer is that God's grace will be there after death. The meditative nature of the sonnets and the solitariness implied in many of them makes one wonder who was the audience for these works. I can only speculate that they were intended for use by Donne himself who would turn to sermonizing for the public in his role as the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral in London.
* The numbers are from the Norton Critical Edition and those in parentheses are from the Oxford University Press edition,