John Donne's Holy Sonnet I

Updated on April 13, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

John Donne


Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet I

The speaker begins a series of supplications to the Divine to deliver him from his self-induced state of despair and decay. In the throes of a degenerating physical encasement, the speaker seeks succor from the only source able to give it—his Blessed Creator.

Holy Sonnet I

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;
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;
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.

Reading of Holy Sonnet 1


The speaker is suffering from an aging and crippling physical body. He is engaging with his Beloved Creator, as he prayerfully contemplates his mortality and immortality.

First Quatrain: Contemplating His Demise

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.

The speaker in John Donne's Holy Sonnet 1 addresses his Creator. He appears in a conflicted state that the great Divine Beloved could create such as he and then allow that creation to sink into decomposition and disillusion. He then immediately commands of his Heavenly Father to make him whole, admitting that he feels that the end of his life is near, he seems to be moving quickly toward death, and he can no longer find pleasure in living as he always had before this period of aging and illness.

The speaker is no stranger to reliance on the Divine Father. That he would so easily command the Divine Beloved demonstrates a closeness that he has cultivated throughout his lifetime. Because the Blessed Creator has created his children, they should always feel comfortable speaking to Him, and even at times chiding Him, and even demanding from Him those things and situation that are needed by the divine child. And with this speaker, it is despite his spirituality that he finds himself in such dire straits.

Second Quatrain: The Looming Demise

I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
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.

The speaker reports that he no longer has the courage to look about him for fear of sensing and being reminded of his past despair and the fact that death is approaching. That his demise is looming renders him terrorized. His flesh has become enfeebled from the sin he has allowed himself to engage in during his lifetime.

The speaker even suspects himself being cast in to hell because of his lifetimes of frivolity and endless engagement in sensual pleasure. He remains on the cusp of accepting his responsibility for his lot, but nevertheless he still feels the need to confess and seek forgiveness and reparations from his Divine Beloved.

Third Quatrain: Summary

Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.

The speaker confronts the fact that his Divine Beloved remains in control of the speaker's life, actions, and death. He positions the Creator "above" and suggests that only toward the Divine can he safely cast his glances. As he realizes the infallible presence of his Creator, he finds that he can rally somewhat.

But then the old tormenter, Satan, "our old foe," again flaunts his magic on the sense-enslaved body and the speaker then finds it difficult to remain focused on the only Presence that matters. The speaker knows that he must keep his consciousness above the physical encasement in order to remain locked in the arms of the Divine, but he continues to struggle as he attempts to keep spiritually focused.

The Couplet: Mercy Through Grace

Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And Thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

In the couplet, the speaker makes his most positive comment. It is indeed the intersession of the Heavenly Father that will be able to keep Satan from practicing his magic on the speaker. It is the Divine Beloved alone who will be able to attract and keep the attention of the speaker.

The speaker metaphorically likens his heart to iron and the Divine Creator to a magnet. He fashions his claim with a set of images that concentrate the motions of flying "wing me" to the hard texture of the hardest stone or metal "adamant." And he thus places his total faith in the "grace" that the Lord will fly to him and attract his heart away from the pleasure-mad, sin-inducing scheme of the satanic force.



Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

Questions & Answers

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    18 months ago from U.S.A.

    Wow, how wonderful that you got to experience the works and bio of such a great poet at such an early age. Do you still have the paper? I wish I had some of my high school papers, although they would likely cause me much embarrassment.

    Donne is certainly one of the greats and well worth an in-depth study. I am continuing to comment on the Holy Sonnets, but I know I will not stop there. His output is amazingly large, rich, and varied.

    Thanks for the response and those marvelous angels. Always love hearing from you, Patricia!

  • pstraubie48 profile image

    Patricia Scott 

    18 months ago from North Central Florida

    when I was a senior is high school I wrote an in depth (for a high school student) research paper on John Donne and his works. It is interesting to see his work discussed here. Angels are on the way to you this evening ps


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