John Donne's Holy Sonnet XVII - Owlcation - Education
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John Donne's Holy Sonnet XVII

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 XVII

As the devout speaker in John Donne's classic work, The Holy Sonnets, progresses toward his goal of union with the Divine Reality, he poses many questions and examines many possible solutions to his philosophical conundrum. His physical body is rapidly deteriorating, and he knows he has little time to muse on the issues that seem to block his soul from his goal of soul-realization.

The speaker is continuing to fashion his little dramas that depict his vigorous examination of all he knows and wishes to learn. By reflecting back to his beloved wife's influence, the speaker is then reminded of how the Heavenly Father seeks His children just as His children seek their Heavenly Father.

Holy Sonnet XVII

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.
Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek Thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found Thee, and Thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas Thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers offering all Thine:
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,
But in Thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea, devil put Thee out.

Reading of Holy Sonnet XVII

Commentary

Holy Sonnet XVII finds the speaker examining his love for his late wife as the motivation for seeking the will of his Heavenly Father.

First Quatrain: Remembering His Beloved Wife

Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravishèd,
Wholly on heavenly things my mind is set.

Addressing the Beloved Creator, the speaker refers to his wife, who preceded him in death. He described her leaving her physical encasement as paying "her last debt." And she had paid in full to "Nature" as well as her own self, leaving the speaker at a loss and feeling that his "good is dead."

The speaker reports that she left her body while still young, and that loss has motivated the speaker to seek "heavenly things," thus he contends that his "mind is set" "wholly on those things divine.

Readers will have become aware that the speaker is indeed focused on the Divine Reality and all of Its qualities and features as he fashions his little dramas of study and discovery. His intensity has grown as he is concerned for his own soul, which he intuits will be leaving its physical encasement soon.

Second Quatrain: God Motivation

Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek Thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found Thee, and Thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.

The speaker then reveals that it was, in fact, his beloved wife, particularly his admiration of her, that first sharpened his desire to become united with the Over-Soul. He colorfully compares his flowing into Reality awareness to "streams" that reveal their source.

Nevertheless, the speaker, despite the fact that he has continued his journey to soul-awareness, realizes that the Ultimate Reality has continued to feed "his thirst." The speaker, however, has maintained an unfortunate consternation regarding this ultimate destination. No doubt, he is once again reminded of his earlier unholy lapses into physicality.

Third Quatrain: Questioning the Divine Beloved

But why should I beg more love, whenas Thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers offering all Thine:
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,

The speaker then poses a question to his Beloved Divine, seeking to know why he continues to feel the need of seeking "more love." He intuits that he is being sought by the Divine, even as he seeks union with the Divine. Plus he knows that the suffering experienced by his late, beloved wife has been consumed in the fires of Divine Love.

The speaker now suspects that his Divine Creator may detect in him a weakening of his love as he spreads that love to "saints and angels" and other "things divine." By assigning such discrimination to the Ultimate Reality, the speaker can reflect on his own level of fear that may still be inhibiting his progress on the spiritual path.

The Couplet: What Worldly Doubt Extinguishes

But in Thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea, devil put Thee out.

Not only does a slight fear of unconcentrated Divine affection reside in him, but also there seems to exist a level of "tender jealousy" along with some "doubt" that might cause the Blessed Creator to fail to appear before the speaker to consummate the ultimate unity.

The speaker desires above all else to be united with his Divine Creator. The speaker, therefore, examines every thought and feeling that arises in him. He questions his Creator as an earthly son would question his earthly father because he knows he still has much to learn and little time in which to learn it.

Monumental Effigy

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"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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