Sonnets, Sex, and the Sacred

Updated on January 23, 2019
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John DonneJohn Milton
John Donne
John Donne
John Milton
John Milton

The sonnet, a fourteen-line lyric poem written in iambic pentameter, originated in Italy in the fourteenth century. Petrarch, a Renaissance poet, spearheaded this genre and established it as a major form of love poetry (Baldick 239). The sonnet has been further popularized as well as developed by many prominent poets, including Shakespeare, Spenser, Browning, as well as the two poets that we will be examining today: John Donne and John Milton. Both of these poets pushed the limits of what a sonnet can contain both thematically and structurally. Specifically, Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 and Milton’s Sonnet 18 will be analyzed. This article will compare these two sonnets by the aforementioned poets, specifically analyzing their themes, their use of conventional sonnet structure and form, and the effectivity of using a sonnet to convey their message.

First, let us discuss the main themes as well as history of the two sonnets. As previously mentioned, sonnets are traditionally focused on “the torments of sexual love” (Baldick 239). However, both Donne and Milton branch out from this tradition and incorporate different thematic elements in their works. Donne’s poem focuses on religion: he pleads with God, asking God to “Batter [his] heart…break, blow, burn, and make [him] new,” (lines 1-4). He compares himself to a “usurp’d town” (5) that he wishes God to break into and “divorce” (11) him from God’s enemy, implying Satan. This extended metaphor, also known as a metaphysical conceit, is common in metaphysical poetry, a movement that Donne is known for participating in. The conceit is quite effective in the sonnet as it allows Donne to use fairly violent language that may otherwise be out-of-place. Furthermore, the sonnet is arguably the perfect length for a metaphysical conceit: it is short enough that the conceit may occupy the entire poem, yet long enough for the author to be able to create a deep and stirring comparison.

Donne published this poem after being confirmed as an Anglican priest. Indeed, when looking at Donne’s confused religious history, this marriage to Satan makes sense – Donne was born and raised as a Catholic, however he strongly questioned his faith when his brother was imprisoned for his Catholic beliefs (“John Donne”). This tumultuous up-and-down relationship with religion, eventually ending in Anglicanism, reflects the theme of the sonnet. Donne feels he has sinned – likely alluding to his previous religious beliefs – and ultimately wants to be saved by God.

Although the poem is quite religious, even violently so, there are many sexual undertones to the sonnet as well that one may not expect from such a religious poet. Indeed, Donne does not completely stray from the traditional sonnet theme of love; he speaks to God almost as if he were God’s lover. He claims that God “enthrall[s]” him and “ravish[es]” him (13-12). This language is quite erotic and forceful; it shows the passion behind Donne’s love for God. However, the language is quite contradictory as well: another common theme of metaphysical poetry. The final few lines explain how Donne needs to be broken and beaten in order to be good, how he needs to be divorced – an act that would not have been allowed by the Anglican God he speaks to – from Satan in order to truly love God, and how Donne wants God to imprison him in order to be free. Donne’s passionate love itself seems paradoxical as well – his love is described in quite physical and earthly terms, yet he uses them to refer to a God who should be praised with spiritual and sacred love. Although this may seem to verge on being disrespectful towards God, it also may be analyzed as yet another contradiction that Donne uses in order to shock and intrigue his readers, arguably making the poem more memorable.

Milton’s sonnet, quite similarly to Donne’s, focuses heavily on his religion. However, Milton includes some political tones in his poem as well, thus further expanding the thematic range of the sonnet. Furthermore, Milton includes no hint of love in his poem, to a woman or to God. Instead, he protests the massacre of the Waldesians, an old Protestant sect that lived in the Alpines, who were attacked by the Duke of Savoy. The Duke can be assumed to be acting under the “triple Tyrant,” (12) a name that is somewhat of an epithet for the Pope, who often wore a triple crown (Milton) and who Milton attributes the blame to in the poem. As a Protestant himself, Milton was outraged at the massacre and it further deepened his detest for the Catholic Church. Milton then asks God to avenge the Waldesians, who he refers to as “Saints” (1). Milton strongly favored the Waldesians for their “willingness to translate the Bible into the vernacular, by their refusal to support their clergy with tithes, and by their readiness to take up arms against tyrants,” (Burbery 8). He condemns their brutal massacre and asks for revenge.

The themes of both of these poems are effectively portrayed by the poets’ use of tone and voice. The two poems are both deeply emotional, although in different ways. First, let us analyze Milton’s use of tone and voice. Milton’s sonnet is a plea for the dead; it is a release of anger and sadness. In a traditional sonnet, line nine carries a ‘turn’ in the poem when the author’s voice or theme changes, and the closing sestet more or less answers what the octave demands. Milton follows this tradition: his opening octave focuses quite strongly on vengeance, while his final sestet is reminiscent of regeneration. The octave is rather imperative; Milton calls on God directly to avenge the massacre of the Waldesians and tells us to “Forget not: in thy book record their groanes,” (5). His language is strong and commanding. In the sestet, Milton says that from the “marty’d blood and ashes” (10) “may grow/A hunder’d-fold,” (12-13), meaning that this massacre will serve to further show the wrongdoings of the Church and Protestantism will continue to grow. This turn is quite effective as it responds to the massacre and earlier plea for vengeance by speculating that these murders will only hurt the Catholic Church and the Pope further.

As previously mentioned, the language in Donne’s sonnet is also quite emotional. Donne’s, however, is far more violent: in conveying his message to the audience, presumably God himself, Donne uses fairly harsh and dissonant language. His use of metaphysical conceit allows him to use words that one would likely not use when referring to a human: he uses a large number of verbs that are made even more violent due to their alliteration and dissonance. He asks God to “batter…o’erthrow…break, blow, burn, and make [him] new,” (1-4). His tone is pleading; he needs God to save him and to “imprison” him (12). Donne, similarly to Milton and other sonnet poets, includes a turn in his poem at the ninth line. In lines nine and ten, Donne admits that he would happily love God if he was not “betroth’d unto [God’s] enemy,” (10) thus admitting that he is married to Satan. His octave sets up the idea that Donne needs to be broken and beaten in order to be new, but the sestet explains more specifically why Donne feels that he must go through all of this. This use of turn infuses some suspense into the beginning of the poem; the combination of the turn and Donne’s passionate voice draws the reader in and makes for quite a compelling sonnet.

In observing the genre of the sonnet, one must also analyze the structure of the poem as well as the poetic conventions used. Both Donne and Milton use many effective conventions in their sonnets, as well as playing around with traditional structure. To begin with Donne, his opening word itself breaks from the tradition of using iambic pentameter throughout a sonnet. Instead of an iamb, Donne begins his poem with a trochee, a harsh first syllable and soft second: “Batter” (1). This starts off the sonnet with a bang, and further emphasizes the passionate and violent tone that he has created with his words. Although this is extremely untraditional and arguably incorrect form for a sonnet, it fits in nicely with the passion of the poem. Donne does this again in lines six and seven, beginning them with “Labor” (6) and “Reason” (7). This furthers the dissonant effect of Donne’s language throughout the sonnet, reflecting his many paradoxes.

The form of Donne’s sonnet is also quite unusual; the octave follows the classic Petrarchan rhyme scheme of ABBA ABBA. However, he combines this with the Spenserian form, a variation of the Shakespearean sonnet (Baldick 239) that concludes with CDCD EE. This creates quite a nice clinching effect in the final two lines, “Except you enthrall me, shall never be free,/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me,” (13-14). When this final rhyme is paired with the two paradoxes that Donne includes in this final couplet, the end of the poem becomes even more memorable.

Milton, unlike Donne, uses the standard iambic pentameter throughout his sonnet, and the structure follows the classical Petrarchan ABBA ABBA CDCDCD. He does not mix genres or confuse the traditional iambic pentameter of the sonnet. Indeed, Milton’s poem is not quite as passionate and not at all as contradictory as Donne’s. Just as the confused form of Donne’s fits in with the theme of his sonnet, Milton’s traditional form fits in with his language. Although Milton’s theme, similarly to Donne’s, is not that of the traditional love sonnet, his language is neither violent nor fervent as Donne’s is. Although he deals with important religious ideas and heavy pleas, he is relatively calm and his language flows nicely as he recounts the history of the “slaughter’d Saints,” (1) painting images of “Alpine mountains cold,” (2) and “th’ Italian fields,” (11). Beautiful language caters to heartbreak, and the Petrarchan sonnet and use of iambic pentameter undoubtedly caters to beautiful language. Thus, his choice of following sonnet tradition is just as effective as Donne’s decision not to.

Both Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 and Milton’s Sonnet 18 expand the genre of the sonnet in many different ways: Milton completely strays from tradition by ridding his sonnet of any proclamation of love for a woman, while Donne experiments heavily with the structure and form of a sonnet as well as playing with the classical theme of love. Indeed, based on the structure of Donne’s sonnet, it could be argued that it does not deserve the title of ‘sonnet’ at all. Nevertheless, it is titled as one and will be remembered as one. Both poets melded the sonnet to work with their content, thus creating powerful poetry that reflected personal and religious messages.

Works Cited

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Burbery, Timothy J. “From Orthodoxy to Heresy: A Theological Analysis of Sonnets XIV and XVIII.” Marshall Digital Scholar 45 (2006): 1-20. Web. 13 Jan. 2019.

Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet 14.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, 2019. Web. 13 Jan. 2019.

“John Donne.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, 2019. Web. 20 Jan. 2019.

Milton, John. “Sonnet 18.” The Milton Reading Room. Ed. Thomas Luxon. Web. 13 Jan. 2019.

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