John Donne’s sonnets -- and all of his religious poetry -- are still the subject of literary debate some 400 years after they were first published. Scholars argue over the intended order of the poems and of the influence of the clergy in the revisions, as the Holy Sonnets were circulated and revised prior to their publication -- and also after (Reference One). The debate centers on the theme of religion, both the search for one clear religion and the joy given from understanding that religion -- the two principal and recurring themes in the Holy Sonnets.
One of Donne’s central concerns is the fleshly world and its temptation and the spirit world. The world of the flesh is full of temptations -- for pleasure, however defined. Donne became a preacher and struggled with fleshly temptations while expounding the virtues of a divine life and eternal salvation, tensions which are most clearly demonstrated in the Holy Sonnets (Reference Two). The sonnets were composed during the time of his life when he was most consumed by his spiritual struggles (Reference Two).
Exploration not Conclusion
While Donne examines the tension between the flesh and the spirit, he draws no conclusions. The Holy Sonnets don’t decide in favor of one form of commitment over another, but simply voice the tension between a life of piety and one of temptation (Reference Two). When exploring the themes in the Holy Sonnets, try to keep in mind that Donne wasn’t preaching one or the other; he was only working through the conflicts inherent in being a holy and righteous person and in being, simultaneously, a human being (Reference Two).
One of Donne’s Holy Sonnets in particular focuses on mortal man’s fear of death and the holy man’s welcoming of it. The tension in “Death, Be Not Proud” is balanced between the salvation offered by death and the centuries-or-millennia-long fear of death found throughout Western literature. While Donne acknowledges that death comes for all in the sonnet, he also finds comfort in his faith, exerting that “One short sleep past, we wake eternally” (Reference Three). Donne’s faith provides a counterbalance to the fear of dying here, and while “Death, Be Not Proud” embraces death, other sonnets in the series struggle with it (Reference Two).
Desire for Grace
Standing opposite the fear of death and the struggle with existence -- that balance between living in sin and dying in salvation -- is Donne’s great desire for grace and “belonging,” which refers to Donne’s attempts to live a pious life as a preacher (Reference Two). Several of the Holy Sonnets speak to his desire for “God’s grace,” and the tension between knowing that he needs grace while being unable to willingly move toward salvation while clinging to temptations of the flesh (Reference Two). Donne struggles to free himself of sin in the Holy Sonnets and voices his desire for God while being “held tight by Satan” (Reference Two).