Comparing The Imagery, Language And Relationships In Holy Sonnet 1

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John Donne’s poems and sonnets do not describe a single unchanging view of love; they express a wide variety of emotions and attitudes, as if Donne himself were trying to describe his experience of love through his poetry.

I can see that there are connections between the four pieces and we are given a view of Donne’s attitude to love. He seems to be saying that love can be an experience of the body, the soul, or both; it can be a religious experience, or just a sexual one, and it can give rise to emotions ranging from ecstasy to despair. He gives us an insight into the complex range of experiences that can be grouped under the single heading of ‘Love’.

Donne is obviously a religious man. His love poems look at physical and spiritual love and the sonnets are concerned with death and the possibility of the soul’s union with God. It also occurred to me that time plays a big part in his poetry, whether it is the lovers who are immune to time in ‘The Sun Rising or the fact that the writer is almost out of time as in Holy Sonnet 1. The lovers in A Valediction Forbidding Mourning are faced with time apart.

We are shown the religious side of Donne’s love poetry but he also uses metaphor of marriage in the Holy Sonnet, ‘Batter my Heart’:

“But am betroth’d unto your enemy, Divorce me..”

He rages at God and tells Him he needs more than just help but all His help and power, using the imagery of war.

“Reason your viceroy..”

Holy Sonnet 1 is addressed to God and asks whether as the writer nears death, his soul; “thy work” will decay. He is full of fear that he will be cast out by God and as a sinner he is often tempted by “our old subtle foe”; the devil. He simply asks for God’s grace to forgive him his sins and to pull his “iron heart” towards Him like a magnet and give him forgiveness and peace. As his “feeble flesh” wastes away he lays his soul bare to God and it becomes separate from his body.

In the first stanza of A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning Donne brings the reader a separation of body and soul:

” As virtuous men pass mildly away,

And whisper to their souls to go,

Whilst some of their sad friends do say

The breath goes now, and some say, No”;

This seems to confirm what we read in Holy Sonnet 1, that the soul is not a part of the body, and it is only combined with the body until death, when it “goes”. The use of the word “whisper” suggests that the soul and body can communicate with one another as separate things and only “virtuous” men, like him, can whisper to their souls. The separation of body and soul is an essential part of the poem as it carries on. By saying that “friends” disagree on this separation of body and soul, Donne might be acknowledging that people do not generally agree with this idea.

A good example of this state, where two lovers’ souls cannot be separated, even when they are physically far apart, is seen in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning:

“Our two souls therefore, which are one,”

The idea of two coming together to form one, both spiritually and physically, is very important in Donne’s view of love. When a couple find perfect love together they become all-sufficient to one another, forming a world of their own, which has no need of the outside world. This idea is expressed in these lines from The Sun Rising:

“She’is all States, and all Princes, I,

Nothing else is.”

The Sun Rising expresses the pride and satisfaction felt by the lover in bed with his mistress . He follows in the aubade tradition (poem or story associated with morning or the dawn) and he rebukes the sun for waking him and his beloved:

“Busy old fool, unruly Sun,

Why dost thou thus,

through windows, and through curtains call on us?”

He frees love from the demands of time:

“Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime, Nor hours, months days, which are the rage of time.”

He demeans the sun, saying that he could shut the sun’s beams out at any time by closing his eyes, but then he would lose sight of her. He uses extravagant imagery to praise his lover, saying her eyes shine brighter than the sun; “If her eyes have not blinded thine”

Donne also uses the imagery of an alchemist trying to make gold out of metal or lead “All honour’s mimic; all wealth alchemy.” However, their love is 24 carat gold and cannot be mimicked like this.

The imagery of the beating of metal; is continued in Holy Sonnet 14. The first image is of God beating his heart ; “Batter my heart” and Donne says that he cannot break his own heart, so he asks God to break his heart for him. It shows a dislike towards his mortal body and that his soul is in need of repair; ” seek to mend…” and “make me new” The language, gives an imagery of repair and maintenance.

It is only God the creator, unlike human craftsmen, who is capable of this spiritual transformation. “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me,’and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new”. The alliteration of the words “batter… breath… bend… break, blow, burn” sounds like someone hitting forcefully – like a blacksmith.

To further illustrate the speaker’s sense of spiritual weakness, Donne uses the simile of a town under siege in the second stanza. “I, like an usurped town… / Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end…” This image emphasises his own internal struggle with the world and God

“Yet dearly I love you..” He says that he loves God and he knows that God loves him, he cannot accept that love because of his union with sin

The last line is a very interesting contradiction, “Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me.” He is back to speaking of the truest form of love, the union between two souls; making one. He says that he would never be pure in his spirit, unless God fills him with holy passion

In a Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” Donne is telling his wife that they are one, and so there is no need for her to be sad as he leaves. In the first stanza, he assures her that because their love is true they can be like ” virtuous men” on the brink of death, who, even when dying, can say to their souls, “Go on,” even if they have “sad friends,” who do not understand how one could let go at such a time.

In the second and third stanzas, he says that they have no need for tears or storms of emotion and that when there is physical change, such as earthquakes, people always become afraid and question the meaning of it, but these physical changes are not something to fear. In fact, he says they are “innocent.” He goes on to explain that “dull” lovers whose relationship is physical rather than spiritual will be threatened by such changes as they cannot “admit Absence.” However, in stanza six, he begins by saying “But we, by a love so much refined That our selves know not what it is”… they can be assured by their pure spiritual love that they will always be together.

When he declares that “our two souls are,” and even if “I must go,” still there will not be a “breach” (a break up) but instead they will experience an “expansion” and therefore no need for mourning.

Donne uses the metaphor of a compass in stanza eight; it has two “legs” and is joined at the centre. Here he compares their relationship to the compass, “If we be two, they are two” like “stiff twin compasses are two.” ” Thy soul,” the one that stands still, does not seem to move, but it does as the other one does.

He continues: “And though” one sits in the centre and the other “roams,” the one that stays in the centre “leans and hearkens after it,” and finally when it comes back around, the circle has been drawn and the two “feet” of the compass are back together again. But the point is that they never were apart!

Finally, in the last stanza, he makes an invitation to her and the reader to believe what he is saying. If you “end where I begun,” we are forever connected, our souls are joined, that is the basis of our love, that is what love is, and when two are joined in love, there is no need to fear physical changes, because nothing can tear it apart. So, there is the valediction that forbids mourning, forbids sadness, when a true love undergoes “mere” physical changes.

Donne’s poetry is tender and passionate whereas the sonnets tend to be more harsh and have a definite religious message. His poems do not idealise women or love, instead love is viewed as a mutual effort. In Holy Sonnet 1 Donne states that we are sinners whom only God can forgive but I think the underlying message is always that God is the creator and giver of love and that spiritual love can be reached through physical love. He keeps coming back to the point that man does have a soul and, as in A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning when souls are truly united in such spiritual love, no physical changes, not absence or even death, can change that love.

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