Symbolism Meaning: Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV
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Published: Fri, 12 May 2017
John Donne, the infamous metaphysical poet, wrote his collection of nineteen poems ‘Holy Sonnets’ in a time of apparent adversity in his physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Unlike typical literary symbolism, Donne gives ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ little ambiguity. Consequently, this allows Donne’s overwhelming emotions to be explained through the intense and vigorous phrases in the poem that represent Donne’s desperation to become consumed by God’s power.
‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ is written with a hyperbolic intensity that holds many sexual connotations. It is in the final couplet, that Donne describes how he ‘never shall be free’ unless God ‘ravishes’ him. This powerful image of a rape that is deemed as holy creates a paradox between purity and sin, symbolising God dominating Donne with ultimate control to become unified as one in the hope of gaining an immortal partner. This concept of a transcendent sexual act is evident in a few of the other ‘Holy Sonnets’ that were written by Donne, including the image of holy whore in ‘Holy Sonnet XVIII’ which suggests that he was at this time, crying out for something extraordinary (God) to satisfy his every emotion. It could also be interpreted that Donne uses this paradox to symbolise his strive towards perfection. In the early seventeenth century, spiritual alchemy was still very popular in Europe. It appears that Donne was aware of this metaphysical science and the similarities it shared with Christianity which he writes about in his final sermon, ‘Death’s Duel’. An alchemist believed that becoming a hermaphrodite was a stage in the process before perfection [i] and it could have been understood by Donne that in becoming so intimately unified with God, he would achieve this neutrality that would ‘make [him] new’. However, it is not likely that Donne would actually hold this belief as he was not only born into a strict Roman Catholic family but was also ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church at the time which suggests he held onto firm Christian principles. Donne exclaims further on in the poem how he wants to be broken in to and ‘batter[ed]’ with a shout of ‘O, to no end’. This symbolises Donne’s sexual urge to be possessed with force in order to achieve that exclusive familiarity with God that, possibly, he never felt the need to have until his wife Ann died and he was left without this kind of relationship. However, a stronger interpretation is that Donne is attempting to incorporate his physical desires with his passion for God so he can stop his ongoing battle between the two.
Donne uses the extended metaphor of a ‘city’ not only in ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ but also in ‘Loves War’. In this Elegy which was written in Donne’s youth, he describes a ‘free Citty’ which ‘thyself allow to anyone’ – a metaphor for how anyone can enter a woman [ii] – and goes onto say how in there he would like to ‘batter, bleede and dye’. Here, Donne is controlling the ‘city’ and taking over it himself, however, if Donne intended to use this same metaphor in ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’, the roles have changed and it now signifies how it is Donne who needs to be seized by God’s spirit. Furthermore, this represents how Donne’s life and therefore attitude has changed between writing these poems; he used to feel in control but now he is controlled.
The physical verbs that are used immediately sets the violent theme of the octave. The spondaic feet emphasises Donne’s cry for God to ‘break, blow’ and ‘burn’ his heart so he can become ‘imprisoned’ in God’s power, creating a paradoxical image of a benevolent God acting in a brutal way. He uses a metaphysical conceit to explain how he is ‘like an usurp’d town’ with God’s viceroy (reason) in him. This imagery of warfare that pervades the sonnet symbolises his soul at war with himself; only if God physically ‘overthrow’s’ Donne and ‘batters’ his sinful heart will he be able to ‘divorce’ the devil. It was around the time of writing this poem that Donne renounced his Catholic upbringing which gives evidence to the assumption that the sin he was struggling with began to overpower his Christian beliefs and needed God become as real to him as God was to his respected Catholic parents. Furthermore, in ‘Holy Sonnet XVII’ Donne exclaims how ‘though [he] have found [God], and thou [his] thirst hast fed, a holy thirsty dropsy melts [him] yet. This reveals that Donne feels that even though he has found God, his yearning is not satisfied which gives evidence towards the assumption that he is crying out for spiritual ecstasy. This paradox between freedom and captivity was most frequently written about by most prison poets such as Richard Lovelace [iii] Donne wrote, ‘Except you enthrall me, never shall be free’ which implies the same idea as Loveless in ‘To Althea, From Prison’ that true freedom is internal, not external, symbolising his struggle with sin whilst he is physically free.
The religious symbolism that Donne unmistakably uses reveals his devotion to the Bible. Critics have noted that Donne ‘took the scriptures with a radical and bizarre literality which gave both novelty and substance to traditional ideas’. This is certainly reflected in ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ when Donne pleads that he ‘may rise’ and be made ‘new’ which connotes the idea of a resurrection, just as he believed Jesus had done. Furthermore, ‘batter my heart, three-person’d God’ could be associated with close biblical references such as how God will ‘heal the broken-hearted and bind up their wounds’, subsequently, interpreting this phrase as Donne desperate to take refuge in God so his ‘profound mourning’ for his beloved late wife would stop. A form of personification, prosopopoeia, is used often in the bible [iv] (‘Do not arouse or awaken love before it pleases’ Song of Solomon 8:4) and, similarly in Donne’s work. He uses this device of ‘personified abstraction’ in ‘Holy Sonnet X – Death Be Not Proud’ and again in Holy Sonnet XIV when he states how ‘Reason’ is God’s ‘viceroy’ in him. One critic states that prosopopoeia is ‘a form of projection or displacement…a rhetorical term for the mental phenomenon we call ‘hearing voices” which could hold some validity considering Donne’s financial and relationship insecurities at the time. However, despite this loose connection to Donne’s mental state, a more likely interpretation is that Donne has used this device to turn ‘imaginary entities into lifelike agents’ [v] to achieve cognitive understanding into an abstract concept that Donne experiences; God has breathed reason – the substitute of God – however, this form of defence has ‘proved weak’. This could reflect Donne’s resentment towards God and display tones of hatred as he believes God has failed to conquer his sin through reason, perhaps with some feelings of doubt towards His existence. However, it is illogical to interpret this phrase in this way as Donne is known to have devoted his whole life to his religion and love of God. It is much more likely that Donne is stating this to show his acknowledgement of how reason has not been enough in the past to lure him from sin but is pleading for God to defeat the devil with every ounce of reason there is, which he does not deny exists, even if it results in a ‘batter[ed] heart’.
Donne has structured this poem as a Petrachan sonnet, after the Italian poet Petrach. The octave consists of an ABBAABBA rhyme scheme followed by a sestet with the rhyme following a CDCDEE pattern. The sestet marks the Volta, using the conjunction ‘yet’, which signifies a different perspective on the original topic and in this case, the reader sees Donne turn from a desperate state to more reflective tone as he says how he ‘loves’ God and ‘would be loved fain’. This device puts emphasis on this line, preventing the explosive climax in the octave progressing, which symbolises Donne’s essential feelings towards his God. Furthermore, Petrachan sonnets were typically used to refer to a concept of unattainable love and often presented the subject as a model of perfection [vi] . There is no doubt that Donne used this verse form consciously, representing the adoration for God that Donne wanted to display through the sonnet to replace any women that would typically be the subject. These factors being taken into consideration dismiss any claims that Donne is trying to challenge God to prove Himself and His awesome power that is displayed in the bible. Surely, if Donne doubted God’s existence he would not have been so dedicated to his career of preaching and delivering sermons.
Literary symbolism is ‘characterised by a shimmering surface of suggestive meanings without a denotative core’ [vii] however, it is apparent that Donne has not taken this subtle technique when writing ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’. The poet has quite obviously used ideas to ‘stand for’ [viii] something else throughout the poem to portray his emotions which arguably does not deliver a text that has ‘rich plurality’ [ix] . Ironically, this symbolises Donne’s forthright and desperate appeal to God which supports a critic’s observation that ‘a sense of emergency is a mood of Donne’s highly wrought poetry throughout his life’ where to waver his words is not an option. Consequently, ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ lacks the ambiguity that a reader typically expects from a reading of symbolism however it is vital to recognise that this poetic style was not acknowledged until the ‘late nineteenth century in the work of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Mallarmé’ [x] which certainly suggests that Donne did not consciously use this literary technique to convey his meaning behind the poem. It must be acknowledged that Donne is renowned for being an ingenious metaphysical poet. Therefore, only to a small extent has Donne only used direct symbolism to express his contrasting emotions but rather the bizarre paradoxes, the vivid imagery, the unique conceits and the inventive metaphors all fundamentally represent Donne’s desperation to become consumed in God’s awesome and overwhelming power.
Becca Campbell-Jones T58
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