Jack’s Naughty Bits: John Donne, The Holy Sonnets

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Donne, considered by many the greatest English love poet, lived two lives. In the twilight
of the sixteenth century he was famous as a profligate rake and self-aggrandizing wit (with a
poetic virtuosity almost unrivaled in English verse); then, not long after the calendar shifted,
Donne was reborn a religious poet, and later a devout and bombastic sermonizer, as proficient
from the pulpit as he had been with the pen.

Yet even in his later phase Donne remained a love poet. Many of the so-called “Divine
Poems” sexualize Donne’s relation to God, either with injunctions to be ravished, as in “Batter
my heart” (“Divorce me, untie, break that knot again, / Take me to you, imprison me, for I/
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/ Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”) or beaten,
as in “Good Friday, 1623. Riding Westward” (“O Saviour, as thou hangs’t upon the tree; / I turn
my back to thee, but to receive / Corrections”). But more insidiously, Donne came to see his own
poetic talent as concupiscent, a vain delight in the possibilities of man and a misdirection of his
devotion. It pained him to find himself, while attempting to praise the Lord, unable to keep
from delighting in his own achievements, his turns of phrase, his ability to make and
unmake worlds at the dash of a pen.

So, in other words, even the late Donne struggled with the sincerity of his own heart.
That is the theme of the poem below: inconstancy in commitment. The older Donne wrote this
poem about God, but the younger one could just have easily written it about a mistress. Its
sexuality is more subtle than in the poems mentioned above, but, when you feel the full weight
of Donne’s desire for abjection, appreciate his desire to be subjugated by the love he can’t be true
to, this poem is considerably more forceful. And many of us, even the nonreligious, won’t have
trouble sympathizing, believing too that our days would be best spent under that special
someone’s rod.

* * *

From The Holy Sonnets by John Donne

Oh to vex me, contraries meet in one;

Inconstancy unnaturally hath begot

A constant habit; that when I would not

I change in vows, and in devotion.

As humorous in my contrition

As my prophane Love, and as soon forgot:

As ridlingly distempered, cold and hot,

As praying, as mute; as infinite, as none.

I dared not view heaven yesterday; and today

In prayers, and flattering speeches I court God:

Tomorrow I quake with true fear of his rod.

So my devout fits come and go away

Like a fantastic ague: save that here

Those are my best days, when I shake with fear.