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Milton & the 17th Century

John Donne

The Holy Sonnets

An Introduction

Helen Gardner, in her edition of The Divine Poems of John Donne (London: Oxford UP, 1952, pp. xxxvii ff.), argues, based on manuscript evidence and good scholarly analysis, that most of the Holy Sonnets fall into well-defined groups. Based on the numbering in our text, and Gardiner's analysis of what she thinks was Donne's intended sequence, the larger group of these poems is organized as follows:

Group One:

Sonnets I - VI the last things: dying, death, judgment

     2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10 (numbers in course text)

Sonnets VII - IX God's love for humanity

     11, 12, 13

Sonnets X - XII humanity's love for God and humankind

     14, 15, 16 (numbers in course text)

Group Two:

Sonnets I - IV penitential poems concerned with sin

     1, 3, 5, 8 (numbers in course text)

Group Three:

Sonnets I - III 3 private ejaculations, with varied topics

     17, 18, 19 (numbers in course text)

Probably all were written after 1609, except for Group III, which are later. Donne revised these sonnets occasionally during his remaining years. Although all of these sonnets have come to be known as Holy Sonnets, it is more meaningful to consider them divine meditations. Donne himself probably thought of his La Corona group, a sonnet cycle earlier than the group presented above, as his holy sonnets. La Corona is a highly organized set of seven prayers, written in their earliest version about 1607.

     The first and second sets of divine meditations are based on the system of meditation formulated by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, and important order formed aroud the time of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, written in Spanish, was published in 1548. Ignatius also wrote a related work called The Spiritual Combat. Donne's Catholic upbringing was not the only cause for his use of divine meditation, for meditative poetry was written throughout the Seventeenth Century, and Catholic meditative and artistic preferences were used by Episcopal poets as well as by Catholics poets and meditative practitioners.

     The Ignatian model was intended as a specific and potent method of religious practice and prayer. Its intent was to inflame the mind and soul with vivid pictorial imaginings and powerful emotions. The alert imagination and strong affections would be exercised and expressed in these devotional prayers, or ejaculations, in order to strengthen one's fear and our love of God and one's love of humankind. The invocation of fear is key to the Ignatian method. The structure was extensive, but any part could be used in isolation, as certainly was the poetic practice by Donne, by George Herbert - who generally was inspired by more gentle approaches - and by others.

Form of Ignatian Meditation

Preparatory Prayer

Prayer for grace and success in the present undertaking.

Preludes (Memory)

     Prelude One

Composition of Place: Vivid imagination of a holy scene or an imaginary narrative concerning sin or redemption.

     Prelude Two

Petition to the Lord that appropriate feelings arise in the course of the meditation.

Meditation (Reason)

Some number of Points to be argued, understood, explained.

Colloquy (Will)

The aroused soul pours out its feelings of devotion, often ending in a discussion or direct expressing of the self to God.

In the divine meditation, the whole activity of memory, reason, and will - sometimes thought to represent God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit - is used to enact one's spiritual fervor and understanding, a tuning of the soul. The most highly acclaimed study of meditative poetry is by Louis Martz (The Poetry of Meditation. New Haven: Yale UP, Rev. ed. 1962). It is widely considered the best study of seventeenth-century religious poetry.

      The greatness of these poems lies in their extraordinary expressive force. Each presents paradoxes, compact and knotty syntax, or outrageous complaints in a manner which demands that the practitioner pay attention to the details of feeling and thinking. But even greater, in my estimation, is the contemporary relevance of these poems as analyses of how one man lived passionately, felt deeply, and move noisily through the world. Approached in this manner, these poems can speak directly to us.

     Read deeply, thoroughly, and repeatedly, these poems can act as therapeutic meditations for revealing our deepest selves -- called by Donne the soul. To converse with these poems is to meet our most protected fears and hopes. If reading such poems means learning to drink life deeply, Donne's divine meditations allow us no less than to imagine the whole range of our lives. As William Butler Yeats put it in the year 1920, such poems take us "To where the damned have howled away their hearts, and where the blessed dance" (Cited also by Martz).

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