Holy Fear: The Battle for Holiness and Wholeness in John Donne's Holy Sonnets
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In this paper, I examine the spiritual posturing of the speaker of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Historically, critics have often chosen to interpret these sonnets autobiographically, as expressive of John Donne’s religious experiences. This method of interpretation is often tied to a desire to categorize Donne as Catholic, Protestant, etc. Instead of choosing to analyze and categorize Donne, I have elected to take the experience of the speaker of The Holy Sonnets on its own terms. To do so, I have analyzed the speaker as the central performer of a sonnet sequence with a narrative progression, in the tradition of Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura. In all of the various sequences of The Holy Sonnets, I was struck by a speaker who addresses both God and himself from a posture of tension. The speaker longs for an Augustinian hierarchy in which his mind is subject to God and his emotions are subject to his mind, but his emotional experiences constantly push back against his intellect’s attempts to assert control. The speaker constantly experiences tension within the dichotomy that T.S. Eliot labels “thought” and “feeling.” The speaker knows that he should trust and obey God, but unruly emotions like jealousy and fear threaten his relationship with God the Father. In The Holy Sonnets, the speaker uses the sonnet form to attempt to assert control over his emotions and bring them into alignment with his intellect. While this tension between emotion and intellect is central in all of the sequences, I was especially intrigued by the resolution of this tension in the last sonnet of the “Westmoreland Sequence,” in which the speaker submits to God through fear, an emotion that paralyzes him before God but continues to elude his mind’s control.
Franklin and Marshall College Archives, Undergraduate Honors Thesis 2013
- F&M Theses Collection