Love and Sexuality in John Donne’s Sonnets. On Inner Conflicts, Desperation and the Devotion to God

Term Paper, 2016
19 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Love and Sexuality in the Renaissance

3. Analysis
3.1 Batter my heart, three-personed God
3.2 Show me dear Christ, thy spouse

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

When someone asks an English literature student, who is one of the most famous poets of sonnets in the Renaissance, he will immediately get the answer: “Shakespeare – of course!”

Without a doubt they are right with claiming this. Eventually he coined the term Shakespearean Sonnets. He was the master of love poetry, excellent in communicating beauty and feelings. But still: he was not the only author of sonnets in these times. Someone who deserves just as much appreciation is John Donne. Well, most of the time he does. But why is Shakespeare the one poet we already get to know in school and who is studied in such a great detail in university? Since I came to this university, there was never a course on John Donne. A reason might be the complexity and ample scope of interpretation of his sonnets. To get to the core of his sonnets one basically has to explore his whole life, to find out in how far this influenced his writings. To be fair - this would probably be too much input for school.

However, one thing that makes Donne very special is his acquaintance with sexuality in his Holy Sonnets, which was rather unusual and often upsetting to others in the Renaissance . Setting a date for when he wrote the Holy Sonnets is rather complicated, since they have all been published after Donne’s death, not all at once and at irregular intervals. According to Lancashire “Most of the sonnets were probably written about 1609, but ‘Since she whom I lov'd’ was written after the death of Donne's wife in 1617, and ‘Show me dear Christ’ perhaps even later.” Knowing when Donne wrote the sonnets could sometimes be very helpful for analyses, especially in the case of the eighteenth sonnet, which was only published in 1899 and which will be analysed later on.

One thing that matters quite a lot in Donne’s sonnets is that he was, on the one hand, “a very masculine lover of women”, on the other hand “a very devout lover of God” (cf. Edwards 6). He was constantly torn between sexual love and the love to God. This is why this term paper will also briefly explain what love and sexuality in the Renaissance were like. This might help to understand some of Donne’s motives. After that the sonnet will look at two of the Holy Sonnets in-depth and try to find out why he used the sexual imagery. Does it have a certain purpose or is Donne just that much into sexuality and love? One could actually claim that, even if most of the Holy Sonnets were written after his ordination in 1615, Donne probably used them to process that he keeps on being torn between sex and God – sometimes subliminal, sometimes more explicit. That is why the sonnets on hand, the fourteenth and the eighteenth, definitely combine both by using imagery and a certain choice of words.

2. Love and Sexuality in the Renaissance

Since this term paper aims to take a closer look on how love and sexuality are depicted in John Donne’s sonnets, it is important to gain an understanding of how these things were valued in the Renaissance. Especially the view of sexuality in these times will be important in the course of this paper, since John Donne tended to “speak about those basic and inexhaustible human interests which are indicated by the two three-letter words, sex and God.” (Edwards 6) But we will come back to Donne’s indecision concerning those two concepts later on. However, the Renaissance was mainly concerned with renewing interests in ancient times and portraying sexuality in art is also a part of it: mythological narratives intensely influenced Renaissance artists, painters and writers, in their work and in developing the “physically perfected, eroticized body” (Peakman 176). Of course Donne never used explicit terms in his poetry; at least not the ones we are used to today. The word sex as we know it only dates back from the second half of the nineteenth century.

In the sixteenth century people had different opinions on having sex than we do today. Especially the Catholic Church had a rather negative position when it comes to sexual activities. They believed that the only purpose of having sex was to reproduce – so they tolerated sexual activities heterosexual marriages, but “sex for any other purpose, or with any other partner, was forbidden, and liable to punishment by both God and nature” (Davidson 110). According to Davidson any other purpose includes sex for pleasure, same sex activities, masturbation, sex during pregnancy, and many more. They threatened that the violation of these prohibitions was followed by serious consequences, but the fact that most people just ignored the rules “indicate[s] that communal expectations of sexual behaviour were frequently at odds with the demands of church and state.” (Davidson 110)

The members of the Catholic Church have always had a mind of their own. But within it, the rules were even tougher. Not one male or female members of the clergy was allowed to have sex; neither with someone around them, nor with someone from the outside. This had a simple reason. They were, and still are today, believed to be married to Christ. And so sex with someone who was not part of the clergy was seen as adultery and sex with someone from the inside was seen as incest (cf. Davidson 98). But just like the normal people of the Renaissance, some churchmen did not stick to those rules. It is said that Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, “had 50 naked women picking up chestnuts off the floor for his dinner guests, who then competed with each other to see who could copulate with the largest number of them.” (Katchadourian 587) To keep young monks, friars and nuns from committing sins like this, the church offered sacred narratives, which were supposed to have a moralizing function by talking of sins and sexual temptations.

Martin Luther then took another side after the Reformation: in his writings he stated that “The sexual urge [is] part of God’s creation and there [is] no point or possibility in resisting it;” (Katchadourian 588). Basically Luther believed that the only purpose of marriage is to still sexual longings - and if there is no satisfaction there is no sense in continuing it. However, Protestantism was also a lot about “love and honour” in marriages, which bring us to the thing called love.

When asking the Oxford English Dictionary about the modern meaning of “love” it defines it as “A feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone, typically arising from a recognition of attractive qualities, from natural affinity, or from sympathy and manifesting itself in concern for the other's welfare and pleasure in his or her presence.“ But how did the people of the Renaissance define this feeling? Just like we do today, they were dreaming about love then. Thus it is not surprising than one of the most popular themes in poetry and art of the Renaissance was the so-called “courtly love”, which has it origins in France and Germany in the 13th century. According to the Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature it was developed by troubadours - singers that longed for the love of a woman that was often out of reach for the unfortunate. Renaissance poets then adapted the ideas and used them in their works: telling stories about men on their search for the one, true love. Another concept is a lot older: the people of the Renaissance were torn between two different concepts: Eros and Agape – two of three different words for love in Greek. It is again something where the influence of the Greek culture is very present in the Renaissance. Eros means the sexual love. The love that makes us feel like we are flying or the love that makes us feel lust and the love that can hurt us in a special way. The Latin equivalent is a word that is still popular in our times and that easily describes the meaning of Eros: Amor. Robinson describes this love as something that “is centred in the self, and is the effort to satisfy the hungry soul, and, by possession, to find fulfilment in an ‘other’ of all its aspirations and longings.” (98) The other Greek word for love that was popular in the Renaissance is agape, or Caritas in Latin. Again the Latin word is something that we understand today and what helps to understand the concept. Agape describes the selfless love, which especially makes sense in connection with the definition of the rather selfish love, eros, before. It was often described as a divine love; a love between God and his creations. But it also supported one famous saying of the Bible: “(…) you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Leviticus 19:16) And Agape takes that very serious. Just like the people of the Renaissance. To them Eros probably represented a life full of sins and if we connect that to what we learned about sexuality in these times before, it is not unsurprising that they thought about sex the way they did. It indeed was an era that was coined by religion, but “The secularization of Renaissance society and the greater worldliness of the church diversified the sexual options” (Katchadourian 587) and made the people and especially artists like John Donne consider both sides. In the following analysis we will probably notice Donne’s inability to choose a side.

3. Analysis

3.1 Batter my heart, three-personed God...

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make new. I, like an usurped town, to another due, Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end, Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captived, and proves weak or untrue, Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, But am betrothed unto your enemy, Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I Except you enthral me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The fourteenth sonnet of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets is, similar to many other poems and sonnets he wrote, quite explicit in its wording and its imagery. Generally this sonnet can be described as very violent. This violence is being expressed through the use of military and sexual imagery.

Just like the other Holy Sonnets, this one is a variation of the Petrarchan sonnet replacing the typical two cross-rhymed tercets with another quatrain and a rhyming couplet. Especially the existence of three quatrains is important here, since the lyrical I addresses the “three-personed God” (1), which is another expression for the Holy Trinity of God, Christ and the Holy Ghost. So the sonnet’s structure and rhyme scheme again refers to the Holy Trinity, which represents the Christian belief.

However, in the first quatrain the lyrical I asks God in his holy trinity to take his heart violently. Especially the first plea, “Batter my heart”, offers an ample scope of interpretation. These three words already have a military as well as a sexual meaning. The word “batter” could refer to a battering-ram, which was, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, used “for battering down walls”. In this first verse the image of conquering a town clarifies the power and violence that is necessary to break down the walls in front of his heart.

There is one thing in the fourteenth sonnet that is particularly interesting: one can consider the lyrical I female. There are a few indications for that, which will be mentioned later on, but it is important to note that Donne believed that reason was something male, and emotion something female (cf. Meakin 10). Since this sonnet is occasionally very emotional due to a rather desperate appeal, the lyrical I could be considered female. Another indication is the word “heart” (1), which is, according to Craig Payne, also “Elizabethan slang for the vagina” (Payne 211). Whether this is intentional or just a coincidence remains unclear. But nevertheless this rather sexual meaning is somehow logical. Of course, these are only assumptions and the lyrical I could still be male, but still the further analysis will refer to the lyrical I as female.

However, the heart surely is the ultimate love metaphor, but there is another way of analysing the word “heart”, if one assumes that it stands for the word “vagina”: if one would express the demand differently, the lyrical I wants God to make love to her. This could describe the way the lyrical I wants her faith to be like. She wants to be taken by it passionately and whole-hearted. So basically making love could express how faith should be performed.

However, the lyrical I then claims that all the time God did just “knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend” (2), which apparently was not enough. The lyrical I wants God to be more violent and engaged and she wants him to “break, blow, burn and make new” (4). Both lines build a parallelism by which each word in the second line is being amplified in the fourth line. While God keeps on knocking, the lyrical I wants him to “break” down the doors. While he keeps on breathing, she wants him to “blow”. While he is only shining, she rather wants him to “burn”, to use a fire to light the way into the right direction and to the right belief. While he only “seek[s] to mend” (2), she wants him to be more engaged and by that “make [her] new” (4). The alliteration in line four makes the plea sound even more desperate. The lyrical I basically begs God to behave more violently towards her, so she can “rise, and stand” (3). She wants to start again and to be renewed. In order for that to happen God needs to “break, blow, burn” (4) his way into her heart. Craig Payne compares the lyrical I’s longing for renewal with the work of a tinker (Payne 211). She wants to be handled like a tinker handles a pot: mending it by first melting and destroying it and then making something completely new. The enumeration in line four supports that thesis: the pot first needs to be broken, then one needs to blow to spark a fire, then the metal needs to be burned so it melts, and only then the tinker can make something new out of it. Just like a pot in the hands of a tinker, the lyrical I longs to be renewed spiritually by God.

In the next quatrain the lyrical I presents herself as an “upsurpt town” (5) conquered by someone else. She wants to let her saviour in, but she fails. The metaphor of the “upsurpt town” again represents the lyrical I’s heart and soul. The occupier of her heart and soul, who could be the devil and the enemy that is spoken of later on, keeps her away from God and from living her faith. Just like in the beginning of the sonnet there is the image of walls – to break them God would need violence. The lyrical I does try to let God into her heart, but resigns with a “but oh, to no end” (6), which sounds positively desperate. She cannot free herself; she needs the help of God so she can finally follow him. That is why she asks him to “Batter [her] heart” (1) in the first place. The lyrical I then claims that reason, “God’s ‘viceroy’ in humanity” (Payne 211), was supposed to “defend” (7) her from being occupied, but failed. The reason in her is “captived” (8) and has no power over her. She also labels the reason in her as something that has proven to be “weak or untrue” (8) and by that is not doing what it is supposed to do. This understanding of course is only possible if one considers the existence of a comma following the word “reason”. The version on hand does not have this comma, but some versions actually have. However, the version without the comma does not seem accurate.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Love and Sexuality in John Donne’s Sonnets. On Inner Conflicts, Desperation and the Devotion to God
University of Paderborn  (Anglistik)
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love, sexuality, john, donne’s, sonnets, inner, conflicts, desperation, devotion
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Lena Gräf (Author), 2016, Love and Sexuality in John Donne’s Sonnets. On Inner Conflicts, Desperation and the Devotion to God, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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