Holy Sonnet 17 (XVII) is part of a series of nineteen poems, which are most commonly referred as Divine meditations, Divine Sonnets, or Holly Sonnets. The Holly Sonnets were published two years after Donne’s death. John Donne wrote Holy Sonnet XVII in 1617 after the death of his wife Anne More. The Holy Sonnets focus on religious matters, and, particularly, on themes such as mortality, divine love, and divine judgment.
In the Holy Sonnets, John Donne writes his poems in the traditional Italian sonnet form. This traditional form and style, introduced by Petrarch, consists of two quatrains and a sestet. Nevertheless, there are certain modifications, such as rhythm and structural patters, that are a consequence of the influence of the Shakespearean sonnet form. Consequently, Holy Sonnet XVII has an ABBAABBACDCDEE rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter. Although it is written in one big block, the poem follows, as previously mentioned, the form and style of the Italian sonnet.
The main theme in Holy Sonnet XVII is the love for God. Moreover, there is a strong imagery of death, love, and religion. The tone of the poem is affectionate, as the lost loved one is not presented by grief or by resentment. Holy Sonnet XVII depicts how, after the lost of a loved one, the lyrical voice turns his/her thoughts to religious matters. The love for the lost one prepared the lyrical voice to love God. Still, this love can’t be shared with anyone else.
Holy Sonnet 17 (XVII) Analysis
Since she whom I lov’d hath paid her last debt
To nature, and to hers, and my good is dead,
And her soul early into heaven ravished,
Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set.
Here the admiring her my mind did whet
To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head;
But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed,
A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
But why should I beg more love, whenas thou
Dost woo my soul, for hers off’ring all thine,
And dost not only fear lest I allow
My love to saints and angels, things divine,
But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt
Lest the world, flesh, yea devil put thee out.
The poem reflects on the lost of a loved one. The first two quatrains depict how the lyrical voice, having loved his/her wife, seeks and finds the love of God after her death. The first line opens with a strong metaphor: death is a debt to be paid (“Since she whom I lov’d hath paid her last debt”). These first lines also establish the mourning of the lost and loved one (“she whom I lov’d […] To nature, and to hers, and my good is dead”). Moreover, there is an enjambment on the first line. The lyrical voice also mentions the “early” departure of his/her love and how she was “ravished” into heaven. The use of “ravished” constructs a strong conceit to describe how the lyrical voice feels about the death of his/her lost one. There is a trochee, a metrical foot that consists of one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one, in the fourth line. The lyrical voice depicts how he turns to God, as he/she states that: “Wholly in heavenly things my mind is set”. Hence, the lyrical voice’s focus will be now placed into religion and in God’s figure rather than in the lost loved one. He/she also suggests that loving the one that passed away was a preparation to love God: “Here the admiring her my mind did whet/To seek thee, God”. He/she furthers this message by using a metaphor (“so streams do show the head”). Then, the lyrical voice depicts his/her relationship to God as a realization and as a certainty (“But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed”). Notice how the lyrical voice states that God “my thirst hast fed” but, at the same time, this is not enough (“A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet”).
The sestet presents a turn, commonly referred as volta, in the poem. The lyrical voice presents god God as a jealous lover who fears that he/she will be tempted away by someone or something else. The ninth line questions this figure (“But why should I beg more love, whenas thou”). Furthermore, there is a romantic imagery to express how the lyrical voice feels about the figure of God (“whenas thou/Dost woo my soul”). God’s interest in the lyrical voice is referred as a “fear” and as “tender” because of the possibility of the lyrical voice being tempted by the “devil” or by “flesh”.
The rhyme in the first part of the poem is made with dental consonants, ‘d’ and ‘t’, in order to establish harder sounds. These create abrupt noises that can relate to the abruptness of the death of the loved one (the “early” death). However, the rhyme throughout the second part of the poem focuses on softer sounds, portraying the close relationship to God.
About John Donne
John Donne was born in 1572 and died in 1631. He was an English poet, cleric, and lawyer. John Donne is most commonly known for being part of the ‘metaphysical poets’, a group of poets who wrote about love and religion using complex metaphors called conceits. These poets didn’t know each other, and this name was given by literary critics some years later. Nevertheless, John Donne is considered to be one of the best metaphysical poets.
John Donne converted to Anglicanism later in his life. By 1615 he became a priest because King James I ordered him to do so. Donne was a member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614. He also spent a short time in prison because he married his wife, Anne More, without permission. They had twelve children.