Dynamics and Movement: Importance of Poem’s Structure in Holy Sonnet I
In his nineteen holy sonnets, John Donne contemplates his mortality, and explores themes of divine love and judgment along with his deep personal troubles. In the first loosely Petrarchan holy sonnet “Thou hast made me”, Donne presents a hopeless situation in which death and hell loom in front of the speaker due to his sins, and God’s grace is the only way through which he can be saved. The poem is focused on the speaker’s inescapable bond to death, his increasing desperation in fear of his fall to hell, and his plea towards God to help him. There is extensive use of movement, both of the speaker’s physical circumstance and the poem’s technical aspects, which reflects the situation and creates the tension in the poem. In Holy Sonnet I, Donne uses movement in the poem’s structure and the subject to depict the speaker’s entrapment and God’s role in the outcome to his predicament.
Donne’s Holy Sonnet 1 is chilling in the proximity the reader feels to the speaker’s situation. The sonnet is written in first person, which, in addition to the vivid imagery and dramatic speeds at which the poem moves, creates for the reader a more intimate experience with such impending death. The poem is composed of an octave and a sestet. In the octave, Donne describes the speaker’s situation: his entrapment in despair’s maze in which only Death from hell waits for him at the exit. In the following sestet, Donne explores the hope for the speaker as he looks towards God for help.
In the poem, the extensive amount of movement portrayed in the speaker’s situation creates the heightened tension and depicts how he is trapped in his anxiety and ill fated to fall to hell unless he finds a source of salvation. The speaker “[runs] to death, and death meets [him] as fast” (3). Caught in the dread of this inevitable collision, the speaker has lost all sense of pleasure like they are yesterday. The words “run”, “meets”, and “fast” are then followed immediately by stillness, as the speaker “[dares] not move [his] dim eyes any way” (5), for he is trapped by despair behind him and “death before [that casts] / such terror” (6). The syntax of these lines changes along with the speaker’s physical situation. The separation of line 3 into the speaker running to death and then death meeting him reflects the image of death enclosing on all sides as well. Such use of line order is repeated in line 6, in which despair is behind and death in front. The active stance that death and despair take, for example “death meets me” (3) instead of “I meet death”, contributes to the foreboding image of death that “cast / such terror” (6) as if it is as alive as the speaker is, and serves to increase the tension in the poem. Donne continues to describe the speaker’s “feeble flesh [wasting] / By sin… and [it towards hell doth weigh]” (7). The action of the flesh, emphasized as “feeble” with the use of alliteration, weighing the speaker down towards hell, contributes to the inescapable element of the situation.
The parallel structure of lines six, seven and eight, in which with “death before doth cast / Such terror, and [his] feeble flesh doth waste / …in it, which it towards hell doth weigh” makes use of the repetition of the word “doth”. Such repeated use of the same word, and therefore emphasis on the casting of terror and wasting flesh that is weighing towards hell, intensifies the terror felt by the speaker and the labyrinth-like situation. At the end of line nine, the word “weigh” and the scene of falling are then juxtaposed with the word “rise” (10) when the speaker looks toward God, in a similar fashion to the way lack of movement in line 5 followed the collision of the speaker and death in line 3. This movement created by the subject of the poem allows the poem to move swiftly but with pauses, reflecting the narrator’s turbulent state of mind. He has not risen yet, however, and his “subtle foe” (11) – Satan – still tempts him. He knows that only God is able to save him from the devil and subsequently his sins, and he turns towards God.
In addition to creating the speaker’s feelings of entrapment, the movement in this poem reflects and also questions the hierarchy of himself and God as well as depicting the momentous role of God in the narrator’s situation. The opening line begins the poem with a questionably accusatory and demanding tone. The speaker states that [God] hast made [him]” (1), then questions whether God shall allow his own work decay so the speaker then demands: “Repair me now” (2), for death is upon him. The flow of the first two lines, each of them formed by two abrupt phrases separated by a comma, is as broken as the speaker’s words are brusque. However, at the volta (line 9), when the poem’s subject returns to God, the speaker’s tone is much more deferential, as if after having contemplated his own terrible situation, he realizes that God’s grace is the only way out. Here, there is a hopeful sense of moving upwards that is associated with God, created by the words “above” (9), “towards” (9), and “rise” (10). A caesura presents itself here after line 10 as rhythmic emphasis is placed on the statement “I rise again”. The relatively pleasant mood of the poem’s previous few lines is immediately broken with the subjects of Satan and temptation in line 11. The speaker is so powerless against the temptations of sin or the immediacy of death and subsequently hell that “not one hour [himself] [he] can sustain” (12).
Finally, the couplet at the end of the poem concludes the sonnet and presents the speaker’s fate. Along with the literal meaning of how “[God’s] grace may [give wings to]” (13) the speaker to prevent Satan’s “art” of corrupting him, “wings” are often associated with angels or birds, which connote the idea of rising. The poem ends on a determined note, quite the opposite of the predominant despairing tone. God draws the speaker towards him as a magnet draws iron; the movement is strong, with purpose, and – conveniently – “adamant” (14). The many fluctuations throughout the poem in the speaker’s tone and attitude towards God present themselves before the final strong, steady pulse of attraction and determination to rise to heaven concludes the poem.
Given that the poem is highly metaphysical, it is worthwhile to question whether Donne saw his poem as a literal narration of the internal conflicts of one who saw death approaching, or an exaggerated representation of feared emotional or spiritual death. In both circumstances, looking towards God is equivalent to the steady rising of salvation, whether to heaven or to sanity, and to do otherwise meant wasting in sin and falling to hell.
In Holy Sonnet I, imagery is abundant and vivid, but is largely governed by the movement in the subject that is so central to the poem. The movement creates the speaker’s feelings of entrapment and also the relationship between him and God. Heaven is associated with smooth rising, while hell is portrayed with chaotic rhythms and the abrupt act of falling. The speaker, in the end, decides that it is not God’s obligation to repair him; it is instead he himself who may find peaceful death or life once he moves towards God. However, the speaker needs God’s acceptance and support, for without God’s wings and magnetic force, the speaker is still powerless. The conundrum is therefore left unsolved, as Donne ends the poem without giving an answer for whether the speaker is worthy of God’s help.
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