Religious Aspects in John Donne's poetry

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      John Donne's religious poems throw great light upon his complex personality. The poems are a supreme mixture of doubts and faith. His scepticism is due to the Renaissance spirit. Though he changed is faith from Catholicism to Anglicanism, his soul could not find perfect answers to his inner questions. In the Holy Sonnets, he relates his spiritual experiences. These experiences pertain to his fear of death, regret for sins committed, fear of God's punishment, and his occasional penitence. However, it is doubtful if Donne had really given up earthly pleasures and joys and turned over a new leaf in his life. There is a lingering yearning in some poems and though he feels sorry for his excesses and perversities of sex, he would not mind indulging in them again, as in This is my play' s last scene:

My pilgrimage's last mile; and my race
Idly yet quickly run hath this last space.

 

One peculiarity of Donne's religious poems is his use of sex imagery. An obvious instance is Batter my heart, three personed God where the imagery of adultery is used. The poet is the spouse of God, but the devil has captured him.
Religious Aspects

      However, he argues that his soul should be saved, as the sins of the body will be buried with the body in the grave and the soul shall be free from all attachments of the flesh.

      However, a careful reading of the Holy Sonnets reveals the hesitations, anxieties, yearnings and fears of the poet. They are real and convincing. His fear of damnation and his expectation of punishment for sins make him repent. It is the expected deterrent punishment which makes him turn to virtue and not the love of virtue itself. In Show Me Dear Christ, we have a picture of the anguished heart of the poet struggling for spiritual peace. His Sonnets show the eternal conflict between good and evil in the soul of man. The ultimate note is one of supplication for mercy for sins, because man is helpless and forlorn:

I think it mercy, if hou will forget.

      One peculiarity of Donne's religious poems is his use of sex imagery. An obvious instance is Batter my heart, three personed God where the imagery of adultery is used. The poet is the spouse of God, but the devil has captured him. Let God forcibly take possession of his soul which rightly belongs to Him:

Why doth the devil then usurp in me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish that's thy right ?

      In the end, the poet entreats God to ravish him:

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

      The sensual and the devotional are welded into one. Other religious poems also contain images borrowed from sensual love to illustrate religious experience. Some critics doubt whether Donne's religious poems are really sincere and his repentance genuine. His conversion may have brought about a change of heart but there is no clement of mysticism or realisation of the universal spirit.

      The fact is that Donne's main theme is his own self rather than love or religion. He is keen on recording his own experiences ; in love poetry, we have his responses to woman and sex; in his religious poems we have a record of his inner conflicts, his doubts and yearnings. Whatever be the subject, Donne can handle it with great craftsmanship. What we really admire in his poetry is the worth of his personality and his mastery over diction, imagery and versification.

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