Imagination and Doctrine: John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and the Trinity
This podcast is the audio of a talk I gave at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute. In it, I address the use of poetry as a means of apprehending truth on an experiential level, complementary to the comprehension of truth on an intellectual level. I discuss the work of John Donne (and specifically four of his Holy Sonnets) as a particularly good example of the way that poetry can illuminate Christian doctrine so as to help make it a lived reality, not an intellectual puzzle.
I have included here a brief outline of the talk, the full text of the four poems I discuss in the talk, and a list of the most important secondary works that I reference in the lecture.
The outline of the talk:
Introduction – the Trinity (and why the Trinity matters)
Poetry – the relationship between poetry and doctrine
John Donne – as priest, and as poet
Donne’s thoughts on the Trinity
The Holy Sonnets – explication of Sonnets 1, 10, 11, and 12
Summary reflection on the Sonnets
Conclusion – imagination in relation to truth
The following four sonnets are from the Revised Sequence (twelve sonnets in total). For readability purposes for a broader audience, the text I have used to present the poems here is the modernized version in A.J. Smith’s 1996 edition. The definitive edition of the poems is the Variorum Edition, edited by Gary Stringer.
I have included here my reading of each of these sonnets; if you can’t see the audio player, you can click on the title of the poem to hear it.
As due by many titles I resign
Myself to thee, O God, first I was made
By thee, and for thee, and when I was decayed
Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine,
I am thy son, made with thy self to shine,
Thy servant, whose pains thou hast still repaid,
Thy sheep, thine image, and, till I betrayed
My self, a temple of thy Spirit divine;
Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish that’s thy right?
Except thou rise and for thine own work fight,
Oh I shall soon despair, when I do see
That thou lov’st mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.
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’er throw me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me 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.
Wilt thou love God, as he thee? then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on,
In heaven, doth make his temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blessed,
And still begetting, (for he ne’er begun)
Hath deigned to choose thee by adoption,
Coheir to’ his glory, ‘and Sabbath’s endless rest;
And as a robbed man, which by search doth find
His stol’n stuff, must lose or buy it again:
The Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom he had made, and Satan stol’n, to unbind.
‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.
Father, part of his double interest
Unto thy kingdom, thy Son gives to me,
His jointure in the knotty Trinity
He keeps, and gives me his death’s conquest.
This Lamb, whose death, with life the world hath blessed,
Was from the world’s beginning slain, and he
Hath made two wills, which with the legacy
Of his and thy kingdom, do thy sons invest.
Yet such are thy laws, that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfil;
None doth, but thy all-healing grace and Spirit
Revive again what law and letter kill.
Thy law’s abridgement, and thy last command
Is all but love; oh let that last will stand!
Secondary sources of note:
Owen Barfield. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning.
Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination.
J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader.