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John Donne, Holy Sonnet, spirituality


In the seventeenth century, notes Barbara K. Lewalski, typological symbolism came to be considered a way for the individual to explore one's own spiritual state and to discover "the workings of Divine Providence in one's own life."

[T]he shift in emphasis in reformation theology from quid agas to God's activity in us made it possible to assimilate our lives to the typological design, recognizing the biblical stories and events, salvation history, not merely as exemplary too us but as actually recapitulated in our lives. These various impulses led to a new, primary focus upon the individual Christian, whose life is incorporated within, and in whom may be located, God's vast typological patterns of recapitulations and fulfillments operating throughout history.

John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV ("Batter my heart, three person'd God") is clearly the product of such interior exploration and discovery, a meditation upon whaat Donne calls elsewhere the "repeating againe in us, of that which God had done before to Israel." For, in order to communicate to a Christian trinitarian god his readiness and complete desire for salvation, the speaker draws upon three images most often used in tandem by the Hebrew prophets to denounce sinful, apostate Israel: a vessel in need of repair, a usurped town under siege, and a woman trapped in a degrading sexual relationship. In Holy Sonnet XIV, the individual's life repeats a larger pattern, just as the larger pattern is only finally understood in terms of what it reveals about the Christian's spiritual state: the speaker of Holy Sonnet XIV must be broken, beaten, and divorced just as Israel was for having been unfaithful too the one true God, and the full significance of Israel's apostasy, punishment, and reclamation becomes clear only in the light of the Christian's sin against, and redemption by, a trinitarian god. Recognition of the poem's typological symbolism illuminates both the poem's significant prophetic dimensions and a rhetorical maneuver that it shares with other Holy Sonnets by which the speaker attempts to manipulate God in order to effect his own salvation.