The Role of Inconsistent Lover in John Donne's Sonnets

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The 16th and 17th centuries contained several of English literature’s greatest poets such as Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne. The latter poet, John Donne, was a devoted Catholic who became the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1621 and his sermons were recognized as some of the best of his day. Alongside being one of the most favorited preachers of his time, Donne is also credited to be one of the English language’s most talented love poets. Donne’s time working with the church may have served as some inspiration for his “Holy Sonnets.” Donne felt as though he was an unworthy lover of the Lord and in these sonnets, one can gain a sense of spiritual unworthiness or a lack of Donne being spiritually at peace. Donne’s Holy Sonnets portray a soul’s quest to experience and demonstrate faith and the language and imagery of the sonnets convey a struggle to resolve deep conflict with impure love for the Lord. John Donne’s Sonnet 19 and Sonnet 14 from his “Holy Sonnets” both differ in their tone and intensity, while challenging a sonnet’s typical message of complaint of fickle women not being capable of trust as the writer instead complains his own inconsistency with his relationship with God.

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Donne’s Holy Sonnet 19 consists of fourteen lines of verse in iambic pentameter and the rhyme scheme of abba abba cddcee, classifying the poem as an Italian sonnet. Donne’s Holy Sonnets are filled with numerous paradoxical lines and ideas such as the concluding line of Sonnet 19, “Those are my best days, when I shake with fear.” While the majority of people would not consider days filled with fear of a divine figure to be one of their greater days, Donne believes the days where he quakes in fear of the Lord are his best days because those are the days in which he remembers to praise heaven and the Lord. In line 4, Donne admits “I change in vows, and in devotion”, demonstrating he knows his praise for God is not truly pure and holy; Donne feels as though his praise for the Lord is profane as he loves God one day, but then forgets to praise him the next as his love for the Lord is “as soon forgot.” Holy Sonnet 19 reflects Donne’s unfaithfulness and his inconstant or “profane love” for God. Marked by anguish and a desire to righteously love his Lord, the tone of the poem indicates Donne feels shame for not fully loving God. The soft intensity portrayed through the sonnet’s verbs and language suggests he wishes to rectify this profane love in exchange for forgiveness from his lover, the Lord.

Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 also portrays Donne yearning for God’s love; however, unlike in Holy Sonnet 19, the speaker speaks directly to the Lord, demanding his love. Unlike most Italian sonnets in iambic pentameter, Holy Sonnet 19 begins with a strongly stressed syllable in “Batter my heart”. This unusual and aggressive beginning parallels the remainder of the poem in which the speakers intensely and violently demands the Lord’s love. When the speaker speaks to God, his language becomes violent and intense, filling with plosives such as the hard sounds present in “break, blow, burn” in line 4 and “batter” in line 1. Paradoxical in itself, the message of the sonnet illustrates the speaker wants God, a non-physical being, to physically and forcefully enter into his life and soul. In line 3, Donne writes, “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me” however, if God was to overthrow the speaker, then that would contradict the speaker’s initial desire to “rise and stand.” In lines 13-14 the speaker says, “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” The speaker asks to be imprisoned, delighted, and ravished by God in order to be chaste and free, which all contradicts each other; how can one be imprisoned yet free at the same time? At the end of the sonnet however, the speaker asks to be ravished by God - the verb “ravish” has a much softer sound, suggesting the speaker to be more intimate with God while still retaining the violent connation of the word. Throughout the sonnet the speaker begs God to violently “batter” into his heart, to “o’erthrow” him, to “imprison” him, and to “ravish” him as the speaker feels he deserves to be punished for his inconsistent love to God and that he will never truly be free and succeed in his devotion to the Lord unless God imprisons him to where he can only spend time being faithful to him.

While both of these sonnets have multiple communal traits and differing aspects with each other, both sonnets are unique to others as John Donne switches the roles of a traditional complaint sonnet. Typically, in a lover’s complaint, the speaker complains of a woman’s inconstancy at loving them; however, in Holy Sonnet 19 and 14, the narrator takes the place of being the inconsistent lover while God takes on the role of the typical narrator who is the victim of an unfaithful lover. John Donne follows the majority of a sonnet’s requirements, however, he perfectly represents an earthly and physical attraction and a more spiritual and sacred love by the reversal of the roles of the complaining narrator and their unfaithful lover in these two examples.

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