A comparison of Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne and Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare
John Donne and William Shakespeare both wrote a variety of poems that are both similar within the structure of a Sonnet but with very different content. This essay will compare two of their sonnets Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare and the Holy Sonnet by John Donne.
John Donnes poem is a personal sonnet in which John Donne questions his faith in God. It becomes clear from the sonnet that John Donne feels that he has been tempted to sinful behavior by the Devil, Gods enemy. John Donne is asking God to restore his faith to an unquestioning level, either by force or proving his power to him so that his faith can be reinforced.
The Shakespearean sonnet shows Shakespeare poking fun at the courtly conventions of the time. The sonnet is in the form of a love Sonnet. Although it mocks the conventional blazon it does not undermine the beauty of his mistress. Shakespeare tells us that he would love her even if her breast were dun.
John Donnes sonnet is quite personal as he is writing about his own beliefs but expressing publicly his views. Shakespeares sonnet is written for a wider audience as he is trying to get people to see his point of view. This is that the conventional blazon of the love sonnet is inaccurate and either ridiculous or impossible.
The language used for each sonnet is both different and surprising. In Shakespeares sonnet the language is interesting because in a love sonnet the reader does not expect language like black wires grow on her head or her breasts are dun. Shakespeare uses this language to ridicule the descriptions in other love sonnets. For example, he makes us think how unnatural it would be to have lips the colour of coral. By using harsh descriptions Shakespeare also manages to show his love for his mistress just as effectively as if he had written a conventional love sonnet. He tells us that even if his mistresses breath did reek he would love her anyway.
The language John Donne uses is also surprising although it is slightly less obvious than the Shakespearean sonnet. Even though he appears to address God, Donne uses violent, aggressive language. For example, he opens the poem with the words Batter my heart. One normally connects peace, not war, with God. The first line is written as an imperative, which is interesting, as it is usually accepted that God gives the commands for man to obey. The violent language that is used by Donne to shows that he needs to be ruled by God. Even more surprising is that at the end of the sonnet Donne uses sexual language as he says, you ravish me. By using this language he is again saying that God must force himself on Donne in order to be able to be overwhelmed by him.
Both Shakespeare and Donnes sonnet are set around the same period. However the contents of each sonnet are very different. The period (1577-1631) in which they are set affects each sonnet in different ways. Shakespeare is mocking the courtly conventions of the time. The time that Shakespeares sonnet was written in heightens the originality of the sonnet as at that time it would have been almost unheard of to question the traditional love sonnet which was almost universally accepted. The main point of the sonnet was to go against the grain. When interpreting this sonnet we must remember that the language of the time is different that that which we use today. This influences our interpretation of the sonnet. For example, today we would use the word reeks as an uncomplimentary description of a bad smell. When Shakespeare uses the word reeks to describe his mistresss breath he is simply saying that her breath smells, not that it smells unpleasant.
It could be said that John Donnes sonnet is more personal than Shakespeares sonnet as it is addressing a feeling that is probably felt only by him. Shakespeare is giving his views on love, a feeling that is known throughout the world. Although Shakespeares views of the love sonnet are controversial many people would have been able to relate to them. Donnes sonnet would have been harder for the fifteenth century audience because few people had doubts about Gods existence. Donnes sonnet is more personal, so the period in which it was written affects it less. As John Donne is addressing God, the time it is written does help us to see that God would have been very important for John Donne. While he was alive, religion was very important in peoples lives. The period it is set also helps explain why he is writing this poem. For example, by looking at the religion of the time we can see one reason why John Donnes faith may have been challenged, as people were swayed between the Protestant and Catholic faith. Donne was influenced by this and is now asking God to forgive him for being tempted away from him and help him reinforce his original belief.
Both Shakespeares and Donnes personal lives could also have affected their sonnets. For example, around the time of Donne’s sonnet his wife died. This would have contributed to his breach in faith. Shakespeares personal life also affected the subject of his sonnet. As we know that sonnets one to 126 were concerned with Shakespeares relationship to his patron and social superiors.
Sonnets 127 onwards were about a dark lady, possibly his mistress, sonnet 150 obviously fits in with this pattern.
Both the sonnets are written for different reasons. The Shakespearean sonnet is written to speak out about Shakespeares point of view and also acts as an unusual love sonnet to his dark lady. Donnes sonnet is more personal, as an appeal for help. As both sonnets are written for different reasons their tone and language is obviously varied.
Donnes tone is angry and accusing and he uses forceful words such as break, blow, burn to get his point across whereas Shakespeare is calmer and more thoughtful. Donne is telling the reader, or God, what they should do. Shakespeare (up until the rhyming couplet) simply puts forward the facts and lets the reader make of them what they will. Both these sonnets are English, but they are in different styles. Shakespeares sonnet keeps more or less to the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet, whilst Donnes sonnet, although still English, bends the structure slightly to fit the subject.
The Shakespearean sonnet is well suited to its form. In the first quatrain Shakespeare takes the compliments of the time and shows how unrealistic they are Coral is far more red than her lips are red there are four examples each taking up one line. The examples he uses in the first quatrains are all physical. There are four examples each taking up one line, My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun. In the second quatrain Shakespeare is still showing how unrealistic the compliments of the time were, but this time he does not just concentrate on physical appearance but also on things such as her breath. The examples are also slightly more complicated each taking up two lines.
And in some perfumes is there more delight,
Then in the breath from which my mistress reeks
In the third quatrain the emphasis is no longer on physical appearance but on properties such as her voice and walk. In this quatrain Shakespeares true love for his mistress really begins to show as he says,
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound
The rhyming couplet at the end sums up the sonnet and also gives us a new understanding of the sonnet. The rhyming couplet;
And yet by heaven, I think my love is rare
As any she belied by false compare.
In this couplet he is suggesting that his love is realistic as he does not use false comparisons and therefore his love cannot be false.
Donnes sonnet does not conform exactly to the conventional form of the Petrarchan sonnet. This makes the structure of his sonnet most interesting.
In the first quatrain Donne asks God to force his way into his heart as before he has not done enough to keep John Donnes faith.
As yet but knock, breath, shine and seek to mend.
This also suggests that God had not yet got inside John Donnes heart, but has remained on the outside.
In the next couplet he is saying that he is like a possessed town but he is trying to let God in. The first line of this couplet is also an alliteration. I like an usurped town. In this couplet the words he uses seem desperate.
In the following couplet he is asking God to prove that his faith is not ill placed by showing him something definite. Without proof he is not strong enough worship God unquestioningly.
By the next quatrain however Donne is saying that although he loves God he does not have full faith in him. But am betrothed to your enemy. He is also saying that he would be happier if he was forced by someone else to worship his God than to have to try and force himself by will power alone.
The rhyming couplet at the end uses sexual suggestions to reinforce the point that God must force himself on Donne in order for Donnes faith to be unquestioning. The rhyming couplet however does not sum up the sonnet or stand in the way that Shakespeares rhyming couplet does. It does however give a sense of completion and the tone mirrors the tone and texture of the rest of the poem.
In conclusion I think that although both Shakespeare and Donne address different subjects, have different styles and are writing for different reasons they both adopt a style and language which would have shocked the public of the time The sonnets are also similar because of the definite structure of the sonnets. Both sonnets are the same in that they are individual, original and unique.