John Donne’s Poems

Literature has long been acknowledged as not only an amusing past-time for the literate but also as a repository for the cultural, political and religious beliefs of the people who wrote and consumed it. Poetry is no exception to this rule. For example, the English Protestant Reformation that started under King Henry VIII, advances in technology that allowed for greater production and distribution of books and a shift in religious thinking all contributed to a shift in the form and content of the literature of the 1500s and early 1600s. “[John] Bale, more than any other English reformer, deserves the credit of having grasped, as early as 1544, that ‘the exile of the Papacy from England meant the ending of a whole historical tradition’ and the opportunity for a new one” (Hamilton & Strier, 1996: 7). The new perspective that opened with the ability to question long-held religiously-oriented convictions meant an entirely new approach could be taken to the documents of the enemy as well as the friend (Aston, 1984). At the same time, increased power held by the throne, expanding horizons introduced with a growing naval fleet and its exploration and an increased focus on more scientifically based theories opened up the imagination to a new mode of communication that was reflected in all forms of literature. While politics and religion can be discussed plainly and openly in some instances, the poetry of the late 16th and early 17th centuries typically takes a more oblique approach to the issues of gender and sex, as can be seen in a comparison of John Donne’s (1572-1631) poems “Holy Sonnet 14” and “Elegy XIX.”

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Born in 1572 to a wealthy Catholic family in London, Donne lost his father at a very young age, yet nevertheless had an upper-class upbringing. Having received a strong education at Hart Hall, University of Oxford, Donne left school without taking a degree and was expected to pursue a career in law. He did not obtain a degree on moral grounds as he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy (Jokinen, 2006) as it conflicted with his religious convictions. During his lifetime, women were beginning to experience a higher degree of independence as a result of a growing market economy that afforded women greater opportunity of financial independence and social interaction, the presence of a female monarch demonstrating that women were capable of higher thought and worldly activity and a religious ideal that gave women responsibility within the home and an equal share in the marital relationship (Benet, 1994: 20). These shifts that gave women more power were also removing power from men as the economy shifted to a more peaceful, sedentary market lifestyle rather than the martial, athletic values of earlier times. While he was writing his poetry, Donne was also undergoing a crisis of faith following his brother’s imprisonment and death after harbouring a Catholic priest. By the time he died in 1631, he was a somewhat reluctant but successful and well-travelled Anglican minister. This biography bears a great deal of importance in examining his works as it illustrates his overall questioning of the status quo and gender beliefs of his time as well as illustrating the greater concerns regarding gender and sex while writing poems such as “Elegy XIX” and “Holy Sonnet 14.”

Several of Donne’s poems acknowledge the necessity of poetry to capture the sublime image of devotion necessary to convey transcendent thoughts to a physical, understandable realm in a world that was constantly changing and no longer stable. “Not only are most of the Elegies not love poems; most of the Elegies, including the love poems, are about the nature and roles of women and men and the familial or social relations between the sexes” (Benet, 1994: 19). In poems such as Elegy XIX, for example, Donne illustrates how the real transcends into the divine as the form of devotion to God is manifested in the corporal body of the beloved, yet also how this image becomes mired down in earthly concerns and therefore becomes less divine. “Thus Donne’s sequence can be seen as an acknowledgement of the inherent instability involved in poetic attempts to transpose the ideal into the real, but it can also be seen as an innovative response to this problem that entails embracing the instability and irony of Petrarchan lyricism and then using that instability and irony prominently in poems whose speakers are conscious of the limitations of their conceits” (Knauss, 1998). By introducing not only the physical concepts of male/female relationships into his poetry but also including the concept of violence within these poems, Donne takes part in the massive change that was sweeping the nation and began breaking down this idealized viewpoint.

The Petrarchan tradition held that transcendence to heaven could be found through the divine love felt for a woman. However, poets like Donne frequently created images in their poetry that questioned this connection or tried to examine whether women truly possessed this ability to disperse virtue and how a man might identify the woman who could provide this object lesson. For many poets, this was accomplished through the sonnet: “The sonnet sequence allows [a poet] to dramatize from yet another point of view the lofty aims of the lover and the defeats imposed by desire” (David Kalstone, 1965, cited in Low, 2003). In this sense of embracing and exploring the instability inherent in the Petrarchan tradition, Donne’s poems can be seen as a reflection of the troubled waters of Donne’s changing England. These poems reflect “the particularly troubling transition period in which the hierarchies that, theoretically at least, guaranteed the cohesiveness of the universe were challenged by the ‘new philosophy’ which called everything into doubt, and the analogies which characterize Tillyard’s idealized Elizabethan World Picture were all but reduced to a set of poetic clichés” (Knauss, 1998). The metaphysical nature of these poems reflects this constant questioning, as the boundaries between love and hate, life and death, joined and unjoined and male and female became blurred and mired in rhetoric and supposition. The world was changing at an increasing rate and long-held convictions were challenged as the nature of something as simple as love became even more confused and ill-defined.

One of the aspects of the new world order that was emerging and reflected in Donne’s poems was a loss of men’s absolute power over women. This can be seen in the way in which he presents mutual consent in both the Elegy written “To His Mistress” and the Sonnet in which rape is featured. In the Elegy, Donne must request permission from his mistress in order to enjoy her body as he would like: “License my roving hands, and let them go”. The encounter is presented as if it were a contest between the male and the female in which he is not able to conquer without her consent, symbolized by her lying down of her armour which has taken the form of the dress, girdle and busk. It is the woman who determines when it is time to head toward the bedchamber as she signals with a chime, indicating that she has set the time, not him. This concept of a need for consent is also reflected in the Sonnet as the speaker begs God to “overthrow me, and bend / Your force, to break, blow, burn”. Even in one of the most violent acts imaginable, rape and enslavement, neither can happen without the express request of the individual.

In most of his poems, Donne illustrates the idea of moving from the outer to the inner, indicating the direction any inquiries into the nature of what is a man or what is a woman should work to examine the various layers rather than halting at the clothing worn or the outer appearance. As he progresses through Elegy XIX, Donne explicitly describes the disrobing of his mistress as she goes from being fully dressed to being fully naked in bed with him, yet finishes with a continued questioning regarding what is the true nature of a woman. Although he has reached in all the physical places and knows her “as liberally as to a midwife” (44), he has seen her soul and examined what it has to offer, yet he remains clueless as to what she is as she is still more covered than he. This same movement can be seen in Sonnet 14 as the speaker utilizes the metaphor of a town for his own heart in trying to find a connection with God. Progressing from the outer walls that must be beaten, burned and broken, he moves progressively inward to find his inner voice, which has been taken captive and even deeper to find that he has become lost. As a last resort for finding himself, he begs for enthrallment, a severe reduction in the freedoms and independence that have been granted through this new world order. Again, he illustrates the concept that the essence of gender has become confused; the idea of manhood has become undefined just as the essence of womanhood remains elusive and somehow stronger.

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The woman’s body had traditionally been subject to the whims and desires of the men around her while the men had traditionally held the power and discipline of the outside world. These structures were shifting in Donne’s time and emerge as themes within his explorations of gender and sex. This idea can again be traced through a comparison of Elegy XIX and Holy Sonnet 14. For example, in Elegy XIX, the body of the mistress is revealed in exciting, enticing stages, illustrating the idea that she is no longer the mysterious, silent object in the background emerging simply for the pleasure of man. Instead, he must ask her to remove her clothing and beg for a license to touch her where he wishes. In this instance, the power of the scene is given to the woman who can choose to accept or reject him and remains elusive from his understanding. It is she who wears the armour, “Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear, / That th’ eyes of busy fools may be stopped there” (8) just as it is she who controls the household. This last is suggested in the idea that she has determined the appropriate time for bed. This role reversal is also evident in the Sonnet in that the man is to be ravished as a woman, enthralled as she used to be and finds himself completely out of control of his own life to the sacrifice of his own desires.

Within each of these poems, as well as in most of his other poems, Donne explores the concepts of female and male as they have been traditionally understood and as they are emerging within his own time frame. As the society shifts from being completely male-dominated based upon strength and physical power to one that provides some room for female independence and based upon mental rather than physical prowess, the standard gender definitions of the past were no longer quite so secure. This is particularly true as the woman emerges as stronger and the man emerges as weaker than had been traditionally believed and the ramifications of these relationships are examined. In these poems, the man takes on more effeminate roles in terms of having to ask permission of the lady for his activities and finding himself begging for the attentions of a God because he has no control over his own life. At the same time, the woman takes on more of the role of the man in her greater ability to control her own activities, her determination of what she is going to do and her ability to remain hidden from man despite her nakedness. As Donne explores these issues in greater and greater detail, moving always from the outer to the inner worlds, he remains unsure of the proper positions of his characters within the gender boundaries that had been established yet continues to shock his readers with the sense of upheaval that was inherent to his time.


  1. Aston, Margaret. (1984). Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion. London: The Hambleton Press.
  2. Benet, Diana Trevino. ( 1994). “Sexual Transgression in Donne’s Elegies.” Modern Philology. Vol. 92, N. 1, pp. 14-35.
  3. Donne, John. (1896). Poems of John Donne. E. K. Chambers, (Ed.). London: Lawrence & Bullen. Vol I.
  4. Hamilton, Donna B. & Strier, Richard. (1996). Religion, Literature and Politics in Post Reformation England: 1540-1688. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Jokinen, Anniina. (2006). “The Life of John Donne.” Luminarium.
  6. Knauss, Daniel Phillip. (1998). Love’s Refinement: Metaphysical Expressions of Desire in Sir Philip Sidney and John Donne. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.
  7. Low, Anthony. (2003). The Reinvention of Love. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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