Contemplating Paradoxical Doctrine Through Formal Structure in the Holy Sonnets

Faculty Sponsor

David Western


Christ College


NCUR research presentation

Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Spring 5-3-2019


This paper discusses the relationship between form and function within John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. It engages scholars such as Gardner, Kuchar, and Low who have examined the Sonnets as a means to understand various aspects of Christian doctrine. This paper argues that the specific sonnet form that Donne uses, as opposed to other traditional poetic forms, is especially effective at communicating paradoxes in Christian doctrine. First, the paper briefly engages other scholars who maintain that the Sonnets effectively contemplate paradoxes within Christian doctrine. Second, the paper identifies the specific form that Donne utilizes throughout his collection of sonnets. This investigation reveals that Donne consistently uses a combination of the Petrarchan and the Shakespearean sonnet, with the octave following the Petrarchan form and the sestet combining the Petrarchan sestet with the Shakespearian couplet. In this, the paper anticipates how characteristics of these forms might generally function to communicate complex messages. For instance, two lines with seemingly incompatible ideas might be held neatly together by an envelope rhyme. Finally, the paper closely examines the sonnets “Oh, to vex me” and “Batter my heart,” identifying how the form of each composes their paradoxical content. The implications of this study are important for the genre of religious poetry because modern poets often forgo traditional form in favor of free verse as a means of grasping complex ideas. This paper illustrates the value of traditional form for conveying complex ideas, particularly for poems with spiritual content.

Biographical Information about Author(s)

I am a junior Biology and Spanish double major and Chemistry minor. I am also a Christ College student. I plan to go to medical school after graduating from Valparaiso University. I run for Valpo's Cross Country and Track and Field teams. I also work for the Academic Success Center and am involved with SALT.

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