Christian Guides to the Classics: The Devotional Poetry Of Donne, Herbert, And Milton

Encounter the devotional poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.

Written by Leland Ryken

Course Introduction

About Dr. Leland Ryken

Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) is Professor of English at Wheaton College. He has authored or edited several books, including The Word of God in English, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, and The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible. He is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society and served as literary stylist for The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Lyric Poems as Classics

This guide to selected devotional poems by three seventeenth-century English poets appears in a series of guides to the classics. Other guides in the series are devoted to major masterworks—epics, plays, or novels. A question that naturally arises is whether and how a short lyric poem can rank as a classic.

To answer that question, we can profitably ponder some well-known definitions of what constitutes a classic, as follows:

  •  Among the best of a class; of the highest quality in a group
  •  A work that has achieved a recognized position in literary history for its superior qualities
  •  A work that has gained a place for itself in our culture
  •  A work possessing greatness of style
  •  A work that lays itself permanently on the mind and prompts us to return to it again and again
  •  A work that has become part of the educational curriculum within a culture

It is obvious that a lyric poem can meet all these criteria. The customary exclusion of short poems from the canon of literary classics has unjustifiably deprived many readers of one of the greatest treasures.

Lyric poems possess unique qualities that make them a complement to the epics, novels, and plays that we most customarily think of as classics. Poems are short and can be mastered in a single brief reading experience. They possess qualities of compression and artistry that set them apart from other genres of literature. They are so packed with meaning that they have what C. S. Lewis called line-by-line deliciousness. Lewis also believed that one quality of a classic is that it is entirely irreplaceable by any alternative, so that when we want that particular thing, nothing else comes even close to being an adequate substitute. Reading and pondering lyric poems give us something that epics, novels, and plays do not.

Lyric poems fill their own niche among the classics. John Milton said that they “set the affections [the old word for emotions] in right tune.” Romantic poet William Wordsworth similarly said that as we absorb a lyric poem “the affections are strengthened and purified,” and he also claimed that the task of the lyric poet is to “rectify” people’s feelings and “give them new compositions of feeling.” Another Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, believed that when we read lyric poetry “the good affections are strengthened,” resulting in “an exalted calm.” These claims will be confirmed by the poems that are explicated in this guide.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Lyric Poems as a Genre

A lyric poem is a short poem that expresses the thoughts or feelings of a speaker. The word itself comes from Greek antiquity, when the poems were recited or sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. While it has been natural to think of lyric poems as expressing primarily the feelings of the poet or speaker in the poem, a lyric poem is just as likely to be a meditation or reflection in which the speaker enacts a process of thinking. This is especially true of devotional poetry of the type discussed in this guide. Lyric poems possess three primary traits.

First, lyrics are personal or subjective. Lyric poets speak directly instead of projecting their thoughts and feelings onto characters in a story. They speak in their own person, using the pronouns I, my, and me. The effect is that we overhear the speaker as he or she engages in a reflective thought process or a sequence of feelings.

Second, lyrics are identifiable by their content. Instead of telling a story, a lyric poet shares a sequence of thoughts or feelings. We can therefore divide lyric poetry into the two categories of reflective/meditative and emotional/ affective. In both cases, heightened or charged language expresses more-than-ordinary insight or feeling.

Third, lyrics are brief and self-contained. They are compressed in content, capturing a feeling at its moment of greatest intensity or a thought at its moment of greatest insight and conviction. Unity of effect is important in a lyric poem.

In addition to possessing these general traits, lyric poems are structured on a three-part principle, as follows:

1. Statement of the controlling theme, which can be an idea, a feeling, or a situation to which the poet is responding. Lyric poetry is always a response to a stimulus, and the poet’s first item of business is to indicate what the stimulus is.

2. Development of the controlling theme, in one or more of the following ways: (a) repetition (restating the central idea or emotion in different words and images); (b) list or catalog; (c) contrast; and (d) association (branching out from the original subject to a related one).

3. Resolution or rounding off the poem with a note of finality and closure.

A lyric poem has symmetry akin to a picture that is framed.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

A Guide to Explicating Poetry

Explication is the word that literary scholars use for close reading of a text, especially a lyric poem. When readers conduct a close reading or analysis of a poem using the format that is described below, they follow the path that the poet has laid out. Readers collaborate with the poet in composing the poem. They are not “tearing the poem apart”; they are putting the poem together in approximately the same way that the poet followed when composing the poem.

The method of explicating a poem commended below will make more sense if we understand the type of discourse that constitutes a poem. First, the subject of lyric poetry is the same as that of all literature—human experience concretely embodied. An important part of explication is to observe and delineate as accurately as possible the exact nature of the experience(s) presented in a poem.

Second, poetry is more concentrated than prose and therefore requires more careful reading and analysis than other kinds of writing. Concentration is achieved through the use of images, symbols, allusions, metaphors, similes, emotive or evocative vocabulary, and words with multiple meanings. Each needs to have its meaning unpacked, and this requires us to ponder the details, not to hurry along. Reading poetry is a different kind of reading experience from reading a story.

Third, poetry is also a more consciously artistic performance than other kinds of writing. Robert Frost called a poem “a performance in words.” Poetry relies more consistently on such elements of artistic form as pattern or design, unity, theme or centrality, balance, contrast, unified progression, recurrence, and variation. The high incidence of these elements of artistic form means that every carefully written poem contains a purely artistic dimension in addition to the subject matter. This artistry is part of the beauty that every poem communicates.

With that as a foundation, the following format describes the best way to explicate a poem. The general principle is first to see the big picture—the overriding framework—and then look at the details within that big picture. This is a mental model that carries over to many other activities in life.

The content core of a poem. The content core consists of the broadest possible things that we can say about a poem, including the following: (1) the topic or human experience that forms the basic content of the poem; (2) the theme, or interpretive slant—what the poem as a whole says about its subject or experience; (3) the occasion in life that gave rise to the poem and/or an implied situation within the poem (e.g., a speaker addressing God in prayer); (4) the specific genre of the poem, such as meditative lyric, sonnet, prayer, and such like. We do not know these things before we master the poem, which is a way of saying that we may discover them late rather than early in the process of mastering a poem.

Sequential structure. This refers to the organization of the poem as it progresses from beginning to end. Every poem has its own unique topical or imagistic units as it unfolds. The task of explication is to isolate the successive units and give them a name or label. In effect this is composing an outline of the poem (though not in a mechanical way). With a carefully constructed poem, the formula of theme-and-variation is extremely useful as we divide the poem into its constituent parts. Theme here means controlling idea/feeling/motif. Every variation needs to be answerable to that theme. For example, in John Donne’s poem “Death, Be Not Proud,” the poet lists a series of reasons why death should not be proud. These are the variations on the central theme of why death should not be proud.

Contrast as structural principle. In addition to sequential structure—the organization of the poem from start to finish—poems are almost always based on one or more underlying contrasts that organize the poem throughout or in localized parts. This is the poem’s “spatial structure” as contrasted to linear structure. Identifying the underlying contrast(s) works wonders in enabling us to see how a poem is organized.

Poetic texture. Having laid out the content and structure of a poem, we are ready to name and unpack the meanings of the images and figures of speech that embody the thoughts and feelings. The normal way to proceed is to start at the beginning of the poem and work our way forward. Here are the things that make up poetic texture:

  • Image: a word naming a concrete thing or action.
  • Imagery: the term that covers the images in a poem as a whole, or a pattern of images in a poem.
  • Simile: a comparison between two phenomena, using the formula like or as (“He is like a tree planted by streams of water,” Ps. 1:3).
  • Metaphor: like the simile, a comparison, but it is implied, not stated by the explicit formula like or as (“The Lord is my shepherd,” Ps. 23:1).
  • Allusion: a reference to past history or literature.
  • Symbol: an image or event having, in addition to itsliteral meaning, one or more conceptual meanings (e.g., light as a symbol of illumination).
  • Paradox: an apparent contradiction that upon reflection is seen to express a truth. A reader must resolve the apparent contradiction.
  • Oxymoron: a genuine contradiction.
  • Hyperbole: conscious exaggeration for the sake of effect; a standard way of expressing strong feeling.
  • Personification: attributing human qualities to something nonhuman.
  • Apostrophe: addressing someone or something absent as if present.
  • Connotations: the feelings, associations, or overtones that a word or image carries in addition to its denotative meaning. For example, the word home denotes a place of residence, but it connotes security, refuge, warmth, and family.

The goal of explication is not so much to label a figure of speech accurately (which is of very limited usefulness) but to explore and unpack the meanings embodied in the figures of speech.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

The Sonnet as a Verse Form

A verse form known as the sonnet is so important to the three poets covered in this guide that it needs to be explained here at the outset. Two chief types of sonnets exist, but before we note their differences from each other, we need to define what they have in common. A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem with an intricate and fixed rhyme scheme. In English, moreover, sonnets are written in a prevailing meter consisting of ten syllables per line (called pentameter), arranged into five poetic feet, each of which consists of an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable (called an iamb).

The Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. An Italian sonnet (also called Petrarchan sonnet, after the Italian poet Petrarch, who popularized it) consists of two units. The first eight lines have the fixed rhyme scheme of abba abba. This unit is called an octave and consists of such things as stating a doubt, asking a question, or delineating a problem—establishing something unsettling that requires a solution. The last six lines, called the sestet, resolve the doubt, answer the question, or solve the problem. The rhyme scheme of the sestet is less fixed than that of the octave; examples might be cdcdcd or cdecde. An Italian sonnet rarely ends with a couplet (consecutive lines with a common rhyming sound), though John Donne is an exception to that general rule. There is ordinarily a distinct shift or turn in the flow of thought at the beginning of line 9 called a volta.

The English or Shakespearean sonnet. The English sonnet (also called the Shakespearean sonnet, after Shakespeare, who popularized it) has more rhyming sounds than the Italian sonnet does and is packaged as three quatrains and a concluding couplet. The rhyme scheme is abab cdcd efef gg. While poets are not obligated to make the content fit those four units, usually they do. Nonetheless, sometimes the first two quatrains have the same subject matter, and sometimes the first twelve lines are a single ongoing movement. The concluding couplet aims to be aphoristic or epigrammatic (snappy, memorable), and it typically either sums up the preceding twelve lines or states a conclusion or application based on those twelve lines.

The appeal of the sonnet. The sonnet is an intricate and demanding form, and for that very reason many English poets have written some of their best poems in this format. Sonnets possess an abundance of artistry, and their brevity and formal tightness result in packed content as well.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

How Metaphor, Simile, and Allusion Work

The most basic figure of speech is the image. Narrowly defined, an image is any word that names a concrete object or action. But the term is used more loosely than that, and most of the figures of speech are sometimes referred to by literary critics as images or imagery. Next in importance to the straight image are metaphor, simile, and allusion.

Metaphor and simile. Metaphor and simile are both based on the principle of analogy. They both assert that A is like B. The only difference between metaphor and simile is that a simile uses the formula like or as (“He is like a tree planted by streams of water,” Ps. 1:3), while metaphor omits that formula (“The Lord is my shepherd,” Ps. 23:1). In every other respect, metaphor and simile function in the same way and require the same methods of analysis. Here is a brief primer on these two figures of speech:

  •  The basic principle underlying metaphor and simile is correspondence, as one thing is said to be like another thing. A is declared to be like B.
  •  A metaphor or simile is an image first of all (levelA). The first task of the reader/interpreter is to experience the metaphor or simile as an image. Before we can understand how B is like A, we need to be clear about A.
  •  The next step is to determine how A is like B. Most of the time the correspondences are multiple, not just single. The word metaphor is based on two Greek words that mean “to carry over.” This is what we need to do in interpreting a metaphor or simile—we need to carry over the meaning(s) from level A to level B. If God is a shepherd, having explored the image of the shepherd, we need to ascertain the ways in which God is like a shepherd in his provision for those who follow him.
  •  Why do poets use so many comparisons?They use them to achieve compression and clarification. They use one area of experience to illuminate another area of experience.
  •  Metaphor and simile require interpretation. They are an invitation to discover the poet’s meaning. The poet simply puts the comparison before the reader and trusts the reader to determine how A is like B.

Allusion. An allusion is a reference to past literature or history. Interpreting an allusion often requires the same bifocal methodology that interpreting a metaphor or simile does. For example, Milton wrote a sonnet praising a virtuous young woman in which he compares her to Mary the sister of Martha and to the Old Testament heroine Ruth. To make sense of these allusions, we first need to become familiar with the two women with whom the young woman of the poem is linked. Then we need to ascertain what aspects of Mary and Ruth fit the situation of the virtuous young woman.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

The Content and Format of This Guide

This guide takes devotional poetry as its subject, and this genre needs to be defined. Devotional poetry is not in any sense to be equated with so-called inspirational verse that appears on greeting cards. The devotional poetry of the seventeenth century is poetry of the very highest standard, packed with meaning and artistry.

The adjective devotional refers to the content of this intricately devised poetry. Devotional poetry takes Christian experience and doctrine as its subject matter. That subject matter is then handled within the poem in such a way as to lead to a deeper understanding of God and his truth and a richer feeling toward it. Devotional poetry is also definable by its effect on the reader, which is to increase one’s commitment to God and the godly life. Devotional poetry uses the resources of high art to achieve the same goals that we have in our daily devotions. A devotional poem guides us in a process of thinking and feeling that increases our devotion to God and Christian truth.

The genre of devotional poetry has required a different format for this guide than is used in the other guides in this series. First, the poems themselves have been printed, making this book a selective anthology of seventeenth-century devotional poetry. Second, there is no “Plot Summary” of the type that appears in the guides devoted to narratives. Instead, each poem is preceded by a section of tips for reading, such as a summary of the content core of the poem and its structure. Third, a partial explication of the poetic texture follows each poem. This corresponds to the customary section of interpretation in the other guides. The marginal notes that characterize other guides are limited to defining difficult or archaic words that appear in a given line of a poem. Finally, there is the usual “For Reflection or Discussion” section for each poem.

Another modification is that whereas other guides in this series have a single “fact sheet” for the masterwork being studied, plus a page “The Author and His Faith,” this guide devotes introductory pages to each of the three poets at the beginning of their sections.

The punctuation and spelling of the poems have been modernized by this guide’s author to make them more accessible.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

John Donne and His Poetry


John Donne (1572–1631) was born in London into a devout Roman Catholic household. At a time of intense Protestant conviction and feeling, being a Catholic made Donne an outsider within his culture. Donne studied at Oxford University but as a Catholic could not receive a degree. Donne also attended law school in London, again without earning a degree. He led a wild and unsettled youth, climaxed by his elopement with the seventeen-year-old niece of his employer. The elopement ruined Donne’s professional life, and he lived much of his life in poverty. In 1615 Donne converted to Anglicanism and under pressure from King James I became a clergyman.

Ecclesiastical career

Donne became one of the most famous preachers in English ecclesiastical history. He was a preacher at court, a “reader” at Lincoln’s Inn (a law school in London), and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Donne preached ostentatious, highly literary sermons to the intellectual elite of London society—to members of the court, to lawyers and politicians, and to merchants and financiers. Over 150 of Donne’s sermons survive.

Literary career

Like virtually all writers of the time, Donne did not write for a living. His writing was an avocation. Only a few of Donne’s poems were published in his lifetime. Most were published posthumously in 1633. This means that Donne’s poems circulated in the form of handwritten manuscripts among a coterie of like-minded poets and sophisticated readers. The two big categories of Donne’s poetry are love poetry (written in the 1590s) and devotional poetry (written approximately in the 1610s). Within Donne’s complete Poems, the devotional poems are in a section entitled “Divine Poems,” and within that collection are nineteen Holy Sonnets. As a writer of literary prose, Donne wrote (in addition to his sermons) a series of devotional pieces entitled Devotions upon Emergent Occasions during the course of a serious illness in 1623.

Literary Style

In both his poetry and his prose, Donne wrote in an obscure and difficult style. He had a flair for the original and unconventional. The quality toward which he aspired in his writing was what the age called wit—the creative, the unusual, the farfetched, the esoteric, and the shocking. Part of this wit was a love of intellectual complexity. The poems by Donne that appear in this guide accordingly require the exercise of a very active mind on the part of the reader.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 1: Thou Hast Made Me

Tips for Reading

Donne began his collection of nineteen devotional sonnets with a prayer addressed to God. The content of the prayer is twofold: (1) a request to God to rescue the speaker from Satan and hell and draw the speaker to himself (lines 1–2, 13–14); (2) the speaker’s expression of despair over his spiritual unworthiness (lines 3–11). Donne loves to reverse his line of thought within a poem, and we can see it when we come to lines 9–10. Line 9 begins in such a way as to make us think that we have reached the conventional turn of thought at the beginning of the sestet of this Italian sonnet. But the reversal is only apparent and momentary, because by line 11 the speaker has reverted to his defeatist attitude of being totally without resources before God.

  1. Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
  2. Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
  3. I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
  4. And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
  5. I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
  6. Despair behind, and death before doth cast
  7. Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
  8. By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
  9. Only thou art above, and when towards thee
  10. By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
  11. But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
  12. That not one hour myself I can sustain.
  13. Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
  14. And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

decay: fall into destruction

like yesterday: fleeting; gone

waste: waste away

weigh: weigh down; incline

only: but

old subtle foe: Satan

prevent: thwart or defeat

adamant: magnetic lodestone


This poem is primarily a declaration of the speaker’s spiritual unworthiness. We can think of it as a penitential poem, modeled on the penitential psalms of the Old Testament. Donne’s religious temperament included a strong element of self-laceration and strain, and this poem illustrates it. We can discern two aspects to the speaker’s desperate plight—a drift toward death and an overwhelming sense of personal sin.

Throughout the poem, though, we can see the seeds of the speaker’s recovery. This counterpoint is established at the beginning, middle, and end of the poem. The first line and a half appeal to God to stop the process of decay; lines 9–10 paint a picture of God as a transcendent being who can raise the speaker; and the last two lines again assert God’s power to raise the speaker above Satan’s temptation (line 13) and to draw the speaker’s iron heart to God (line 14). The line of thought and feeling is thus a back-and-forth rhythm between hope and despair and between divine strength and human weakness.

For Reflection or Discussion

A good avenue for looking closely at this poem is to find words that fit into the following image patterns: (1) images of decay or decline, as signaled by the word decay in the opening line; (2) images of height or ascent, associated with God; (3) words related to time and fleetingness, which accentuate the dire state of the speaker; (4) words naming the positive acts of grace that God is able to perform (starting with the word repair in line 2).

With those word/image patterns in front of us, we can move to a second level of analysis. Poems are usually organized as a system of contrasts. The speaker in this poem portrays himself as being in the middle of a single combat against various foes. Who or what are these foes?

The poem also has a sequential structure that unfolds as we move through it. It is an ever-expanding picture of the speaker’s predicament, as we keep learning more and more about his situation. As we move through the poem, what things are progressively added to the speaker’s burden?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 2: As Due by Many Titles I Resign

Tips for Reading

The second Holy Sonnet is cut from the same cloth as the first one. It, too, appeals to God to reclaim something that he has made and possesses by right but that has been lost through sin. Also carried over are the motifs of the speaker engaged in a single combat with Satan and of God as able to rescue the speaker. The structure of this sonnet is loosely that of the Italian sonnet form: the octave lists the ways in which the speaker belongs to God, and the sestet counters that “good news” unit with a “bad news” scenario of the speaker’s bondage to Satan and fear of being an outcast from God.

  1. As due by many titles I resign
  2. Myself to thee, O God. First I was made
  3. By thee, and for thee, and when I was decayed,
  4. Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine.
  5. I am thy son, made with thyself to shine,
  6. Thy servant, whose pains thou hast still repaid,
  7. Thy sheep, thine image, and—till I betrayed
  8. Myself—a temple of thy Spirit divine.
  9. Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
  10. Why doth he steal, nay ravish, that’s thy right?
  11. Except thou rise and for thine own work fight,
  12. O! I shall soon despair, when I shall see
  13. That thou lovest mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
  14. And Satan hates me, yet is loath to lose me.

titles: names and roles

resign: submit

was decayed: fell into sin

pains: sins

repaid: redeemed

ravish: seize


The first eight lines are based on the common poetic technique known as the catalog or list. The list is labeled as “titles” that describe how the speaker belongs to God. The most obvious meaning of titles is “epithets,” since this is what the list expresses. The word titles may also have a sec- ondary legal meaning of right of possession or ownership, with the word “resign” then also meaning “surrendering or handing over.”

The titles turn out to be a short course in Christian theology, replete with important doctrines of the Christian faith. Additionally, some of them are undergirded with key biblical phrases. To cite just two examples, when the speaker calls himself God’s image, he references the creation story of Genesis 1:26–27, where Adam and Eve are said to be created in the image of God, while the statement in line 8 that the speaker is a temple of God’s Spirit alludes to 1 Corinthians 6:19, which calls the human body “a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

When we move from the octave to the sestet, we enter an entirely different world. The comforting doctrines of God’s redemption and love are replaced by the terrifying works of Satan in the speaker’s life. The list of titles by which the speaker places himself in allegiance to God gives way to a portrait of Satan and a brief narrative of his destructive actions. Serving as a model for the poem is the biblical psalm of lament, in which the speaker invokes God to do something about the terrible situation in which he finds himself.

For Reflection or Discussion

The octave’s catalog of titles by which the speaker belongs to God should elicit an awareness (whether sharp or vague) of familiar verses or phrases in the Bible. Using a concordance or word search on the computer will lead to these verses, and doing this is a good devotional exercise. For example, the image of being bought with blood (line 4) is rooted in such verses as Acts 20:28, 1 Corinthians 6:20, 1 Peter 1:18–19, and Revelation 5:9.

A complementary route is to identify the doctrines that keep pour- ing forth as the catalog unfolds—the doctrines of creation, fall, redemption, and immortality (in the reference in line 5 to Daniel 12:2–3, with its picture of the righteous shining like the stars forever and ever).

The contrasting motif of the last six lines is bondage to Satan, or what the Bible calls “the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). What picture of Satan and his works emerges in the sestet?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 4: O My Black Soul

Tips for Reading

This sonnet continues the theme of the previous two, suggesting that in arranging his Holy Sonnets Donne’s design was to cluster sonnets that deal with the same subject matter. This poem is structured as a dramatic address by the speaker to his own soul. The first two lines imply that the poem was occasioned by a sickness that prompted the poet to take stock of his spiritual state. These lines, moreover, draw upon a familiar literary motif known as the summons to death. The organization of the Italian sonnet form is operative in the poem: eight lines outline the ter- rible situation of the speaker’s sinful soul, and then the sestet delineates a way in which the speaker can avoid his peril of soul.

  1. O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
  2. By sickness, death’s herald and champion;
  3. Thou art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
  4. Treason, and durst not turn to whence he’s fled;
  5. Or like a thief, which till death’s doom be read,
  6. Wisheth himself delivered from prison,
  7. But damned and haled to execution,
  8. Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
  9. Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
  10. But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
  11. O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
  12. And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
  13. Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might,
  14. That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

herald: messenger

turn: return

fled: left to go on the pilgrimage

haled: compelled to go

might: power


The first two lines set out the situation that operates within the poem: the speaker’s soul (black by virtue of its sinfulness) has been summoned by illness to an unspecified hearing. Since the illness is said to be a messenger from death, we can infer that the summons are the conventional summons to death. The speaker’s soul finds itself in a dangerous position. We should note also that from start to finish the speaker’s soul is personified and treated like a person.

The soul’s perilous state is elaborated by means of two direful similes. In lines 3–4 the speaker’s soul is compared to a pilgrim—someone on a religious journey to a sacred site—who has performed an act of treason while on the pilgrimage. The gist of line 4 is that the pilgrim, having committed an act of treason, cannot return to his native village or region. At a symbolic level, the pilgrimage is the journey to heaven, and the act of treason is the fall into sin and the lost state.

The next four lines compare the soul’s lost condition to an imprisoned thief. This imagined thief naturally wishes to be released from prison, but when he comes to the place of execution he wishes to be back in prison. The main point of the simile is that the thief’s situation is hopeless. All of this is a picture of the speaker’s lost state and fear of hell.

The beginning of line 9—“yet grace”—is the conventional turn of the Italian sonnet. With the soul’s condition having been declared hope- less in the octave, the speaker recants that verdict. There is hope after all. The way out is through repentance. The speaker admonishes his own soul, giving it a lesson in how to go through the steps of repentance. The paradox of blood making the soul white (lines 13–14) is an allusion to Isaiah 1:18 and Revelation 7:14. Theologically the sonnet is based on the doctrine of prevenient grace, meaning that before the soul can repent it needs an infusion of God’s grace to empower it to repent.

For Reflection or Discussion

Color symbolism is a central technique in this poem. The way to explore this motif is to list all of the color images in the poem and then to see what pattern is at work with them. The same thing can be done with the motif of the soul’s sin and doom: What words paint a picture of the soul’s plight? Then we need to list or highlight all of the words that delineate God’s grace and desire to forgive and redeem. What details make this poem a statement of God’s rescue of the helpless sinner and therefore a poem about divine grace?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 6: This Is My Play’s Last Scene

Tips for Reading

In his later years, John Donne had a continuous preoccupation and even obsession with death. It was a frequent subject in his sermons, as well as in his book of devotions entitled Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Sonnet 6 belongs to this category of Donne’s works. Additionally, as already seen in the previous sonnets, Donne was tortured by his sense of spiritual unworthiness. In Sonnet 6, Donne pictures his moment of transition from earth to heaven. The poem falls into the format of an octave that delineates a crisis and a sestet that resolves the crisis.

  1. This is my play’s last scene; here heavens appoint
  2. My pilgrimage’s last mile; and my race
  3. Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace;
  4. My span’s last inch, my minute’s latest point;
  5. And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
  6. My body and soul, and I shall sleep a space;
  7. But my ever-waking part shall see that face,
  8. Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
  9. Then, as my soul to heaven her first seat takes flight,
  10. And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
  11. So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
  12. To where they’re bred and would press me to hell.
  13. Impute me righteous, thus purged of evil,
  14. For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.

heavens: God

pace: step

span: unit of distance

unjoint: disjoin; divide

space: unit of time ever-waking part: soul

seat: place

right: desert


The premise of the first eight lines is that the speaker is on the verge of death. The literary and contemplative tradition underlying these lines is known as meditatio mortis—meditation on death. There may be an implied deathbed scene in the opening lines. By means of these motifs, the universal human experience that we relive as we read these lines is the contemplation of death. In turn, there are two dimensions of this experience: lines 1–6 focus on the fact of physical death, while lines 7–8 move to the thought of facing God as judge at the moment of physical death (“that face” is the face of God or Christ, which is fearful to the speaker as he contemplates being judged for his sinfulness).

The dominant image pattern of lines 1–6 is terminal imagery, as Donne keeps multiplying the metaphors by which to picture the cessation of physical life on earth. The end of life is like the last scene of a play, the last mile of a pilgrimage, the last step of a race, the last inch of a ruler, the last minute or second of an hour. Lines 5–6 then picture the actual moment of death, as a personified death divides soul and body. In yet another metaphor, Donne draws on a New Testament motif of the time between death and resurrection as a sleep.

The first six lines have viewed death in purely physical terms; the entire rest of the poem takes up the spiritual aspect of leave-taking from this life. Lines 7–8 belong with the preceding unit in the sense that they, too, are forward-looking—an anticipation of the moment of death. The emphasis is on fear at facing God as judge in light of one’s own sinfulness. This is the chief problem that requires a solution.

The solution comes in the sestet. The controlling motif of these lines is a journey of transition in which the speaker’s sins are left behind as he ascends to heaven. An underlying analogy is at work: just as the body stays on earth, so the speaker’s sins will fall to earth as his soul rises to heaven.

But on what basis can this joyous divestiture of sin take place? The last two lines give the answer, and they are phrased as a prayer to God. The imputed righteousness of Christ applied to the believer is the basis of being purged of evil in the sight of God the judge. Line 14 is a wonderful celebration of this conquest of sin. The formula of “the world, the flesh, the devil” is a commonplace of Christian thought and liturgy (including a prayer in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which Donne would have used every day). The three things named are understood to be the enemies of a person’s soul. There are hints of this unholy trinity in Ephesians 2:1–3.

For Reflection or Discussion

As we read and ponder this poem, we are led to contemplate what it will be like to face our last moment of life on earth and our transition to heaven. The first application is therefore to be introspective and think about our own end. Second, the whole poem is theologically informed in regard to such Christian doctrines as the final judgment of every individual, sin as a problem that needs to be dealt with, and imputed righteousness as the basis of the forgiveness of sin. The poem can thus serve an instructional function on these doctrines; excursions into a handbook of theology and a word search in a concordance or on the computer can be part of that instruction.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 7: At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners

Tips for Reading

The subject of this famous poem is the urgency of repentance. Bible verses such as the following provide the context for this urgency: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2); “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due” (2 Cor. 5:10); “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Donne’s approach to his subject is characteristically inventive: for eight lines (the octave), the speaker asks that the final judgment happen immediately; in the sestet the speaker reverses himself and asks that the last day be postponed so he can repent before it happens. The poem possesses a dramatic structure in the sense that throughout the poem the speaker is in the stance of addressing an implied audience; the audience keeps shifting as the poem unfolds (first the angels, then all the human souls of history, then God).

  1. At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
  2. Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
  3. From death, you numberless infinities
  4. Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go;
  5. All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
  6. All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
  7. Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes
  8. Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.
  9. But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space;
  10. For, if above all these my sins abound,
  11. ’Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace
  12. When we are there. Here, on this lowly ground,
  13. Teach me how to repent, for that’s as good
  14. As if Thou hadst sealed my pardon with Thy blood.

infinities: indefinitely large number

bodies: i.e., buried bodies

dearth: famine;

agues: diseases

mourn: over one’s sins

above: more than

there: at the final judgment

hadst: had


Many of Donne’s religious lyric poems (and some of those by George Herbert as well) fall into place if we know that Donne and his contemporaries followed a meditative format that had been popularized in the Catholic Middle Ages. The paradigm was a threefold sequence: (1) composing the scene by imagining oneself present at an event narrated in the Bible; (2) subjecting this situation to analysis and a process of thinking; (3) ending with a prayer (colloquy) addressed to God. In the case of Donne’s poems, one of the three elements might be omitted. Sonnet 7 begins with the poet picturing himself at the final resurrection at the end of human history (lines 1–8), and then the speaker turns in prayer to God (lines 9–14).

The situation in the poem (the recognizable human experience) is a person contemplating the final judgment in an awareness of personal sinfulness. To render that contemplation vivid, the speaker pictures himself as being impatient for the last day to occur immediately. Then it is as though he comes to his senses and realizes that as a sinner he may have good cause to wish that the final judgment be delayed.

While the implied situation in the octave remains the same throughout (imagining oneself present at the resurrection of bodies at the end of history), it unfolds in three distinct phases. The opening command to the angels to blow their trumpets is based directly on Revelation 7:1: “I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth,” combined with a picture later in Revelation of angels blowing their trumpets (Revelation 8). Following the address to the angels, the speaker commands the souls of all buried bodies to arise, in keeping with how the final resurrection of the dead is pictured in the Bible. The opening four lines might be labeled a commotion scene, inasmuch as the main effect is that of action popping up everywhere.

The next four lines are a crowd scene. As the speaker lists the ways in which death occurs in a fallen world, a picture of huge numbers of people emerges in our imagination as the poet lists the categories. The relevance of these lines is multiple. If death can happen in this many ways, it is, indeed, urgent that people repent now. Secondly, the lines evoke the whole fallen earthly order, implicitly painting a picture of the sinfulness of the world that requires repentance and God’s forgiveness.

At the end of this unit, the idea that some people will still be living at the last day is based on Luke 9:27 and 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17.

In the sestet, the speaker becomes the archetypal penitent, in contrast to the person impatient for the final judgment. The central theme of the poem is highlighted at the beginning of line 13: “Teach me how to repent.” The poem is a lesson in the urgency of repentance and the need to know how to repent. Biblical references abound. To picture the dead in the earth as sleeping is a New Testament commonplace (e.g., 1 Cor. 15:51 and 1 Thess. 4:13–15). In line 10, the speaker becomes a latter-day apostle Paul, who pictured himself as the greatest of all sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). The motif of being “sealed” is a New Testament archetype, where it signifies being secured by God’s redemption to all eternity.

For Reflection or Discussion

The commentary above only begins the process of identifying the biblical echoes in the poem; searching your memory might lead to more identifications, perhaps aided by a word search on the computer or in a concordance. For example, the flood in line 5 refers to the Genesis flood (Genesis 6–8), and the fire in the same line refers to the final conflagration of the earth (2 Pet. 3:10). Secondly, the poem is partly a meditation on the fallen and sinful nature of the world and its people; what parts of the poem make that come alive for you? Finally, the poem is a good point of departure to codifying what the Bible teaches about the last judgment.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 10: Death, Be Not Proud

Tips for Reading

This poem is the most famous poem on immortality in the English language. As is typical of Donne, the poet challenges the conventional view of death, namely, that death is an irresistibly strong enemy who is to be feared. Donne denies the common viewpoint and hurls a taunt at a personified death. The poem has a dramatic cast and is in fact one half of an implied debate—a refutation of the claim that death is powerful. The poem expresses what it feels like to believe in the Christian doctrine of immortality.

  1. Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
  2. Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
  3. For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
  4. Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
  5. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
  6. Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
  7. And soonest our best men with thee do go,
  8. Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
  9. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
  10. And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
  11. And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well,
  12. And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
  13. One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
  14. And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Swell’st: i.e., with pride


The poem begins and ends with clear references to biblical subtexts on which Donne has built. The opening taunt hurled defiantly at a personified death is based on the same technique as it appears in 1 Corinthians 15:55: “O death, where is your victory? / O death, where is your sting?” This verse underlies the entire poem and explains why the poem opens as it does. In the opening address to death personified, Donne surrounds it with high-sounding adjectives: “proud,” “mighty,” and “dreadful.” These words describe how death is conventionally viewed, but Donne lists them only to deny them.

The last two lines are similarly rooted in the Bible. Death as sleep and the resurrection as an eternal waking are biblical commonplaces, expressed (for example) in Daniel 12:2, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life. . . .” The taunt in line 14 that “Death shall be no more” is a verbatim quotation of Revelation 21:4. To give added weightiness to the opening and closing putdowns of death, Donne uses four stressed monosyllables in both taunts.

Between this envelope structure of biblical references, the poem expresses a series of reasons for the opening claim that death should not be proud. The best framework for working one’s way through the middle ten lines is that of theme and variation. The theme is understood to be reasons why death should not be proud. The variations proceed by pairs of lines: death should not be proud because it does not really kill people (lines 3–4); because it brings pleasure, just as sleep does, which produces similar effects on the body (lines 5–6); because virtuous people actually desire death and welcome it as a deliverance (lines 7–8); because death keeps very bad company (lines 9–10); and because death is trivial and unnecessary, inasmuch as drugs can also produce sleep (line 11 and first half of line 12).

With the full force of those assertions building up an enormous pressure, the climactic question becomes, “Why swell’st thou then?” To swell means to be puffed up with pride. Lines 5–12 present logical and emotional reasons not to fear death, but they do not provide an ultimate basis for that confidence. Those eight lines are themselves enveloped by the ultimate Christian consolation against death, namely, immortality (lines 3–4 and 13–14).

For Reflection or Discussion

The commentary just provided gives an outline of the successive variations on the theme of reasons why death should not be proud; what further meanings emerge as you ponder the images, metaphors, and allusions in this part of the poem? The poem is governed by the rhetoric of the put-down or taunt; how does this work itself out in the details of the poem? The poem begins and ends with references to the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, but the main business of the middle is emotional, that is, to get us to feel what it is like to believe in immortality; by what techniques does Donne get us to feel superior to death?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 11: Spit in My Face, You Jews

Tips for Reading

The subject of this poem is confession of personal sinfulness. The vehicle for that confession shows Donne’s typical inventiveness, as the speaker in the poem imagines himself present at the crucifixion. Because he is a guilty sinner, he initially requests that the Jews who crucified an innocent Jesus crucify him instead. But then he recants that request because he realizes that he cannot pay for his own sins, which are even worse than those of the Jews who crucified Jesus. All of this occurs in the octave. The sestet explores ways in which the incarnation and substitutionary atonement of Jesus surpass anything that people do.

  1. Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
  2. Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
  3. For I have sinned, and sinned, and only he,
  4. Who could do no iniquity, hath died.
  5. But by my death cannot be satisfied
  6. My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety.
  7. They killed once an inglorious man, but I
  8. Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
  9. O let me then his strange love still admire;
  10. Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment;
  11. And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,
  12. But to supplant, and with gainful intent;
  13. God clothed himself in vile man’s flesh, that so
  14. He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

buffet: beat

scourge: whip

strange: unusual

admire: marvel at

harsh: rough to the touch


This is a packed and complex poem that requires our best analytic skills. It shows signs of indebtedness to medieval traditions of religious contemplation, so we can start with that simple premise. In the first two lines, Donne composes the scene, that is, imagines himself present at the crucifixion. The rest of the poem is a series of thoughts that might plausibly arise if a person were present at the crucifixion.

To get the lay of the land, it is important to see that Donne’s line of thought in this poem is based on a series of contrasts: the speaker as the one being tortured versus Christ as the one being tortured; the inadequacy of the speaker’s death for his sins versus the adequacy of Christ’s death for his sins; the speaker’s sins versus the sins of the Jews who crucified Jesus; the once-only crucifixion of Jesus by the Jews versus the speaker’s ongoing crucifixion of Jesus; Jesus as a man on earth versus Jesus as glorified in heaven; pardons granted by kings versus Jesus’s actually bearing a sinner’s punishment; Jacob’s taking on physical attire in an act of trickery for personal benefit versus Jesus’s taking on of physical flesh to suffer the penalty for human sin. That is a long list of contrasts, but it makes up the substance of the poem, so we need to analyze the contrasts.

The second element of progression is the ongoing thought process of the speaker that follows from the initial premise of his being present at the crucifixion. Donne loves to keep changing the line of thought in a poem, including a reversal of something just stated. Knowing that, we can trace the sequence of ideas in this poem as follows:

  • Lines 3–4: Jews, you should do as I have commanded (lines1–2) because I deserve your torture, and an innocent Jesus does not.
  • Line 5: But that would not be desirable after all, because my own death cannot pay for my sins.
  • Lines 6–8: How bad are my sins?Worse than the sins of the Jews who crucified Jesus, and that for multiple reasons.
  • Line 9 (the volta, or transition, we expect in an Italian sonnet): An exhortation by the speaker to himself to marvel at what Jesus did.
  • Line 10: In contrast to kings who simply extend a pardon to the guilty, Jesus himself bore the punishment of human sin.
  • Lines 11–14: When Jacob stole Esau’s blessing (Genesis 27), he wore Esau’s garment and covered his arms with the skins of goats; Jesus, too, took on human flesh and form, but for the pur- pose of atoning for human sin.
For Reflection or Discussion

The foregoing commentary provides a starting point. Every line will yield further meanings as we reflect on what Donne puts before us. As part of that pondering, many of the words that Donne uses have biblical overtones, and there are biblical allusions that our memory or a trip to a concordance or computer word search would uncover.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 14: Batter My Heart

Tips for Reading

This is one of Donne’s most famous poems. Its subject is bondage to sin. Its theme is that only God can deliver a person from bondage to sin. The poem is accordingly cast as a prayer to the triune God to enter the speaker’s battle against Satan and deliver him. At a certain point, it appears that the speaker is talking about conversion and at another point about sanctification. But the umbrella concept of deliverance from sin and Satan is large enough to cover both. The poem expresses a longing to be free from sin.

  1. Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
  2. As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
  3. That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
  4. Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
  5. I, like an usurped town, to another due,
  6. Labor to admit you, but O, to no end.
  7. Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
  8. But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
  9. Yet dearly I love you, and would be lovéd fain,
  10. But am betrothed unto your enemy;
  11. Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
  12. Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
  13. Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
  14. Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

usurped: i.e., by Satan

another: God

to no end: without success

viceroy: governor of a region or ruler

untrue: disloyal

fain: gladly

betrothed: engaged

knot: marriage bond

enthrall: enslave

ravish: seize or rape


This is a vintage Donne poem in the energy of its actions and the fireworks of its figurative language. Donne loved the more intellectual figures of speech like the far-fetched comparison between two ostensibly dissimilar things and paradox (which requires a reader to find truth in an apparent contradiction).

The thought pattern in this sonnet falls into three parts, which largely supersede the units of the sonnet form. Lines 1–4 are a petitionary prayer for God to remake the speaker (encapsulated in the final petition of line 4—“make me new”). Lines 5–10 drop the petitionary mode and declare the speaker’s current state of spiritual bondage; the simile “like a usurped town” (line 5) sums up this movement of the poem. In lines 11–14, the speaker returns to the petitionary mode, with the prayer “take me to you” (line 12) being a summary of these lines.

The image patterns in the poem also override the units of the sonnet format and only partly correspond to the topical units noted above. The images (verbs, specifically) in the first four lines come from the work of a metal tinker as he mends pots and pans. The frame of reference in lines 5–8 is military and political, with references to a besieged town, “viceroy,” defending, being captive, “weak,” and “untrue” (a transition word to the next unit dealing with love relationships). Lines 9 to the middle of line 12 use the imagery of a love relationship: “Dearly I love,” “Would be lovéd,” “Betrothed,” “Divorce,” “Untie, or break that knot,” and “Take me to you.” The next line and a half take their frame of reference from imprisonment, and the last line is sexual in its imagery. It is in the nature of poetry to speak a language of comparison (metaphor and simile), and as always Donne throws himself into the enterprise with zest.

Paradox figures prominently in the poem. To stand, the speaker needs to be overthrown (line 3). He cannot be free unless God imprisons him (lines 12–13). He will never be pure (“chaste”) in his loyalty to God unless he is seized or raped (lines 14). Of course it is the task of the reader to resolve the apparent contradiction in these paradoxes.

The model on which Donne builds his striking poem is the biblical psalm of lament. As in the psalms of lament, the speaker complains that God is not doing enough in the current crisis (e.g., he is trying to mend a pan that needs to be completely recast). The main part of a psalm of lament is the poet’s painting an extended picture of the crisis, and this is what Donne does in this poem. The overall thrust of a lament psalm is to appeal to God to solve a problem that the speaker cannot solve.

Lines 9 through 11 require unpacking. The speaker loves God but against his will finds himself married to Satan (the “enemy” of line 10). The speaker asks God to divorce him from Satan and break the marriage “knot” (as in our metaphor of “tying the knot” in marriage).

For Reflection or Discussion

One line of application is to analyze the spiritual experience around which the poem is constructed; the apostle Paul’s classic account in Romans 7:15–25 is a helpful passage. Then we can reflect on our own experiences of this struggle. On a literary level, we can analyze how Donne’s specific images and comparisons (i.e., metaphors and similes) are good vehicles for embodying the experiences about which he writes. Some of Donne’s images have biblical counterparts, and these can be explored, such as God as potter (Jer. 18:1–4) and the relationship between God and people compared to sexual faithfulness (a marriage) and unfaithfulness (whoredom and related terms, ESV).

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Holy Sonnet 15: Wilt Thou Love God as He Thee?

Tips for Reading

The essence of a meditative poem is that the speaker enacts a process of thinking on a subject. In effect, the poet invites us to share the same thought process. This poem is of exactly that type, as the poet begins by inviting us to contemplate an idea with him. The subject of meditation is God’s love for us, with the goal to instill a corresponding love for God. The object of address is the speaker’s own soul. As we progress through the poem, it is obvious that Donne wants us to see his Trinitarian references to Father, Holy Spirit, and Son.

  1. Wilt thou love God as he thee? then digest,
  2. My soul, this wholesome meditation,
  3. How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
  4. In heaven, doth make his temple in thy breast.
  5. The Father having begot a Son most blest,
  6. And still begetting—for he ne’er begun—
  7. Hath deigned to choose thee by adoption,
  8. Co-heir to his glory, and Sabbath’s endless rest.
  9. And as a robbed man, which by search doth find
  10. His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,
  11. The Sun of glory came down, and was slain,
  12. Us whom he had made, and Satan stolen, to unbind.
  13. ’Twas much, that man was made like God before,
  14. But, that God should be made like man, much more.

digest: absorb

wholesome: health-promoting

waited on: served; attended to

breast: heart or soul

deigned: condescended

much: very significant


The first two lines are an invitation to share the poet’s meditation; although the lines are a self-address to the speaker’s own soul, we, too, are invited to ponder thoughts that will lead us to love God as he loves us. With the lead-in complete, the line of thought moves through four phases:

  1. The God of heaven dwells within us (lines 3–4).
  2. Through Christ the Son, the Father adopts us and makes us co-heirs with Christ (lines 5–8).
  3. Christ came down from heaven to redeem us (lines 9–12).
  4. It is even more staggering to think of God being made in man’s image than to think of man being made in God’s image (lines 13–14).

The general drift of the poem is to move toward the paradox of the concluding couplet as the climax of the meditation. People’s creation in the image of God is a familiar thought in Christian theology; Donne creates a surprise ending by reversing that and speaking of the incarnation as God’s being made in man’s image.

Some of the references are general, either to Christian doctrine or everyday experience. For example, the simile of a person finding his stolen possessions for sale is taken from everyday life and requires no reference to specialized knowledge. The following motifs are Christian commonplaces: that God is surrounded by angels in heaven; that Christ is a begotten Son; that this Son is eternal and, therefore, never had a beginning; and that when Christ died on the cross, he unbound those who were in bondage to Satan.

At the next level of difficulty, the poem is a mosaic or collage of references to specific biblical passages, and the full effect of these allusions depends on our having the biblical text before us. Here is a beginning list of details in the poem and a corresponding biblical verse for each:

  • The Holy Spirit is a temple within a believer (line 4): 1 Corin- thians 6:19.
  • God chooses to adopt believers in Christ (line 7): Ephesians 1:5.
  • Believers are co-heirs with Christ (line 8): Romans 8:17; Ephesians 3:6.
  • Eternal life in heaven is an endless Sabbath (line 8): Hebrews 4:9–10.
  • Jesus is the Son of glory (line 11): John 1:14.
For Reflection or Discussion

The biblical allusions noted above represent a beginning; what other biblical echoes are present? One of the purposes of devotional poetry is to give us fresh insights into Christian experience and doctrine; what are the angles of vision regarding Christ’s incarnation and atonement that this poem places before us?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Meditation Seventeen from "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions"

Tips for Reading

With this selection we encounter the genre known as the prose poem. Although printed as prose, a passage that falls into this genre is so laden with figurative language and rhythmic cadence that it has all the essential qualities of poetry except for verse form. The selection printed below appeared in a book entitled Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. The book is a series of devotionals that took shape in Donne’s imagination as he endured a serious illness in 1623. To this day, London is a city of churches. As we read Donne’s meditation, we should imagine the bells of London ringing frequently for funerals during a time of epidemic illness.

Now, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: Thou must die.

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal; so are all her actions. All that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and engrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me. All mankind is of one author, and is one volume. When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice. But God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another. As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come, so this bell calls us all; but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. . . . The bell doth toll for him that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. . . . Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another man may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him. But this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another’s danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.


The word emergent in the title of Donne’s book of devotions can mean either “arising suddenly and unexpectedly” or “urgent; having the quality of an emergency.” Both definitions fit the occasion of Donne’s illness.

The theme of Donne’s meditation is the usefulness of our awareness of death. More specifically, Donne contemplates the profit that comes to him in his illness as he is forced to think about the deaths of his neighbors when he hears the church bells calling a congregation to a funeral service. With that as the premise, the meditation covers two main subjects. One is the unity of the body of believers and of the whole human race. The second subject branches out from the first: in the speaker’s awareness that he is joined to other people, he contemplates his own mortality as he hears the funeral bells that announce a neighbor’s death. The last sentence drives the second point home.

The thing that makes the passage poetic is the figurative language that abounds. In fact, we can see the same quality of Donne’s imagination in this prose passage that we see in his poems. Chief among these is the metaphoric richness, as Donne continuously sees resemblances between the subject of his meditation and some other area of life. For example, the whole human race is a book, and individual lives are chapters in that book. When a person dies, a chapter is translated into another language. Suffering is like money, but it is useless on a journey unless we apply it. And so forth.

For Reflection or Discussion

A good first approach is to ponder the images and figures of speech in the passage, with a view toward extracting the truth that each one embodies. Then we can think about the personal applications that we can make of the two main points—our unity with other people and the benefits of thinking about our own eventual or imminent death when we hear about someone else’s death. According to Donne, the goal of thinking about someone else’s death is to be brought closer to God and heaven by that contemplation; how does this work?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

From "Sermon 7"

Tips for Reading

John Donne’s sermons (over 150 of which are in print) are so dense with literary technique that they, too, fall into the genre of prose poetry. They are filled with imagery, allusions, and figurative language. Additionally, their structure is so meandering as to resemble a modern literary technique known as stream of consciousness. This means that they follow the flow of the author’s thoughts, which in turn proceed by a process of association. While this is highly perplexing to someone listening to such a sermon, the technique fits perfectly into the genre of devotional writing. In effect, we look at a topic from a variety of angles, like a prism that is turned in the light. The following two paragraphs are the conclusion to a sermon that Donne preached at Whitehall on February 29, 1627. The two paragraphs are a meditation on the death of the righteous as a sleep from which they will awaken into everlasting life in heaven.

So then, the death of the righteous is a sleep; first, as it delivers them to a present rest. Now men sleep not well fasting; nor does a fasting conscience, a conscience that is not nourished with a testimony of having done well, come to this sleep; but dulcis somnus operanti, [meaning] the sleep of a laboring man is sweet. To him that laboreth in his calling, even this sleep of death is welcome. When thou lyest down thou shalt not be afraid, said Solomon [Prov. 3:24]. When thy physician says, Sir, you must keep your bed, thou shalt not be afraid of that sick-bed; and then it follows, Any thy sleep shall be sweet unto thee; thy sickness welcome, and thy death too, for in those two David seems to involve all, I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep [Ps. 4:8]; embrace patiently my death-bed and Death itself.

So then this death is a sleep, as it delivers us to a present rest; and then, lastly, it is so also as it promises a future waking in a glorious resurrection. To the wicked it is far from both: of them God says, I will make them drunk, and they shall sleep a perpetual sleep and not awake; they shall have no part in the Second Resurrection. But for them that have slept in Christ, as Christ said of Lazarus, Lazarus sleepeth, but I go that I may wake him out of sleep, he shall say to his father, Let me go that I may wake them who have slept so long in expectation of my coming: and those that sleep in Jesus Christ (saith the Apostle) will God bring with him; not only fetch them out of the dust when he comes, but bring them with him, that is, declare that they have been in his hands ever since they departed out of this world. They shall awake as Jacob did, and say as Jacob said, Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven. And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no cloud nor sun, nor darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light, no noise nor silence, but one equal music, no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession, no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity, no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity. Keep us Lord so awake in the duties of our callings, that we may thus sleep in thy peace, and wake in thy glory, and change that infallibility which thou affordest us here to an actual and undeterminable possession of that Kingdom which thy Son our Savior Christ Jesus hath purchased for us, with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen.


The biblical text on which the sermon is based is Acts 7:60, which records the death of Stephen, the first martyr, with the statement, “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Donne accepts this metaphor as the premise of his meditation, viewing death as sleep and the final resurrection as an awakening to everlasting life in heaven. As is often the case, Donne’s mind takes unconventional turns, as seen by the fact that from the text in Acts he deduces first the idea that we must work diligently in our callings in the world, and secondly that if we do, we will find the sleep of death a welcome rest from labor.

The first of the two paragraphs is a meditation on the welcome nature of death for a believer. In this meditation, Donne deserves our commendation for taking the metaphor of death as sleep seriously. A working person finds sleep a welcome rest from the rigors of the working day. On the basis of that real-life experience, we are in a position to feel the welcome nature of death as a cessation of physical life. The first sentence in the final paragraph summarizes the thrust of the first paragraph: “So then this death is a sleep, as it delivers us to a present rest.”

The second paragraph is more complex. The main subject is clear, namely, the nature of the heavenly rest into which believers will enter. If the preceding paragraph takes “present rest” as its subject, this paragraph shifts the focus to the future: the “present rest” that was the subject of the previous paragraph “promises a future waking in a glorious resurrection.” Having stated this thesis, Donne immediately sets up a contrast between “the wicked” who will not enter into that resurrection and those “who have slept in Christ” who will participate in heavenly resurrection. The part of this paragraph that is particularly famous is the sentence that describes heavenly life as a golden mean between extremes, as summarized in the idea of an “equal” thing between those extremes—neither darkness nor dazzling, for example, but “one equal light,” or neither noise nor silence “but one equal music.” This lone sentence is so famous that it is often printed in the form of a prayer, beginning, “Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening, into the house and gate of heaven, where there shall be. . . .”

For Reflection or Discussion

The task of the devotional writer is to “sing a new song” (see Ps. 98:1; 149:1), that is, express the timeless truths of the Christian faith in a fresh way or from a new angle. What aspects of heavenly rest come alive for you in this meditation? With what do you especially resonate? In keeping with Donne’s usual associative method of thinking, what sense do you make of the diverse Bible passages that he weaves into this meditation on death as sleep and the resurrection as an awakening? Additionally, the controlling metaphor in this devotional passage is death as sleep and the resurrection into eternity as an awakening; how does meditating on this metaphor contribute to your understanding and feeling on the subject of the meditation?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

George Herbert and His Poetry


George Herbert (1593–1633) was an exemplary Christian whose very life stands as an inspiration and model. He was born into an artistic and wealthy family. He received a privileged education, including a college education at Cambridge University. At Cambridge, Herbert held the position of public orator, a position that would have assured him political prominence if he had chosen that path. Originally this is what Herbert wanted, and he was even elected to Parliament. However, his political aspirations languished when his patrons (including King James I) died or fell from favor.

Ecclesiastical Career

Herbert eventually became an Anglican priest or pastor, and in a famous statement he embraced the failure of his political ambitions as follows: “I now look back upon my aspiring thoughts, and think myself more happy than if I had attained what then I so ambitiously thirsted for. . . . In God and his service is a fullness of all joy and pleasure . . . , and I will always contemn my birth, or any title or dignity that can be conferred upon me, when I shall compare them with my title of being a Priest, and serving at the altar of Jesus my Master.” In contrast to the highly visible clerical position of John Donne (Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral), Herbert was a parish priest in the small rural village of Bemerton. He served in this farming community for only three years, dying of tuberculosis at the age of forty.

Literary Career

Like his poetic mentor John Donne, Herbert wrote poetry as an avocation; unlike Donne, his poems did not circulate among friends. Herbert wrote and polished his lone collection of poems privately, and on his deathbed he handed the manuscript over to his friend Nicholas Ferrar. The volume was published posthumously in 1633 under the title The Temple. All of Herbert’s poems take explicitly Christian experience for their subject matter—Christian doctrine, church life, the Anglican Church calendar, and personal spiritual experiences. Herbert’s best poems have a surface simplicity that makes them inviting and accessible, combined with an underlying complexity and subtlety. Another characteristic trait is Herbert’s delight in structuring a poem as an arc of increasing tension that is suddenly released at the end. We rightly think of Herbert as a master of the quiet ending. In writing about religious experience, Herbert regularly chose to (1) take imagery from everyday life and nature, (2) refer to Anglican liturgy and worship, and (3) weave together references from multiple places in the Bible.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.


The subject of this poem is the ministerial or priestly calling. It is easy to imagine Herbert composing the poem in the middle of a week while working on his sermon for the next Sunday. The main technique in the poem is to link Herbert himself, the Christian poet-minister, with the Old Testament priest Aaron. The poem is structured as a problem and solution. The problem is the minister’s sense of unworthiness to perform his ministerial task; the solution is that God is able to equip or “dress” the speaker by his divine infilling. Underlying the entire poem is the description of the garment of Aaron, the first high priest in Old Testament history; the garment is described in Exodus 28:2–38.

1.  Holiness on the head,

2. Light and perfection on the breast,

3. Harmonious bells below raising the dead

4. To lead them unto life and rest.

5. Thus are true Aarons dressed.


6. Profaneness in my head,

7. Defects and darkness in my breast,

8. A noise of passions ringing me for dead

9. Unto a place where is no rest:

10. Poor priest! thus am I dressed.


11. Only another head

12. I have, another heart and breast,

13. Another music, making live, not dead,

14. Without whom I could have no rest:

15. In Him I am well dressed.


16. Christ is my only head,

17. My alone only heart and breast,

18. My only music, striking me even dead;

19. That to the old man I may rest,

20. And be in Him new dressed.


21. So, holy in my head,

22. Perfect and light in my dear breast,

23. My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,

24. But lives in me while I do rest),

25. Come, people; Aaron’s dressed.


below: on the bottom of Aaron’s garment

profaneness: unholiness

noise of passions: cacophony of sinful feelings


The first thing to get straight is the topical sequence, stanza by stanza, as follows:

  1. A description of Aaron and his priestly garment as described in the Old Testament
  2. A contrasting picture of how the speaker lacks those same qualities
  3. Another counter movement, as the speaker poses a riddle, informing us that he has found a solution, but is not yet telling us the solution
  4. Identification of Christ as the one who can supply what is lacking
  5. Resolution, in the form of the speaker’s announcement to his flock that he is equipped to be their priest

Then we need to note that the corresponding line in each stanza has the same subject, as follows:

  1. The priest’s head
  2. The priest’s breast or heart
  3. The motif of music or sound
  4. The motif of rest
  5. The motif of the priest being dressed
For Reflection or Discussion

The subject of this poem is the question of how a minister can be worthy to serve in Christ’s name. For a minister assimilating the poem, the application is personal. For the ordinary churchgoer, the poem can lead to a consideration of how to view one’s pastor. But the central issue is universal, leading any Christian to ponder how he or she can become worthy to be Christ’s minister in the spheres of his or her calling.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.


The subject of his sonnet is announced in the title: the poem is about the redemption (“buying back”) of the human soul through the atonement of Christ. Redemption is not presented as a doctrine but as an experience. In fact, this poem is a conversion poem, tracing the steps by which Everyman and Everywoman can come to salvation. The controlling metaphor is the lord-tenant relationship, as God is spoken of under the language of a landlord.

  1. Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
  2. Not thriving, I resolved to be bold
  3. And make a suit unto him, to afford
  4. A new small-rented lease, and cancel the old.
  5. In heaven at his manor I him sought;
  6. They told me there that he was lately gone
  7. About some land which he had dearly bought
  8. Long since on earth, to take possession.
  9. I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
  10. Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
  11. In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts.
  12. At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
  13. Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied,
  14. Who straight, “Your suit is granted,” said, and died.

suit: formal petition

afford: grant

small-rented: low rent

dearly: expensively

long since: long ago

mirth: derision; jeering

espied: caught sight of


With redemption as the subject, the theme or interpretive slant is the mystery of redemption—the way in which it was accomplished in a manner that defies human expectation. We can see this from the way in which the poem is structured. The central motif is a reversal of expectation. A series of false assumptions is discredited as the poem unfolds. The conclusion to be drawn from this poem is that God achieved his plan of salvation in a surprising way that runs counter to what the human race generally expects.

The poem follows a narrative path. It is a quest story in which the speaker searches for a new life. The quest unfolds in four phases, each with a corresponding setting:

  1. The speaker resolves to petition his Lord (lines 1–4), with the clause “I resolved” summing it up.
  2. The speaker seeks his Lord in heaven (lines 5–8), with the clause “I him sought” serving as a summary.
  3. The speaker seeks his Lord in earthly places of prestige and privilege (lines 9–11), with the clause “I straight returned, and . . . sought” encapsulating the key action.
  4. The speaker finds his Lord in a place of execution (lines 12–14), with the clause “I him espied” summing up the event.

The organizing contrasts are expectation versus reality, poverty versus wealth, and God as Lord versus God as sacrifice. The poem is also built around a central paradox involving a rich Lord who becomes poor and a poor tenant who becomes rich (see 1 Cor. 8:9 for the basis of Herbert’s paradox).

The time frame and general meaning of lines 6–8 are best understood as follows. The clause “had dearly bought” is the language of redemption (as in 1 Cor. 6:20 and 7:23) and refers to what Christ accomplished on the cross. He purchased the sinner’s redemption long ago at Calvary, but he takes possession of it here on earth piecemeal whenever an individual sinner comes to faith, which is what the speaker in the poem does. This accords with the surprise ending of the poem, where we are transported in imagination to the scene of the crucifixion. This is where redemption was purchased “long since” (long ago). It is claimed as a possession as the speaker in the poem (as well as every Christian) appropriates what was accomplished at Calvary.

Here is a brief list of allusions that need to be identified: the vocabulary of “rich Lord” (see such passages as Rom. 10:12 and Eph. 2:4); the old that needs to be canceled and the new that needs to be secured as part of redemption (New Testament passages about new man versus old man, new garment versus old garment, and old life versus new life); Christ’s birth as being a “great birth”; the thieves and murderers at the scene of execution; the brief utterance granting the dying criminal’s request (Jesus’s reply to the dying thief who asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom [Luke 23:42–43]).

For Reflection or Discussion

This story recounts the redemption of every believer; in what ways is it your story of redemption? What old truths are expressed with fresh vigor, or what new angles of vision does pondering the poem bring to light?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.


This sonnet is a meditation on the nature and effects of prayer. The more specific genre is that of encomium—a poem written in praise of a general quality or category. The poem is unique in being nearly without a verb in it. Instead, Herbert strings together a series of epithets (titles) for prayer. These epithets are at the same time both definitions of prayer and a series of metaphors in which prayer is compared to something else.

  1. Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
  2. God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
  3. The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
  4. The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;
  5. Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
  6. Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
  7. The six-days’ world transposing in an hour,
  8. A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
  9. Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
  10. Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
  11. Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
  12. The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
  13. Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
  14. The land of spices, something understood.

engine: weapon

transposing: putting into another key

land of spices: paradise


Herbert imposed a loose organization on the poem, only partly corresponding to the four units of the English sonnet form. The following outline shows the design:

  • Lines 1–4: imagery of return, connection, and being put in touch with a source
  • Lines 5–6: military imagery
  • Lines 7–8: musical imagery
  • Lines 9–10: conceptual imagery (words naming abstract qualities rather than concrete things)
  • Lines 11–14: imagery of transcendence or the heavenly

Within this loose arrangement, the epithets and metaphors emerge by a principle of association, as one aspect of prayer leads to a related one. Overall, as we ponder the individual definitions of prayer, it is as though we are turning a prism in the light.

A complete explication of all the metaphors in the poem is beyond the scope of this guide. For each metaphor, we need to identify the ways in which prayer is like the thing that is named. With “the church’s banquet,” for example, we can supply the meanings that this is an image of food, which is the source of sustenance and continuing life, and additionally that a banquet represents such eating and sustenance on a grand scale. Some of the epithets are difficult, but the success of the poem does not depend on our being able to figure each one out. Our hunches are likely to be helpful. “Angels’ age” is a difficult epithet, but when we speak of “the age of Shakespeare,” for example, we have in mind the whole culture of Shakespeare’s time—what it was like to live then. Similarly, prayer enables us to live as the angels live—in God’s presence, in heaven, in eternity, in praise, and so forth.

For Reflection or Discussion

This is a reflective poem that is designed from start to finish to lead us to meditate on the individual descriptions of prayer. If this is done as a group project the corporate insights are likely to exceed what we come up with if left to our own interpretations, just as in an inductive Bible study.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.


This poem epitomizes Herbert’s effect of giving us a surface simplicity, an underlying complexity, and an abundance of artistry all at once. The subject of the poem is the immortality of the virtuous soul. Each stanza has its own image, and each develops an idea: three times the poet names something and asserts that it will die, and then he names one more thing and asserts that it is immortal. The motif that governs all four stanzas is the final end for each of the four things named.

1.    Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!

2.    The bridal of the earth and sky,

3.    The dew shall weep thy fall tonight;

4.    For thou must die.


5.    Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave

6.    Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye,

7.    Thy root is ever in its grave,

8.    And thou must die.


9.    Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,

10.  A box where sweets compacted lie,

11.  My music shows ye have your closes,

12.  And all must die.


13.  Only a sweet and virtuous soul,

14.  Like seasoned timber, never gives;

15.  But though the whole world turn to coal,

16.  Then chiefly lives.


bridal: wedding

angry: red

brave: beautifully dressed

sweets: perfumes

closes: last notes of a song

seasoned: hardened by aging

coal: ashes; cinders

chiefly: most of all; supremely


The subject of the poem is announced in the title—virtue, which in line 13 is made more specific (the “virtuous soul”). The theme or interpretive slant is the immortality of the “virtuous soul.” The actual subject of the poem does not appear until the final stanza. Up to that point, the poem is mainly a nature poem. Only with the fourth stanza do we see that the first three stanzas, dealing with the mutability or transience of nature, have been a foil to set off the actual subject by way of contrast (see Ps. 103:15–18 for a possible model).

Underlying the progression is a process of elimination. Three spokespersons for nature step forward and make a bid for immortality. But one by one they are eliminated, as the final line of each stanza explains (each one “must die”). There is a sense of mounting tension. The last stanza states a quiet exception, as Herbert produces one of his trademark quiet endings. The first three stanzas are a eulogy for nature. Each of these stanzas is based on a contrast in which the first two lines name a conventional subject and describe its beauty, and then the next two lines counter that positive opening with a death sentence.

There is one more intricacy of organization in this ostensibly simple poem. The stanzas display symmetry of arrangement in which the corresponding line in each stanza serves the same function, as follows:

  •  The first line names a conventional poetic subject (the “day,” the “rose,” the “spring,” and the “virtuous soul”) and declares it to be “sweet.”
  •  The next line further describes the phenomenon named in the opening line of the stanza.
  •  The third line delivers a message of doom.
  •  The final line announces a prophecy—three times a prophecy ofdeath and once of life.

The final prophecy (lines 15–16) refers to the conflagration of the earth at the last day (2 Pet. 3:10), accompanied by the final glorification of the believer’s soul on that day.

For Reflection or Discussion

The foregoing commentary lays out the organization of the poem. The remaining task is to unpack the meanings of the poetic texture. How is a beautiful day like a wedding of earth and sky? Why does the poet say that the root of a rose plant is in its grave? How is the spring season like a box of perfumes? And so forth.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

The Pulley

This is one of Herbert’s simplest poems. It is a narrative poem in the specific form of a creation story. In our imagination we are placed at the creation of the world as narrated in Genesis 1, where we overhear the Godhead say, “Let us make man. . . . So God created man. . . .” (vv. 26–27). The image named in the title does not directly enter the poem, but it is an independent image that sums up the main action: God’s creating man in the way he did is a method of pulling people back to himself.

1.           When God at first made man,

2.  Having a glass of blessings standing by,

3.  “Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can:

4.  Let the world’s riches, which disperséd lie,

5.           Contract into a span.”


6.           So strength first made a way;

7.  Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honor, pleasure.

8.  When almost all was out, God made a stay,

9.  Perceiving that alone, of all his treasure,

10.         Rest in the bottom lay.


11.         “For if I should,” said he,

12.  “Bestow this jewel also on my creature,

13.  He would adore my gifts instead of me,

14.  And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:

15.         So both should losers be.


16.         “Yet let him keep the rest,

17.  But keep them with repining restlessness:

18.  Let him be rich and weary, that at least,

19.  If goodness lead him not, yet weariness

20.         May toss him to my breast.”


span: compressed space

made a way: came out

stay: stop

both: God and man

rest: remainder

repining: discontented


This poem is a meditation on a truth that was most memorably expressed by Augustine of Hippo in his famous Confessions: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.” Herbert’s poem elaborates that truth in an imagined story of creation that explains what lies behind the situation that Augustine’s famous aphorism encapsulates. In this imagined creation story, we are given the reason why God created people to be restless in the world.

The biblical creation story of Genesis 1 forms the subtext of Herbert’s poem. In Genesis 1, the Godhead dialogues within itself, using the command formula “Let us . . .” and “Let there be. . . .” As in the Genesis account, in this poem man emerges as an exalted being—the best of the best. His restlessness is in no sense a result of being deficient as a creature. One of Herbert’s favorite techniques was to domesticate wonder (as a commentator puts it). In the first stanza, the wonder of God’s creation of the world and man is compared to pouring out the contents of a glass in the kitchen. In the same vein, we enter the mind of God as he thinks through what he should do next.

The poem is based on heightened contrasts that sometimes pass into paradox (an apparent contradiction that expresses truth). Thus we have the abundance of God’s blessing set over against a mere “span” (the size of a human hand). In the last stanza, man keeps “the rest,” that is, everything except rest, but finds that it produces “restlessness,” with the result that he is “rich and weary.”

For Reflection or Discussion

How is the title an interpretive framework for the poem and even a guide to its unfolding progression? What view of man or the person emerges from the poem? How does the poem give a fresh experience of Augustine’s great aphorism?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

The Agony

This poem is a meditation on Christ’s passion, specifically his suffering in Gethsemane and substitutionary atonement on the cross. The theme or interpretive slant is that two things converge in Christ’s atonement— human sinfulness and divine love. An important meditative exercise from the Middle Ages that influenced the poetry of both Donne and Herbert is one that begins by composing the scene, that is, imagining oneself present at an event recorded in the Bible. In this poem, Herbert leads us in our imagination to the suffering of Jesus in Gethsemane and at the crucifixion. The speaker in the poem presents his meditation as a quest to find the supreme examples of sin and love, and they come to focus on the passion of Jesus.

1. Philosophers have measured mountains,

2. Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,

3. Walked with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains:

4. But there are two, vast, spacious things,

5. The which to measure it doth more behove,

6. Yet few there are that sound them: Sin and Love.


7. Who would know sin, let him repair

8. Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see

9. A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,

10. His skin, his garments bloody be.

11. Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain

12. To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.


13. Who knows not Love, let him assay

14. And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike

15. Did set again abroach; then let him say

16. If ever he did taste the like.

17. Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,

18. Which my God feels as blood, but I, as wine.


philosophers: thinkers

behove: behoove = require

sound them: probe their depths

repair: go; move

wrung: squeezed out

press and vice: machines that squeeze

assay: examine; test

pike: spear

abroach: open to let liquid out

liquor: liquid


We are led to contemplate primarily two things as we read this poem. One is the suffering of Jesus in his passion and crucifixion, as the poem lingers on the circumstances of Christ’s torture and death. The other is the leniency that God allows us: Jesus as our substitute suffered physical agony, while we as believers drink wine in sacrament of communion. Christ spilled his blood; we taste wine. The disproportion seems unfair and thereby exhibits God’s love.

For Reflection or Discussion

What fresh insight (or renewed appreciation) does this poem offer you in regard to the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, and the suffering of Jesus that was part of it? Although the poem covers multiple topics, the title asks us to see the suffering of Jesus in his torture and crucifixion as the unifying focus; how does this work out?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Love (III)

Herbert wrote three poems entitled “Love,” and this is the third one, explaining why in the table of contents in The Temple (Herbert’s volume of poems) it bears the title “Love (III).” The controlling image throughout the poem is that of the host-guest relationship. Within the poem, the guest is a personification of the speaker’s soul (line 1), while the host is one of God’s attributes, his love (line 3).

1.   Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,

2.           Guilty of dust and sin.

3.   But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack

4.           From my first entrance in,

5.   Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning

6.           If I lacked anything.


7.   “A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”

8.           Love said, “You shall be he.”

9.   “I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,

10.         I cannot look on thee.”

11.  Love took my hand and smiling did rely,

12.         “Who made the eyes but I?”


13.  “Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame

14.         Go where it doth deserve.”

15.  “And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”

16.         “My dear, then I will serve.”

17.  “You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”

18.         So I did sit and eat.


dust: the mortal [sinful] condition

marred: damaged


This is a vintage Herbert poem in its surface simplicity and actual complexity. For starters, this is the very last poem in Herbert’s vol- ume of poems, and it follows poems entitled “Death,” “Judgment,” and “Heaven.” With that in mind, we can say that the poem simultaneously portrays three things—God’s welcome of the sinner in (1) the experience of conversion or coming to saving faith, (2) the sacrament of communion, and (3) entrance into heaven. As stated by the title, these welcoming acts of God exhibit his love. In this poem, human unworthiness is completely overwhelmed by divine love. The last line suddenly resolves the tension that has been growing and ranks as one of Herbert’s masterful quiet endings.

The poem is structured as a drama in miniature, and is replete with back-and-forth dialogue and implied gestures. There is an underlying quest motif as the host, Love, attempts to persuade a reluctant guest to stay for a meal. The guest’s reluctance is based on his awareness of his sinful condition and therefore his unworthiness to be welcomed by God. Underlying the poem is the picture that Jesus paints in Luke 12:37 of the lord who, when he comes, finds his servants waiting: “Verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them” (kjv, which was Herbert’s English Bible).

Some other important biblical passages are also woven into Herbert’s story of divine love overcoming human sinfulness. For example, the speaker’s refusal of God’s call is modeled on the reluctance of Moses and Isaiah when God calls them to a task (Exodus 4 and Isa. 4:5–8). When Moses protests that he is not eloquent, God counters with the question, “Who has made man’s mouth?” (Ex. 4:11), which Herbert echoes with Love’s question in line 12. Underlying the entire poem is the biblical archetype of the messianic banquet, where the banquet symbolizes union with God in the life to come.

For Reflection or Discussion

How does the poem lead to a new understanding or experience of God’s love? What is the angle of vision that constitutes the genius of the poem? How does the poem give you a fresh understanding of the biblical statement that “God is love” (1 John 4:8)?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

The Elixir

This poem is a meditation on what it takes to live life in a godly manner. It encapsulates the Protestant version of the sacramental life: not the multiplication of images and ritual inside a church, but bringing a divine and heavenly perspective into every aspect of daily life. The second line sounds the keynote, and the rest of the poem imagines what life would be like if a person sees God in all things. The poem is structured as a prayer addressed to God, and it expresses the important Reformation doctrines of vocation and work.

1.           Teach me, my God and King,

2.           In all things Thee to see,

3.   And what I do in anything,

4.           To do it as for Thee.


5.            Not rudely, as a beast,

6.            To run into an action;

7.   But still to make Thee prepossessed,

8.            And give it his perfection.


9.            A man that looks on glass,

10.          On it may stay his eye,

11.   Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,

12.          And then the heaven espy.


13.          All may of Thee partake;

14.          Nothing can be so mean

15.   Which with this tincture (for Thy sake)

16.          Will not grow bright and clean.


17.          A servant with this clause

18.          Makes drudgery divine:

19.   Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,

20.          Makes that and the action fine.


21.          This is the famous stone

22.          That turneth all to gold;

23.   For that which God doth touch and own

24.          Cannot for less be told.


rudely: unthinkingly; impetuously

prepossessed: owner beforehand

his: God’s

glass: glass of a window

stay his eye: let his gaze rest

pass: look

espy: see from a distance

all: everything

mean: humble; lowly

tincture: extract that flavors a food or drink

this clause: “for Thy sake” (line 15)

divine: holy; godlike

fine: exalted; worthy

stone: the magical stone that turned metal to gold

told: counted; considered; proclaimed


The title expresses the main motif with which Herbert works in this poem. Elixir belonged to the fanciful world of medieval alchemy (forerunner of modern chemistry). It was the fantastic substance (sometimes pictured as a stone) that was imagined to have the property of turning base metals into gold. Herbert turns this bit of fantasy into a metaphor, as he writes about the attitude (seeing God in everything) that will transform all of life from something unfulfilling into something fulfilling. Perhaps 1 Corinthians 10:31 can be viewed as underlying the poem: “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
The poem is structured as a dramatic address to God (momen- tarily dropped in line 8). Within that framework, the poem progresses through the following phases:

  •  Lines 1–8: a section of petitionary prayer in which the speaker asks God to teach him how to live with God at the center of every action.
  •  Lines 9–12: an implied analogy—just as a person can look through a windowpane and see the sky, so we can look beyond daily activities as self-contained and choose to see God in them.
  •  Lines 13–16: statement of the main idea of the poem—the tincture that will make all of life bright is doing everything for God’s sake.
  •  Lines 17–20: application to the specimen activity of cleaning a room.
  •  Lines 21–24: restatement of the central idea of the poem.
For Reflection or Discussion

What do you find most winsome about this poem? What makes it a particularly good example of a meditative poem? What application can you make in your own life?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Easter (Song)

The following three stanzas are a song that ends a longer poem in which the speaker summons his heart and lute to sing of Christ’s resurrection. The brief song is a rapturous celebration of the glory of the annual resurrection day.

1. I got me flowers to straw thy way;

2. I got me boughs off many a tree;

3. But thou wast up by break of day

4. And broughtest thy sweets along with thee.


5. The sun arising in the east,

6. Though he give light, and the East perfume,

7. If they should offer to contest

8. With thy arising, they presume.


9. Can there be any day but this,

10. Though many suns to shine endeavor?

11. We count three hundred, but we miss:

12. There is but one, and that one ever.


straw: strew

sweets: decorations or perfumes

the East: the Orient

suns: daily shining of the sun

three hundred: that is, 365 = a year

ever: eternal


The poet begins with the traditional method of composing the scene. He situates himself in a rural or small-town landscape early on Easter Day—before daybreak, in a variation on our sunrise service. The actions that the speaker performs in the first two lines are celebratory ones, reminiscent of May Day celebrations in early England when greenery was brought from the woods into town and people’s houses. Line 2, moreover, evokes the celebration of the crowds at Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem: “And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way” (Matt. 21:8 kjv, Herbert’s English Bible).

But the next lines immediately undercut the speaker’s self-congratulatory sense of “doing it right” on Easter morning. The poet imagines Jesus already present on resurrection morning, bringing his own festive decorations with him. The implied point is that the resurrection of Jesus is greater than any commemoration that we can orchestrate.

The entire rest of the poem is an elaboration of this idea, as the resurrection of Jesus is declared to be so superior that it renders other things superfluous or inferior. For example, the sun rising in the east and perfumes imported from the Orient are presumptuous if they think they can compete in glory with the resurrection of Jesus. In a similar vein, no number of sunrises can match the splendor of Easter Day (lines 9–10), and even though we calculate that there are 365 days in a year (rounded off to “three hundred”), the poet asserts that Easter Day is so important as to completely supplant all the other days. Of course this is not literally true, but it is a poetic way of expressing the supreme value that the poet places on Easter Day.

For Reflection or Discussion

What strikes you as skillfully done and inventive about the poet’s praise of the resurrection? The whole poem rests on the technique of hyperbole (exaggeration for the sake of emotional effect); how does that work itself out? Another angle on Herbert’s strategy is to ponder how he uses the technique of comparison: the poem sets the resurrection against some acknowledged standards of excellence, to the latter’s detriment.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

The Collar

We come at last to “the big one” in the canon of Herbert’s most famous devotional poems. It is “big” in both its length and its complexity, and mastering it requires one’s best powers of concentration. Yet the last four lines are the most famous of Herbert’s quiet endings, winsome in their simplicity. The controlling metaphor throughout the poem is the lord-tenant relationship, with the speaker quickly emerging as a discontented farmer who is in a state of rebellion against renting his farm from his landlord.

1.       I struck the board and cried, “No, more;

2.                               I will abroad!

3.       What, shall I ever sigh and pine?

4.  My lines and life are free, free as the road,

5.       Loose as the wind, as large as store.

6.            Shall I be still in suit?

7.       Have I no harvest but a thorn

8.       To let me blood, and not restore

9.  What I have lost with cordial fruit?

10.                             Sure there was wine

11.           Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn

12.                Before my tears did drown it.

13.       Is the year only lost to me?

14.                Have I no bays to crown it,

15.  No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?

16.                             All wasted?

17.       Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,

18.                            And thou hast hands.

19.               Recover all thy sigh-blown age

20.  On double pleasures; leave thy cold dispute

21.  Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,

22.                           Thy rope of sands,

23.  Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee

24.       Good cable, to enforce and draw,

25.                           And be thy law,

26.       While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.

27.                          Away! take heed;

28.                          I will abroad.

29.  Call in thy death’s head there; tie up thy fears.

30.                          He that forbears

31.        To suit and serve his need,

32.                         Deserves his load.”

33.  But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild

34.                         At every word,

35.    Methoughts I heard one calling, Child!

36.         And I replied, My Lord.


board: kitchen table

abroad: leave; go abroad

pine: wither away; languish

lines: condition

store: storehouse; granary

suit: service

let me blood: cause me to bleed

cordial: life-restoring

bays: crown made of laurel leaves

gay: colorful; festive

sigh-blown: dominated by sighs

good: strong

wink: close one’s eyes

take heed: beware of me

methoughts: I thought

The first thing to note is that as the poem unfolds we follow the disordered thought process of the speaker. The poem is full of conversational vigor, approximating the ordinary speaking voice. This explains the quick shifts of thought, the short clauses, the interspersed questions and exclamations, and the staccato effect. As part of this, the poem has a strong dramatic cast in the sense that the speaker is addressing an implied listener throughout. In a surprise move, moreover, we learn in line 17 that the speaker is talking to himself, addressing his heart (that is, his inner self). This poem is at the realistic end of the poetic continuum, at the opposite pole from a polished sonnet or an artistically arranged poem like “Virtue.”

Another label for the structure described in the preceding paragraph is “psychological structure,” based on the premise that the poem captures the actual flow of thought and feeling that goes on inside the speaker’s mind. The point of unity for the poem is the thought process of the speaker. The frequent questions that the speaker asks capture the intensity of his rebellious thoughts and feelings. Within the meandering structure noted above, we can discern a loose pattern of changing topics, as follows:

  • Lines1–2: narrative lead-in, as we observe a discontented farmer losing control and deciding that he has “had enough.”
  • Lines3–16: growing discontent as the speaker takes stock of his current state and rebels against it, largely by means of a series of questions.
  •  Lines 17–32: the speaker embraces a vaguely conceived alternative life; within this, he moves back and forth between commanding himself to embark on a new life (lines 17–22 and 27–29) and self-reproach or self-accusation for the life he is living (lines 23–25 and 30–33).
  •  Lines 33–36: sudden reversal as the speaker hears his lord (understood to be God) calling and immediately submits.

The structure is Herbert’s trademark: mounting tension and sudden release in a quiet ending.

The difficult structure is matched by a wealth of individual metaphors that require unpacking. Although the metaphor of the speaker as a tenant farmer provides a loose foundation for the poem, the frame of reference rather quickly moves out of the world of farming into other realms. For example, the vocabulary of sighing and tears (lines 11–12) and disputing about what is right and wrong (lines 20–21) belongs to the sphere of the Christian life that is the real subject of the poem. Again, the reference to bays and garlands (lines 14–15) takes us to the world of honoring the winner of a competition. It is also helpful to know that there is a large component of fantasy in the speaker’s imaginings: farms do not literally produce a harvest of thorns; tears do not really flood a cornfield; sand cannot be made into a rope or cable; and so forth.

This fantasy element fits in with the exaggerated and distorted picture of the Christian life that the speaker paints. He pictures the Christian life as a vast wasteland. The portrait is a hyperbolic caricature, as the life of faith is pictured as a legalistic bondage to fabricated and self-imposed rules. The climax of this picture comes in line 29, which refers to a contemplative practice (medieval in origin) of contemplating a real or painted skull as a means of thinking about one’s own mortality.

The suddenness with which the speaker submits to his lord (God) at the end suggests that he knew all along that his rebellion was wrong. In any case, with the last four lines we move to a new level of imagery, as the lord-child relationship replaces the lord-tenant relationship, and of emotion, as rebelliousness gives way to submission. Additionally, if we analyze the rhyme scheme of the first 32 lines, we find that the rhyming words are arranged in a totally chaotic pattern, and then the last four lines suddenly give us a firm abab rhyme scheme.

The title is itself an example of the seeming simplicity and actual complexity of Herbert’s poetic effects. A collar is most obviously a halter or harness worn by a horse. That, in turn, was a common metaphor for the discipline of the Christian life, and to “slip the collar” was a common expression for rebellion against God. Today we are inclined to see a second literal meaning, namely, the clerical collar worn by Anglican ministers, but the historical evidence shows that Anglican ministers did not wear such collars in the seventeenth century. Two additional figurative meanings are embodied in the title, both based on puns (words that sound the same but that are spelled differently and have different meanings). One of these is the choler, a word that in Herbert’s day could mean “anger.” The other is the caller, since this is a “calling poem” in which the climax comes with the voice of “one calling.”

Much in the poem can be related to biblical passages. The story of rebellion and return is the story of the prodigal son. The poem chronicles the same experience as we find in Psalm 73, though the ways in which the two poets package the ingredients are different. The last line reenacts the statement of “doubting Thomas” when he encountered the risen Christ: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

For Reflection or Discussion

As always, we need to ponder the meanings that are embodied in the individual images and figures of speech. For example, in lines 4–5, why does Herbert choose the images of the road, the wind, and the granary to embody the ideas of freedom, looseness of movement, and largeness respectively? Similarly, what is apt about the images and metaphors by which the speaker expresses his rebellious picture of the Christian life? What aspects of your own discontent with the disciplined life come to your awareness as you ponder Herbert’s poem? Equally, how do the last four lines capture your Christian experience?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

John Milton and His Sonnets


The life of John Milton (1608–1674) falls into three well-defined periods. (1) Childhood and education. Milton was born into a prosperous middle-class, Puritan family in London. He was a child prodigy, and his father gave him the best education that can be imagined, including college education at Cambridge University. (2) Public career. During a twenty-year political career, Milton became a leading writer and spokesman for the Puritan movement. He served as Latin secretary to Oliver Cromwell, a position in which he wrote volumes of polemical prose. Milton became totally blind midway through this period. (3) Retirement from public life. After the monarchy was restored in 1660, the blind Milton led a life of private retirement, writing his three major poetic works—Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes.


Milton was “a Puritan among Puritans,” just as Donne and Herbert were arch-Anglicans. Puritanism was the English branch of the Protestant Reformation. Its major tenet is one with which Donne and Herbert agreed, namely, that the Bible is the final authority for matters of belief and practice. We can say, however, that the Puritans gave the Bible even greater prominence than did the Church of England. What sets Puritanism apart from Anglicanism was its attempt to eliminate vestiges of Catholicism from the Church of England. The primary relevance of Milton’s Puritanism for the sonnets included in this guide is that events and writings of the Puritan movement in Milton’s day are woven into the very fabric of the sonnets at the levels of both content and vocabulary.

Milton's sonnets

Nearly all of Milton’s poems can be read devotionally, but the sonnets selected here are the most devotional of all, and they are the part of Milton’s poetic canon that reside most comfortably alongside the devotional poetry of Donne and Herbert. The sonnets are virtually the only poetry that Milton wrote during his twenty-year career as a public figure. They follow the dynamics of the Italian sonnet form.

Poetic style

Milton cultivated what is called the high style. His grand style is so sublime that literary scholars have called it the Miltonic sublime. Donne and Herbert generally wrote in a middle style, and quite often in a conversational style. Milton wanted the grand effect. Aspects of this in the sonnets include the following: long, flowing syntax (sentence structure), with the lines often run-on instead of end-stopped; exalted vocabulary, with many Latin-derived, polysyllabic words; allusions to past literature, especially the Bible (though as a Renaissance poet, Milton also loved the classical tradition); parallelism (stat- ing something twice in similar grammatical form but with different words and images, a stylistic feature imported from biblical poetry); and rearrangement of normal word order.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Sonnet 7: How Soon Hath Time

All of Milton’s sonnets included in this guide are occasional poems, meaning that their point of origin is a specific event in the poet’s life and usually the social life of the times as well. The occasion of this poem is personal. It is a birthday poem in which Milton takes stock of where he stands on the milestone of his twenty-third year, which coincided with his nearing the end of his college years at Cambridge University. Furthermore, Milton enclosed a copy of the sonnet (which had already been composed) in a letter replying to a friend who had criticized him for being overly studious and not active in the world. We can read the poem as expressing the thoughts and feelings of a young person as he confronts his sense of underachievement in an awareness of human mutability and the swift passing of time.

  1. How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
  2. Stolen on his wing my three and twentieth year!
  3. My hasting days fly on with full career,
  4. But my late spring no bud or blossom showeth.
  5. Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
  6. That I to manhood am arrived so near,
  7. And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
  8. That some more timely-happy spirits endueth.
  9. Yet be it less or more, or soon or slow,
  10. It shall be still in strictest measure even
  11. To that same lot, however mean or high,
  12. Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven.
  13. All is, if I have grace to use it so,
  14. As ever in my great Task-Master’s eye.

subtle: working imperceptibly and deviously

hasting: hastening

career: speed

semblance: outer appearance

endueth: endows

mean: modest; humble; lowly

ever: always


This is an early sonnet by Milton, and it shows that partly in the strictness with which it adheres to the pattern of the Italian sonnet (whereas in later sonnets Milton often modified the conventions of that form). There is a clear division of duties between octave and sestet. The first eight lines establish the problem that needs a solution, namely, the speaker’s underachievement, made all the more distressing because of the swift passing of time. The sestet offers a solution to that problem, with the word “yet” at the beginning of line 9 signaling the conventional turn (volta, in Italian) of thought and feeling. The solution to the problem of time is threefold.

The contrasts that underlie the poem follow the pattern just noted: past versus future, anxiety over lack of achievement versus relief from anxiety, fear versus confidence, time as an ominous force versus time as a beneficent force.

The octave is structured on the principle of repetitive form in which a single principle is maintained in different forms. The unifying principle is the swift passing of time, specifically as it relates to the speaker’s lack of achievement and maturity. The first three lines express both surprise and dismay as the speaker contemplates the speed with which his first twenty-three years have passed. A personified Time is pictured as a thief and as an ominous being with wings. With the speaker’s dire situation thus established, the next five lines turn to self-accusation as the speaker pictures himself as the proverbial “late bloomer.”

Starting with line 9, Time ceases to be a thief and instead becomes a guide. Before we note the content of the consolation, we need to note the style, which gives the content an uplifting feeling of confidence. First, the four lines make up a single extended sentence. This sense of momentum is heightened by the presence of parallelism in the form of doublets that follow the format of either X and Y or X or Y. These phrases, in turn, are enlivened by the rhetorical device of antithesis: “less or more,” “soon or slow,” “mean or high,” and “Time . . . and the will of Heaven.” The effect is one of copia or fullness.

Milton’s sonnets give us the grand themes in the grand style. The grandeur of thought in lines 9–12 consists of two separate ideas. The first reason for the poet’s newfound confidence in Time is that Time is leading him toward his destiny. This is a classical concept, and, in fact, Milton here echoes an ode by the Greek poet Pindar, who had written, “Whatever merit King Fate has given me, I shall know that time in its course will accomplish it.” But Milton adds the Christian concept of providence when he speaks of the lot toward which “the will of Heaven [a metonymy for God]” is leading him.

In the last two lines Milton springs a pair of surprises on us. One concerns the sonnet form. Even though this is an Italian sonnet with a rhyme scheme of abba abba cde dce, and even though the last two lines do not rhyme, they serve the same epigrammatic (summing up) function as the concluding couplet in an English sonnet. In other words, Milton has partly conflated the two leading sonnet forms.

Additionally, even though we might have thought that the poet’s line of thought was complete by the end of line 12, he now adds a third reason for his confidence in Time. Before we note what that consolation is, we need to unpack the compressed and elliptical statement that these two lines assert. Critics do not all agree, but the most plausible interpretation is this: all that matters is that I have grace to use my time in such a way that I regard myself as always being in my great Task-Master’s eye. The moment Milton used the epithet “great Task-Master,” he tied into the important Puritan idea of calling or vocation and the related idea of stewardship. This is Milton’s reply to his friend who had criticized him for dreaming away his years “in the arms of a studious retirement.” Milton asserts that he is answerable to God for how he uses his time, and not to his friend.

For Reflection or Discussion

A starting point for personal or group analysis is to identify biblical references or echoes in some of the images: time as a thief (Matt. 24:43; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10); time as something that flies away (e.g., Job 9:25); being given grace to do something; and the eye of God. Second, consulting a theological book on the doctrines of providence, calling/vocation, and stewardship will provide a helpful context. Then the experiential angle can be pondered: What are your own anxieties about the passing of time, about your sense of underachievement, and about how you reach an attitude of acceptance in regard to these things?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Sonnet 9: Lady That in the Prime of Earliest Youth

Milton’s birthday poem took youthful experience as its subject, and so does this sonnet addressed to a virtuous young lady. The experience held out for our contemplation is that of a young person living the godly life in the face of opposition. The topic is Christian virtue, and the theme (interpretive slant) is that the goal of life is to cultivate the Christian virtues as a preparation for heaven. The line of thought progresses from present endeavor (lines 1–11) to future reward (lines 12–14). Underlying contrasts also organize the poem: the broad way versus the narrow way, worldly lifestyle versus godly lifestyle, foolishness versus wisdom, lack of preparedness versus preparedness.

  1. Lady that in the prime of earliest youth
  2. Wisely has shunned the broad way and the green,
  3. And with those few art eminently seen
  4. That labor up the hill of heavenly Truth,
  5. The better part with Mary and with Ruth
  6. Chosen thou hast, and they that overween
  7. And at thy growing virtues fret their spleen,
  8. No anger find in thee, but pity and ruth.
  9. Thy care is fixed and zealously attends
  10. To fill thy odorous lamp with deeds of light,
  11. And hope that reaps not shame. Therefore be sure
  12. Thou, when the Bridegroom with his feastful friends
  13. Passes to bliss at the mid-hour of night,
  14. Hast gained thy entrance, virgin wise and pure.

eminently: to a notable degree

overween: are arrogant

ruth: pity

odorous: fragrant

feastful: festive; joyful


We can profitably begin with the occasion of the poem as we can construct it from hints within the poem. The young woman whom Milton addresses must have been a personal acquaintance. She had apparently made Milton the confidant of her difficulty in living as a Christian in an environment that was hostile to the faith. It seems likely that the hostile people were members of her own family, though the meaning of the poem does not depend on this speculation. The poem is a statement of encouragement from an older friend to a young person who was serious about living the spiritual life while interacting with people who did not value her life of spiritual virtue.

No Miltonic sonnet has more biblical allusions than this one, and unpacking all of them is beyond the scope of this guide. We can, however, note the following major biblical allusions that become organizing motifs in the poem and thus move beyond local references, as follows:

  •  Jesus’s contrast in the Sermon on the Mount between the broad way that leads to destruction and the narrow way that leads to life and that “few” choose (Matt. 7:13–14).
  •  The story of Jesus’s friends Mary and Martha, and the contrasts between them (Luke 10:38–42).
  •  The love story of Ruth and Boaz, and the heroic character of Ruth within that story.
  • The parable of the wise and foolish virgins, with its contrast between preparedness and lack of preparedness for the life to come (Matt. 25:1–13).

These four biblical passages are woven into the fabric of the poem and determine much of its meaning. To unpack the meaning and beauty of Milton’s poem, we need to assimilate the four biblical passages and then interact with Milton’s sonnet in light of them.

But the big biblical subtexts are only the beginning of treasures in this poem. Archetypes also pack a big punch, beginning with the hill of difficulty in the opening quatrain. As far back as the Greek poet Hesiod (eighth century BC), the picture of a hill of difficulty appealed as a picture of the rigor required to live virtuously. In a similar vein, the author of Psalm 24 asks the question, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” (v. 3), and the answer fits Milton’s poem perfectly: the person “who has clean hands and a pure heart” (v. 4). Later John Bunyan included a Hill of Difficulty in his story of Christian’s arduous journey to heaven called The Pilgrim’s Progress. Other archetypes in Milton’s poem include the path or way, light, harvest or reaping, the wedding, and the messianic or heavenly banquet.

For Reflection or Discussion

Although the poem is an address to a specific young woman, and an encouragement to her to persist in living a life of Christian virtue, the poem at a broader level paints a portrait of an exemplary Christian for us to emulate. The praise of the young woman is an embedded exhortation for us to live the same way. What specific things comprise the portrait that Milton paints and wishes us to practice? Then we can think about application to our own lives. Additionally, the commentary above is only a beginning of exploration of the poetic texture of the poem; filling out the details is an inviting prospect. Exactly where in the poem do the four major biblical passages inform the imagery and ideas? Beyond these big biblical elements, what local details in the poem evoke your awareness of something in the Bible?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Sonnet 14: When Faith and Love

This is another occasional poem, as signaled by the title that was affixed to the poem when it was published: “On the religious memory of Mrs. Catharine Thomason, my Christian friend, deceased December 1646.” As we read the poem, we might well picture Milton standing at the gravesite of his departed friend. The central feature of organization is a journey of transition from earth to heaven. As we read the poem, we should be looking for the motifs that fill out that journey of transition: moving from one place to another, leave-taking, transferring, guiding, arriving at a destination, possessions coming behind, donning new clothes, being welcomed upon arrival, settling into a new abode, resting after a journey, and celebratory drinking upon arrival (see Rev. 22:1, 17 for the source).

  1. When Faith and Love, which parted from thee never,
  2. Had ripened thy just soul to dwell with God,
  3. Meekly thou didst resign this earthy load
  4. Of death, called life, which us from life doth sever.
  5. Thy works and alms and all thy good endeavor
  6. Stayed not behind, nor in the grave were trod;
  7. But as Faith pointed with her golden rod,
  8. Followed up to joy and bliss forever.
  9. Love led them on, and Faith who knew them best,
  10. Thy hand maids, clad them o’er with purple beams
  11. And azure wings, that up they flew so dressed,
  12. And spake the truth of thee in glorious themes
  13. Before the Judge, who thenceforth bid thee rest
  14. And drink thy fill of pure immortal streams.

trod: stepped on

clad: clothed

o’er: over

azure: sky-blue

spake: spoke


This poem is modeled on Puritan funeral sermons for women. That genre included five elements that Milton’s poem also incorporates: organization of the sermon around a single verse from the Bible; a two-part format of a doctrinal sermon followed by a eulogy for the deceased; offering the deceased as an example to be emulated; painting a portrait of the deceased as a model of spiritual piety; and finding consolation in the promise of heavenly reward. Milton turned this expository genre into high poetic art, but the basic building blocks came from everyday life in a Puritan milieu.

For example, Milton, too, chose a single Bible verse as the organizing framework for his poem. It is Revelation 14:13, which in the King James Version (Milton’s English Bible) reads, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them.” Milton ranges beyond this text as he develops the poem, but the basic plot stays with the verse from Revelation. The verse from Revelation contains only a hint of that plot, but the motifs of finding rest as a destination and of works following the deceased to that place of rest gave Milton what he needed.

The poem has such a strong narrative flow with a single progressive action that it is difficult to divide it into separate phases. With a little effort, we can divide the poem as follows: (1) lines 1–4 announce the death of Mrs. Thomason in the brief statement that she resigned her earthly life; (2) lines 5–11 tell the story of how Mrs. Thomason’s deeds also made the journey from earth to heaven; (3) having arrived before God in heaven, the deeds commend Mrs. Thomason to her divine judge (line 11 to middle of line 12); (4) Mrs. Thomason receives her reward of immortal rest (middle of line 13 through line 14).

The content of the poem draws upon important theological issues that were prominent in Milton’s day. The opening reference to the personifications “Faith and Love” is the first of these theological nuances. Milton wrote a theological treatise in which he claimed that “Christian doctrine is comprehended under two divisions—Faith, or the knowledge of God—and Love, or the worship of God.” Milton’s fellow Puritan John Preston wrote a 537-page theological book entitled The Breast-Plate of Faith and Love. Why were faith and love so central to Puritan doctrine? Because they were part of the debate between Catholics and Protestants over the roles of faith and works in a person’s salvation. The Puritans claimed that salvation rests wholly on faith, and that works, while necessary for salvation, do not merit God’s favor but instead testify to the genuineness of a person’s faith. Once alerted to this theological framework, we can see that Milton’s ostensibly simple poem actually conducts an intricate theological argument.

For Reflection or Discussion

We need to begin at the narrative level and reconstruct the ways in which the story and imagery follow the motifs listed in the lead-in to the poem provided above. Having relished the skill with which Milton worked out the details of the journey motif, we can move to a second level of the portrait of the virtuous woman that is offered for our emulation: How can we follow the example of Mrs. Thomason in our own lives? At a more complex level, we can explore the theological argument of the poem: How does Milton embody his Puritan view that salvation depends on faith and that works are something that follow saving faith? How does the poem get us to see that God judges on the basis of faith and approves deeds on the basis of prior faith?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Sonnet 19: When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

This is such a great poem it deserves a book all to itself! The occasion of the poem is Milton’s becoming totally blind at the age of forty-four (an early editor coined what became the familiar title for this poem—“On His Blindness”). The poem has a dual line of thought, and both ideas are encapsulated in the final line of the poem: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” On the one hand, this is a statement of resignation, as the poet expresses an implied submission to the situation of standing and waiting. But the poem is also a statement of justification, as the poet finds a way to assert that “they also serve” who only stand and wait. The other important thing to know in reading the poem is that it is based on an underlying quest motif in which the speaker searches for and finds a way to serve God acceptably. The poem is built around the implied question, What does it take to please God?

  1. When I consider how my light is spent
  2. Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
  3. And that one talent which is death to hide
  4. Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
  5. To serve therewith my Maker, and present
  6. My true account, lest he returning chide,
  7. “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”
  8. I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
  9. That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
  10. Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
  11. Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
  12. Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed
  13. And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
  14. They also serve who only stand and wait.”

ere: before

bent: desirous

chide: scold

doth: does

fondly: foolishly

post: travel


This sonnet is constructed on the standard format of an octave that establishes a problem and a sestet that solves the problem. In keeping with Milton’s practice of introducing innovations into conventional forms, he places the turn of thought in the middle of line 8 instead of the beginning of line 9. The line of argument follows the paradigm of the Italian sonnet form.

The major premise of the poem is that God requires service. The key verb “serve” appears three times and is the linchpin on which the poem rests. In turn, the poem contrasts two types of service. One is active service in the world, a type of service that was seemingly unavailable to a person who had recently become blind. In the sestet the speaker discovers an alternate type of service that is equally acceptable to God. We can provisionally call it a service of private retirement as opposed to public service, though the final image of standing and waiting will add further dimensions to our understanding of the second type of service.

The experience presented in the poem is universal. For the poet, that experience was blindness. But the underlying principle is broader: irremedial loss, handicap of any type, life-changing injury, or chronic incapacity. In keeping with the Puritan premise of the primacy of the spiritual, we should note that the poem does not deal with Milton’s physical handicap but with the spiritual crisis that it engenders, namely, a fear that he cannot serve God acceptably. The solutions that the poem offers in regard to irremedial loss are also spiritual and are three in number: submission to God’s providence, patience, and hope.

The contrasts that organize the poem fall into place within the framework that has been delineated: active service versus a service of private retirement; a mood of despair versus a mood of triumph; a focus on self (I, my, me) in the octave versus a focus on God (his, him) in the sestet. Additionally, the syntax (sentence structure) in the octave is convoluted and finally collapses under its own weight, mirroring the speaker’s troubled thinking, whereas the syntax in the sestet is simple and direct, marching smoothly from one idea to the next. For all the complexity of syntax in the octave, the line of thought in the poem as a whole is constructed on a simple pattern: I ask, Patience replies.

The poem is a mosaic of biblical allusions. Two parables of Jesus are particularly relevant—the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1–16) and the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30). Both parables portray God as the sovereign who calls his workers or stewards to be active in service and as the judge who rewards his stewards for diligence and (when necessary) punishes them for inaction. Another particularly relevant passage is John 9:1–4, where we read about Jesus healing a blind man, accompanied by his famous saying, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” All of these passages are the informing context for the first eight lines of the poem.

Puritanism also provides a context for the poem. Puritan emphasis on calling or vocation produced a bias in favor of active work in the world. The octave of this poem can be viewed as a Puritan anxiety vision, as the speaker wrestles with his situation of being unable to do what Milton’s whole religious milieu said he had to do. But Puritan ideals equally determine what happens in the sestet, with its underlying premise of submission to providence as a service to God, and also the ideal of worshiping God as a worthy form of service.

The octave runs a course of fear, frustration, and incipient rebellion, culminating in the question, “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” A whole complex of feelings and attitudes is encompassed in this question, including fear, incredulity, accusation of unfairness, protest, confusion, and rebellion. But we need to note that the question is asked “fondly,” that is, foolishly. The implied answer to the question is “no.” No one works in a vineyard after nightfall. Similarly, God does not require a service that someone cannot perform. The speaker has been beating a dead horse all along.

Lines 9–10 clarify this: God does not need or require people’s “work” or exercise of “gifts [abilities]” if a person is unable. The “best” service is to bear God’s mild yoke, that is, submit to him and rest in him. The “mild yoke” is an allusion to one of Jesus’s famous sayings: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29–30). It is a commonplace of commentary on this poem that lines 10–11 provide an adequate solution to the speaker’s opening problem, and yet the poem keeps going. What is added, says one critic, explains why the ending of the poem “is triumphant rather then resigned.” Another critic speaks of the added element as a “joyous anthem.” We might say that the poem ends with a mini praise psalm.

The last three and a half lines—the “added” element—conduct an argument based on medieval and Renaissance ideas about angels (“angelology,” it was called—the study of angels). According to this theory (which lived on in Puritan thinking), there were two orders of angels— the active angels who busily served God in the world, and the contem- plative angels who always remained in God’s heavenly presence. At the end of the poem Milton links himself with the contemplative angels who engage in a service of heavenly praise, worship, and devotion.

The full note of triumph at the end requires us to unpack the meanings of standing and waiting. On one level, it is an image of monarchy— a picture of courtiers attending a monarch (see Dan. 7:10 for a picture of God’s heavenly court). But the crowning stroke is the word “wait” with which the poem ends. Waiting on God is a leading virtue commended in the Bible. To fill that out, we need to use a word search or a concordance and trace the image of waiting on God throughout the Bible. (Alternatively, see the article “waiting on God” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, ed. Leland Ryken et al. [Westmont, IL: InterVarsity, 1998]. When we do, we find that this Christian virtue encompasses a range of meanings, all of them positive: patience, resignation, dependence, contentment, hope, and joyous expectancy (including eschatological expectancy).

For Reflection or Discussion

The foregoing commentary merely scratches the surface in regard to this poem’s texture. The biblical allusions and metaphors all need to be explored and pondered, with special attention to how the parables of the workers in the vineyard and the talents inform much of the poem. Then we need to analyze the progression of thoughts and feelings through which the speaker passes; he actually invites us to accompany him on that process with his opening formula, “When I consider. . . .” Finally we can assimilate the poem in an awareness that literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves. One person’s experience as chronicled in this poem is also the experience of every Christian in the circumstances of his or her life. What inspiration and instruction does the poem offer you personally as you encounter the irremedial losses of life?

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Sonnet 23: Methought I Saw My Late Espouséd Saint

This poem is yet another occasional poem dealing with a real person. The blind Milton married his second wife, Katherine Woodcock Milton, four and a half years after his first wife had died. Katherine lived only a year and a half longer, dying two months after giving birth to a daughter, who also died. This stately sonnet was written in the year of Katherine’s death, and the critical consensus is that she is the subject of the poem. The poem records a real or imagined dream of the glorified Katherine in heaven and Milton’s longing to be reunited with her. The poem has a narrative structure as it tells the story of the dream. Line 1 introduces the narrative situation of the poet’s dream; lines 2–12 record the content of the dream (divided into four units, as we will see); and lines 13–14 return to the narrative frame and describe how the vision vanished.

  1. Methought I saw my late espouséd saint
  2. Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,
  3. Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
  4. Rescued from death by force though pale and faint.
  5. Mine, as whom washed from spot of childbed taint
  6. Purification in the old law did save,
  7. And such as yet once more I trust to have
  8. Full sight of her in heaven without restraint,
  9. Came vested all in white, pure as her mind.
  10. Her face was veiled, yet to my fancied sight
  11. Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined
  12. So clear, as in no face with more delight.
  13. But O, as to embrace me she inclined,
  14. I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

espouséd: married

mine: my wife

old law: Old Testament

vested: dressed

fancied: imagined or dreamt


It is a paradox of Milton’s sonnets that they deal with real people and are at the same time rooted in literary conventions. Although it seems likely that Milton records an actual dream, it is important that we are also aware of multiple literary conventions at work. First, what is called the dream vision framework has long appealed to poets when writing about (a) romantic love (with either the romance or the beloved pictured as being dreamlike), (b) transcendental experiences (where a supernatural or heavenly realm is pictured as occurring in a dream or vision, as in the book of Revelation), and (c) visionary experiences of an alternate reality (as when the Prophetic Books in the Bible portray a future and altered version of what is happening at the present moment). Milton’s poem fits the first two categories of dream or vision literature, being a love poem about an idealized beloved and a vision of life in heaven.

Additionally, there was a long lineage of poets who had written love sonnets about a deceased beloved. The Italian poets Dante and Petrarch had written hundreds of sonnets about their beloved Beatrice and Laura, respectively, after they had died. Love sonnets about a deceased wife, however, were unusual, though John Donne had written such a sonnet before Milton wrote his. A related archetype is known by the Italian phrase donna angelicata—the angelical woman glorified in heaven and dressed in white robes. Finally, poems of lovelonging growing out of a separation of lovers have been a favorite genre for love poets from time immemorial (as evidenced by examples in the Song of Solomon). All of these literary traditions flow together in a sonnet that is rooted in real life.

The opening phrase of the poem—“Methought I saw”—introduces the dream vision framework. Later references to the woman’s veiled face (line 10), the poet’s “fancied sight” (also line 10), and the poet’s wak- ing (line 14) keep the dream vision alive in our awareness. Of course dreams can be even more vivid than waking reality, and the woman of the sonnet comes alive in our imagination, as noted by the poet’s statement that the spiritual qualities of the woman “shined so clear, as in no face with more delight.” The dream of the woman unfolds in four segments, as follows:

  •  First (lines 2–4), Milton’s wife is compared to a famous wife from classical mythology, Alcestis, who gave her life as a ransom for her husband and was then brought back from the grave and restored to her husband by the intervention of Hercules (“Jove’s great son”).
  •  Second, Milton loved to work on the premise of classical and biblical parallels, so he next (lines 5–6) compares his wife to Old Testament mothers who were “saved” (a theological term) by practicing the Mosaic ceremonial laws, including purifica- tion after childbirth.
  •  Third (lines 7–8), Milton describes his wife in terms of a hoped-for reunion with her in heaven.
  •  Fourth (lines 9–12), Milton gives us a picture of his wife in terms of her spiritual qualities and as a glorified saint in heaven— drawing on the angelical woman of literary tradition.

After the emotional and spiritual exaltation of the vision, the story ends on a note of pathos, as (a) the vision fades and (b) the blind poet wakes to darkness.

By means of the dream that the poet narrates, the poem also extols and eulogizes the woman of the sonnet. In keeping with Puritan practice, the portrait of the woman functions as an implied exhortation to the reader to imitate the model of the exemplary woman who is described. At another level, the poem exists to make the Christian experiences of sanctification and glorification real to us. Additionally, one of the functions of literature is to awaken longing, and this poem awakens longing for perfection and heaven.

At a more mundane level, the syntax in the middle of the poem calls for analysis. The subject “mine” at the beginning of line 5 does not receive its verb until line 9, with the word “came”; the main sentence thus reads “mine came vested all in white.” Then we need to make sense of the interpolated material between “mine” and “came.” In line 5, there is an ellipsis (omitted word) between “whom” and “washed”; the implied meaning is “as one whom. . . .” So a paraphrase of lines 5–6 might read this way: my wife came as someone who was saved in Old Testament times by being purified (“washed”) after childbirth through performance of the ceremonial rituals of the Mosaic law.

For Reflection or Discussion

The first item on our agenda is to explore and admire the artistry of the poem, including the meanings that get compressed into a mere fourteen lines. Of course the poetic texture exists to paint a portrait of the woman of the sonnet, so we should view our task partly in terms of getting to know Katherine Woodcock Milton as fully as possible. The poem also exists to awaken longings, so we should allow it to do so. Finally, we need to remind ourselves that literature is a concrete universal. On the one hand, it is filled with particulars, and doubly and triply so in an occasional poem that deals with real-life people. But the particulars are (to use a metaphor from C. S. Lewis) a net whereby the author captures something universal—something that is true for all people. We therefore need to ponder the ways in which the poem expresses our own feelings and experiences.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Further Resources

All of the poems included in this guide have been the subject of multiple (and sometimes dozens of) published explications. Additionally, the three poets individually and as a group of seventeenth-century English poets have been the subject of several dozen books devoted to their religious poetry. It would take a book-length bibliography to list all of those sources. Happily, for each of the poets there exists a variorum edition of their poems that functions as a guide to most published scholarship on them. (A variorum edition is one that summarizes all or nearly all known explications of an author’s texts.) These magical books are the following:

For John Donne

Six hundred pages on Donne’s nineteen sonnets! It is perhaps the most exhaustive variorum edition on record.

For George Herbert

Technically this is a scholarly edition of Herbert’s poems, with full “critical apparatus” (as it is called in the academy), and not a variorum edition. But Wilcox incorporates so much of what other scholars have seen in the poems that in effect it is a modified variorum edition. The book is over seven hundred pages long.

For John Milton

The Milton variorum edition of the sonnets is not as lavish as the two books noted above, but it is useful. This can be supplemented with the following scholarly edition of Milton’s sonnets.

The editors of these books did not set out to specialize in the religious dimensions of the poems, but because the content of the poems is so thoroughly Christian, the coverage of the poems summarized in the books cited above gives full, lavish, and even exhaustive treatment to the religious meanings embodied in the poems, as well as their biblical content. Christian readers will have their interests fully met by these magnificent monuments to scholarship.

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Glossary of Literary Terms Used in This Book

Allusion. A reference to past literature or history.

Apostrophe. Addressing someone or something absent as though it were present; often combined with personification.

Archetype. A plot motif, character type, or image that recurs throughout literature and life.

Connotation. The feelings, associations, or overtones that a word or image carries in addition to its denotative meaning.

Content core. The big, overriding elements that make up a poem, including human experience(s) embodied in the poem, the topic, the theme, the situation implied within the poem, or the external occasion that gave rise to the poem.

Devotional poetry. Poetry that takes Christian experience and doctrine as its subject matter.

English or Shakespearean sonnet. A sonnet that consists of three quatrains and a concluding couplet, yielding the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.

Epithet. A title for a person or thing (e.g., “the Almighty” as a title for God).

Explication. Close reading of a text, especially a lyric poem.

Hyperbole. Conscious exaggeration for the sake of effect, usually emotional effect; a standard way of expressing strong feeling.

Image. A word naming a concrete thing or action.

Imagery. The term that covers the images in a poem as a whole, or a pattern of images in a poem (e.g., nature imagery).

Italian or Petrarchan sonnet. A sonnet comprised on an octave that rhymes abba abba and a sestet with a variable rhyme scheme; usually the octave asks a question, establishes a problem, or raises a doubt, and the sestet answers the question, solves the problem, or resolves the doubt.

Meditative poem. A poem that subjects a topic or experience to a process of thinking or analysis.

Metaphor. A comparison between two things that does not use the formula like or as (e.g., “The Lord is my shepherd,” Ps. 23:1).

Motif. Pattern.

Oxymoron. A genuine contradiction.

Paradox. An apparent contradiction that upon analysis is seen to express a truth; the task of the interpreter is to resolve the contradiction.

Personification. Attributing human qualities to something nonhuman.

Poetic texture. The images and figures of speech in the poem—the localized details in contrast to the structure of the poem.

Prose poem. A passage of prose that is so dense with figurative language and imagery that it has all the qualities of poetry, except for meter and rhyme and arrangement by lines.

Pun. A word that is pronounced like another word but that is spelled differently and has a different meaning.

Quatrain. A four-line unit that rhymes abab.

Sequential structure. The organization of the poem as it unfolds from beginning to end.

Simile. A comparison between two things that uses the formula like or as (e.g., “He is like a tree planted by streams of water,” Ps. 1:3).

Sonnet. A fourteen-line poem with a fixed and intricate rhyme scheme.

Stream of consciousness. A poem or prose passage that is organized according to the flow of thought of the author or speaker in the poem.

Symbol. An image or event having, in addition to its literal meaning, one or more conceptual or other meanings (e.g., light as a symbol of illumination).

The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton © 2014 by Leland Ryken. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.