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The Matter of Belief in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Kimberly Anne Coles
Affiliation:
University of Maryland

Abstract

Though historians of religion have demonstrated that the theological commitments of early modern English people were labile and complex, there was nonetheless a prevailing sense in the period that belief posited bodily consequences. This article considers this bodily presence in John Donne’s poetry by exploring the humoral construction of religious identity in his Holy Sonnets. Donne’s conversion provided him with an unusual perspective: not many people were positioned to hold as nuanced a view of religious ideology. It is surprising, then, that when Donne considers his conversion — which he does in little and large in the Holy Sonnets — he casts it in somatic terms. Donne’s humoral constitution of faith in the Holy Sonnets anatomizes the vexed transactions of body and soul particular to late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century thought. He depicts his body in the same terms that he uses to represent his religious temperament — as changeable and lacking integrity.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 2015

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Footnotes

One of my chief debts is due to the group of people with whom I shared a very productive discussion at the symposium “Literature and Religious Conflict”; Wayne A. Rebhorn and Frank F. Whigham are owed particular thanks for organizing this event at the Texas Institute of Literary and Textual Studies in 2010. Other readers who made valuable comments, and who made this a better piece, are Ralph Bauer, John Carey, Brian Cummings, Daniel R. Gibbons, Angus Gowland, Marshall Grossman, David Scott Kastan, and Gerard Passannante. Research for this article was greatly assisted by a visiting fellowship at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, hosted jointly by the Warburg Institute and the Institute of English Studies.

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