Skip to main content Accessibility help

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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Kimberly Anne Coles
University of Maryland


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.

Research Article
Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 2015

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


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.


Abernethy, John. A Christian and heauenly treatise. Containing physicke for the soule. London, 1630.Google Scholar
Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950–1350. Princeton, 1993.Google Scholar
Bartlett, Robert. “Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001): 3956.10.1215/10829636-31-1-39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bloom, Paul. “The War on Reason. The Atlantic (February 2014): 6470.Google Scholar
Bright, Timothy. A Treatise of melancholie. London, 1586.Google Scholar
Bright, Timothy. A Treatise of Melancholie by Timothy Bright. Ed. Craig, Hardin. New York, 1940.10.7312/brig90166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Burton, Robert. The anatomy of melancholy. London, 1621.10.1093/oseo/instance.00006619CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Burton, Robert. The anatomy of melancholy. 2nd ed. London, 1624.Google Scholar
Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind, Art. London, 1990.Google Scholar
Charron, Pierre. Of Wisdom. Trans. Lennard, Samson. London, 1608.Google Scholar
Coles, Kimberly Anne. Religion, Reform, and Women’s Writing in Early Modern England. Cambridge, 2008.10.1017/CBO9780511483530CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cummings, Brian. The Literary Culture of the Reformation: Grammar and Grace. Oxford, 2002.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198187356.001.0001CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Des Chene, Dennis. Life’s Form: Late Aristotelian Conceptions of the Soul. Ithaca, 2000.Google Scholar
Donne, John. Letters to severall persons of honour written by John Donne. London, 1651.Google Scholar
Donne, John. The Sermons of John Donne. Ed. Potter, George R. and Simpson, Evelyn M.. 10 vols. Berkeley, 1953–62.Google Scholar
Donne, John. Letters to severall persons of honour written by John Donne. Ed. Hester, M. T.. Facsimile ed., New York, 1977.Google Scholar
Donne, John. John Donne: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Ed. Carey, John. Oxford, 1990.Google Scholar
Donne, John. John Donne: Selected Letters. Ed. Oliver, P. M.. New York, 2002.Google Scholar
Donne, John. The Complete Poems of John Donne. Ed. Robin Robbins. Harlow, 2008.Google Scholar
Du Laurens, André. A Discourse on the Preservation of the Sight: Of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheumes, and of Old Age. London, 1599.Google Scholar
Evans, G. Blakemore. “Donne’s ‘Subtile Knot.’Notes and Queries, n.s., 34 (1987): 228–30.Google Scholar
Ferrell, Lori Anne. “Transfiguring Theology: William Perkins and Calvinist Aesthetics.” In John Foxe and His World. ed. Christopher Highley and John N. King, 160–79. Aldershot, 2002.Google Scholar
Ferrell, Lori Anne. “Method as Knowledge: Scribal Theology, Protestantism, and the Reinvention of Shorthand in Sixteenth-Century England.” In Making Knowledge in Early Modern Europe: Practices, Objects and Texts, 1400–1800. ed. Pamela H. Smith and Benjamin Schmidt, 163–76. Chicago, 2007.Google Scholar
Floyd-Wilson, Mary, Gail Kern Paster, and Katherine Rowe, eds. Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion. Philadelphia, 2004.Google Scholar
Floyd-Wilson, Mary, and Sullivan, Garrett A., eds. Environment and Embodiment in Early Modern England. Hampshire, 2007.10.1057/9780230593022CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gowland, Angus. “The Problem of Early Modern Melancholy.” Past and Present 191 (2006a): 77120.10.1093/pastj/gtj012CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gowland, Angus. The Worlds of Renaissance Melancholy: Robert Burton in Context. Cambridge, 2006b.10.1017/CBO9780511628252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hankins, James. “Monstrous Melancholy: Ficino and the Physiological Causes of Atheism.” In Laus Platonici philosophi: Marsilio Ficino and His Influence. ed. Stephen Clucas, Peter J. Forshaw, and Valery Rees, 2543. Leiden, 2011.10.1163/ej.9789004188976.i-384.8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hasse, Dag Nikolaus. Avicenna’s De Anima in the Latin West: The Formation of a Peripatetic Philosophy of the Soul, 1160–1300. London, 2000.Google Scholar
Kessler, Eckhard. “The Intellective Soul.” In The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy. ed. Charles B. Schmitt, Quentin Skinner, Eckhard Kessler, and Jill Kraye, 485534. Cambridge, 1988.10.1017/CHOL9780521251044.017CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Kusukawa, Sachiko. The Transformation of Natural Philosophy: The Case of Philip Melanchthon. Oxford, 1995.10.1017/CBO9780511598524CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lake, Peter. Moderate Puritans and the Elizabethan Church. Cambridge, 1982.10.1017/CBO9780511560682CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lemnius, Levinus [Levine Lemnie]. The touchstone of complexions generallye appliable, expedient and profitable for all such, as be desirous & carefull of their bodylye health. Trans. Thomas Newton. London, 1576.Google Scholar
Mazzio, Carla, and Hillman, David, eds. The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporality in Early Modern Europe. New York, 1997.Google Scholar
Mazzio, Carla, and Douglas Trevor, eds. Historicism, Psychoanalysis, and Early Modern Culture. New York, 2000.Google Scholar
McDowell, Sean. “The View from the Interior: The New Body Scholarship in Renaissance / Early Modern Studies.” Literature Compass 3.4 (2006): 778–91.10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00346.xCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Melanchthon, Philip. Liber de anima. Vol. 13 of Opera quae supersunt Omnia. Ed. Carol Gottlieb Bretschneider and H. E. Bindeil. Halle-Braunschweig, 1834–60.Google Scholar
Montaigne, Michel de. The essayes or morall, politike and millitarie discourses of Lo[rd] Michaell de Montaigne. Trans. John Florio. London, 1603.Google Scholar
Murray, Molly. The Poetics of Conversion in Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge, 2009.10.1017/CBO9780511770562CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Paster, Gail Kern. The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England. Ithaca, 1993.Google Scholar
Paster, Gail Kern. Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage. Chicago, 2004.10.7208/chicago/9780226648484.001.0001CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Perkins, William. A treatise tending vnto a declaration whether a man be in the estate of damnation or in the estate of grace. London, 1590.Google Scholar
Perkins, William. A discourse of conscience. London, 1596.Google Scholar
Scarry, Elaine. “Donne: But Yet the Body Is His Booke.” In Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons. ed. Scarry, Elaine, 70105. Baltimore, 1988.Google Scholar
Schoenfeldt, Michael. Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England: Physiology and Inwardness in Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert, and Milton. Cambridge, 1999.Google Scholar
Schoenfeldt, Michael. “Eloquent Blood and Deliberative Bodies: The Physiology of Metaphysical Poetry.” In Renaissance Transformations: The Making of English Writing, 1500–1650. ed. Thomas Healy and Margaret Healy, 145160. Edinburgh, 2009.Google Scholar
Stachniewski, John. “John Donne: The Despair of the ‘Holy Sonnets.’ELH 48 (1981): 677705.10.2307/2872957CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stachniewski, John. The Persecutory Imagination: English Puritanism and the Literature of Religious Despair. Oxford, 1991.Google Scholar
Strier, Richard. “John Donne, Awry and Squint: The ‘Holy Sonnets’ 1608–1610.” Modern Philology 86 (1989): 357–84.Google Scholar
Sullivan, Garrett A. Sleep, Romance and Human Embodiment: Vitality from Spenser to Milton. Cambridge, 2012.10.1017/CBO9781139169257CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Targoff, Ramie. John Donne: Body and Soul. Chicago, 2008.10.7208/chicago/9780226789781.001.0001CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Toletus, Franciscus. De Anima. Cologne, 1592.Google Scholar
Trevor, Douglas. The Poetics of Melancholy in Early Modern England. Cambridge, 2004.Google Scholar
von Stadan, Heinrich. “Body, Soul, and Nerves: Epicurus, Herophilus, Erasistratus, the Stoics, and Galen.” In Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the Mind-Body Problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment. ed. J. P. Wright and P. Potter, 79116. Oxford, 2000.Google Scholar
Wright, Thomas. The Passions of the Minde. London, 1601.Google Scholar

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 40
Total number of PDF views: 132 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 20th November 2018 - 25th January 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-898fc554b-p5tlp Total loading time: 0.268 Render date: 2021-01-25T13:22:02.271Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

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

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

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

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

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

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *