Sonnet, Religious Use of
SONNET, RELIGIOUS USE OF
After some centuries of existence as a light love lyric, the sonnet began to find profound religious use in late 16th-century England. After Tottel's Miscellany introduced, in 1557, the sonnets of Thomas Wyatt (1503–42) and the Earl of Surrey (1517?–46?), the Petrarchan tradition of languishing lovers complaining of cruel mistresses in 14 lines of closely rhymed iambic pentameter verses flourished, and collections of sonnet sequences flooded the literary market. But a number of writers began to experiment with the form as an expression of religious thought and feeling. In the last decade of the century, the Protestant Barnabe Barnes (1570?–1609) and the Catholic Henry Constable (1562–1613) turned out undistinguished collections of Spirituall Sonnettes. A far better poet, Sidney, in his "Leave me, O love which reachest but to dust," used the sonnet to celebrate the progress from mortal love to "Eternall Love." Shakespeare, in sonnets such as his 116, 129, and 146, echoed the religious insights of St. Paul. In Sonnet 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds /Admit impediments"), for example, Shakespeare embodied much of ch. 13 of 1 Corinthians, and followed Paul's thought so far as to state that if there were no love (in the full Pauline sense of the unselfish willing of the good of another), both literature and life would be meaningless: "If this be error and upon me proved, Solidus never writ, nor no man ever loved."
The first complete flowering of the religious use of the sonnet came with donne's Holy Sonnets, written in the early years of the 17th century. Here for the first time a great poet demanded that sonnets set forth carefully articulated Christian dogma, sometimes with enormous power ("Batter my heart, three-personed God") and sometimes with profound tenderness ("Immensitie cloysterd in thy deare wombe").
In two famous sonnets, Milton's "soul-animating strains" expressed religious conviction: "On his blindness," which accepts God's providence in spite of appearances, and "Thy martyred saints," which foretells the triumph of God's justice.
Wordsworth's Treatment. For the next century and a half, interest in the sonnet waned, and not until Wordsworth joined in the attempts to revive the Petrarchan tradition did the religious use of the sonnet by a great poet appear once again. The results here were largely unfortunate. In some of his good sonnets, such as "The World is too much with us," Wordsworth expressed his conviction that a response to natural beauty will evoke also a religious response—though to him this may mean no more than bringing oneself to an experience of one's own spirituality. But Wordsworth called upon the sonnet to express dogmatic facts in historical sequence in his long Ecclesiastical Sonnets, a history of the Anglican Church.
These poor, warped poems fail to express any profound grasp of Christian dogma, to say nothing of the bathetic things they do with history. They clumsily and grotesquely attack the Catholic Church at times, as in the section (xix–xvii) depicting the dissolution of the monasteries and shrines during Henry VIII's reign. Here monks and nuns sit on either side of a huge hearth quaffing beer and roaring, "Our kingdom's here." The dismissal of the saints and of idolatry, after being noted and approved, is sentimentally mourned. The sonnet often included in Catholic anthologies, "The Virgin" (xxv), with its much-quoted line, "Our tainted nature's solitary boast," appears at this point. Its statement, "Thy image falls to earth," often glossed as a Protestant poet's tribute to Mary's influence, in context means merely, "Your statue, your graven image, forbidden by God, fails to the ground." But, the poem goes on to say, the idolatry of Catholics might merit forgiveness because of the beauty of the Ideal Woman—scarcely a Catholic or an Anglican attitude. A careful reading of the poem will disclose that Wordsworth is really writing about a goddess whose beauty he admires, not about the Mother of God.
Hopkins's Achievements. The highest point for the religious use of the sonnet comes between 1875 and 1889, the productive years of one of England's great religious poets, Gerard Manley hopkins. Like Wordsworth, Hopkins set forth, as in "God's Grandeur," a response to natural beauty, but in and beyond nature he responded also to God, the dynamic Creator and Sustainer of nature. Hopkins, too, drew upon Christian dogma for the elements of his sonnets; and in "The Windhover: To Christ our Lord" and "As Kingfishers Catch Fire," he echoed St. Paul far more pointedly and profoundly than did Shakespeare, expressing the Catholic insight of the identity of Christ and Christian in the Mystical Body—"I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me."
The success of Donne and Hopkins (and Wordsworth's failure) in using the sonnet for religious ends may indeed, as Louis Martz suggests in his study of the poetry of meditation, owe something to the activity of Ignatian meditation influencing the artistic vision and techniques of those artists (or failing to do so, as in Wordsworth's case). More likely, however, is the supposition that the power of Catholic tradition added to the vigor and depth of Catholic belief (qualified but not destroyed in Donne's vision) provided the added element rare in our literature to account for the bias and the success of these poets in their religious sonnets.
Bibliography: l. l. martz, The Poetry of Meditation (New Haven 1954; repr. pa. 1962).