Holy Sonnet 14 is one of John Donne's series of Holy Sonnets. No one is sure when he wrote them, but some guess it's around 1618. Holy Sonnet 14 is one of his most famous and often-studied poems. In fact, if you only read one of Donne's poems, this is probably the place to go, since it's got a clever extended metaphor (a "metaphysical conceit" if you want the fancy term), and it covers the major recurrent theme in Donne's poetry – a possibly conflicting passion for both carnal and divine love.
Donne wrote this poem at an important time in his life, as he was just ordained in the Church of England. Donne has an interesting relationship with religion. He was born a Roman Catholic, and being Roman Catholic in late 16th century England guaranteed persecution. As a young man, Donne didn't seem particularly interested in religion, but he soon realized that the path to a successful life could be found in the Church of England. As he became more involved in the Church, he became considerably more focused on his own spirituality and relationship with God. If you're inclined to read the poem biographically, Holy Sonnet 14 represents the peak of Donne's conflict between secular and religious lives, and his efforts to reconcile his newfound sacred love with the more familiar, earthly variety.
It's something you hear all the time: folks love God. On the surface that sounds great, but think about it for a second: what does that really mean?
If you've ever stopped to ponder the difference between love of the Divine, and love of, say, Twinkies, or maybe your main squeeze, then this is the poem for you. John Donne is wondering along these lines in his poem, trying to find a way to swap common, earthly love for the more spiritual kind.
Wait a minute, you might say, don't we love everything with the same heart? Can one sort of love be better than another? Well, this is precisely the question that Donne is wrestling with. He seems to see a love of God as the purest kind of affection (more perfect than your fondness for Twinkies even), and yet there is a whole host of more worldly things to love that get in the way of this higher love (Hit it Steve!).
Really, this is something that we all struggle with. Even for those of you who aren't religious, we bet that you have some kind of ideal or goal in your life that is beset with distractions and sidetracks. Just what does it take to reach the next level (besides mad joystick skills, yo)?
That's question that we'll all ask at some point in our lives, which is what makes this poem so worthwhile. Don't be put off by the old-timey language and religious metaphors. Donne was onto something that we can all relate to, which—not unlike a Twinkie, friends—is pretty sweet.
Someone giving a slightly funny reading of the sonnet.
No idea who this reader is, but it's worth a listen.
Portrait of a young Donne
Scroll down for a cool portrait of Donne as a young man. You can tell by his hat that he means business.
Holy Sonnet 14 in the original English
A version of the poem where the language hasn't been modernized.
The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne
Want lots of short, easily understood summaries of scholarly opinions on this poem, but you don't know where to find them? Look no further.
The Cambridge Companion to John Donne
This book's got a bunch of interesting, helpful essays on the poet.
Everything you want to know about Donne
A lot of helpful stuff here
Opera My Heart
A boss baritone sings the sonnet in aria form for composer John Adams's modern opera Doctor Atomic.