Thou Hast Made Me (Holy Sonnet 1)
This poem is primarily a declaration of the spiritual indignity of the speaker. We can think of it as a penitential poem, based on the penitential Psalms of the Old Testament. Donne’s religious disposition contained a strong element of self-laceration and strain, and this poem shows this. We can distinguish two facets of the desperate plight of the speaker — the drift toward death and the profound sense of personal sin.
However, throughout the poem, we can see the seeds of the speaker’s recovery. This counterpoint is set 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 capable of raising the speaker; and the last two lines reassert the power of God to raise the speaker above the temptation of Satan (line 13) and to draw
the Iron Heart of the Speaker to God (line 14). Thus, the line of thought and feeling is a back-and-forth rhythm between hope and despair and between divine strength and human weakness.
Coleridge wrote of Donne’s poetry, ‘we find the most fantastic out-of-the-way thoughts, but in the purest and genuine mother English’. This sonnet is a wonderful illustration of this comment. Within the strict structural confines of the Petrarchan sonnet (14 lines, rhyming scheme, octet and sestet), Donne presents his complex spiritual struggle in a language that is both natural and simple. He can communicate the agonising dilemma he faces and the real terror in his soul in such a profound way that it comes as something of a shock to realise that he has written only 14 lines.