Since She Whom I Lov'd

His wife's early death

This sonnet stands apart from most of the Holy Sonnets as it was discovered in a separate manuscript along with two other sonnets. The sonnet is known as Westmorland II after the name given to the manuscript. It is probably the most autobiographical of the sonnets, detailing the effect of his wife's early death, especially in driving him closer to God.

Spiritual journey

Nevertheless he does not feel he is nearly close enough. The octave describes this spiritual journey, ending with the lines ‘A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yett.' A dropsy is a medical condition, whereby water is retained by the body, so that the sufferer is constantly thirsty. Donne uses the image of spiritual thirst, not as an illness, but as a spiritual condition, akin to the Psalmist's ‘As pants the hart' in Psalms 42:1, where thirst is a metaphor for spiritual desire.

God as a jealous lover

The sestet, however, reverses this direction dramatically. Rather than Donne seeking God, it is God who is the holy lover, actively wooing and seeking the poet. God is offering him an exchange: ‘Dost wooe my soul for hers; offring all thine'. This is a bold, almost outrageous image. Even worse, God is seen as a jealous lover, doubting the poet's fidelity, and mistrusting him in the face of his rivals. The first of these rivals are still ‘things divine', but which still might divert Donne's love away from God.

More on Love language: see ‘Batter my heart' also by John Donne

The second group of rivals is altogether more dangerous: ‘the World, Fleshe, yea Devill.' This trio were seen as the great enemies of the soul in the Middle Ages and are mentioned in The the Church of England service of baptism (see Liturgy Baptism:The baptism. They had already been used by Donne in Satyre III: ‘On Religion'. The sonnet ends unresolved, despite a final couplet. In a sense, there can be no final resolution till death.

From tenderness to contempt

The sonnet is a strange one, moving from great tenderness at the beginning to almost dramatic contempt at the end. We feel perhaps Donne has neither resolved his grief over his loss, nor yet his commitment to God. Nor perhaps is he used to no longer being the assertive male lover, but the more passive female one, with God taking on the dominant role.

Investigating Since She Whom I Lov'd
  • Read through Donne's Since she whom I lov'd
    • Does the sestet back up the claim of the octave: ‘Wholly on heavenly things my mind is sett'?
    • Do you find the use of human love language somewhat surprising in a sonnet of religious devotion?
    • How is it that the two spheres of experience can borrow images from one another?
    • Explain the image ‘so streames do shew their head'

(see Themes and significant ideas > Personal Sinfulness and Unworthiness).

Resources: This has been set to music by Benjamin Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne.

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