Personal Sinfulness and Unworthiness

John Donne:

George Herbert:

Richard Crashaw:

Andrew Marvell:

Undeserving of love

As we might expect, this is pre-eminently a religious theme, and can be set alongside the theme of God's Love and Mercy. Most religious writers have a sense of their own unworthiness as they approach a God they believe to be holy. This is not necessarily a morbid sense of guilt but could be compared to the experience of falling in love and feeling ‘unworthy' of the other person.

Accepting forgiveness

Sometimes, the feelings of unworthiness amount to what is called conviction of sin. This is sometimes part of the conversion experience described by some Christians, which ends with the individual believing that they have been forgiven by God. For some, this is relatively straightforward; for others it is an agonising struggle. With the Metaphysical poets, Donne clearly is in the latter group, whilst Herbert and Marvell are in the former.


Donne's poems are dramas of sin, guilt and the search for the assurance of acceptance by God. He feels helpless, almost a victim of the devil's usurping force, as in Batter my heart. He wants God to come and seize him by force, or be a jealous lover, as in Since She Whom I Lov'd. This drama certainly has theological force in the imagery of the soul being a battleground between forces of good and evil.

Marvell and Herbert

For Marvell, the awareness is more that, even in the best he tries to do for God, there is still something selfish and self-regarding. One answer, might be not to do anything at all, not even write poetry but clearly this is not Marvell's answer. The answer given in The Coronet, is a right sense of humility: ‘my best efforts will always be tainted, but if I submit them to God, they can be acceptable still'. This seems to be Herbert's answer, too. Aaron goes one step further, in saying that ultimately it is Christ's goodness that covers us, or is imputed to us, not our own.


Crashaw is more interested in the drama of repentance. Mary Magdalene is the type of a forgiven sinner. Her tears are signs of the repentance. The elaborate conceit of continuous weeping might seem excessive but it is designed to show that repentance should be ongoing.

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