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Comparing John Donne’s and Shakespeare’s Sonnets Essay

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Updated: Mar 5th, 2019


Classic literature is still widely recognized today in academic spheres especially in literature. Most of the artists in Europe during the renaissance period expressed their feelings and attitudes toward what was happening in their society by writing articles, narratives, poems, and plays. William Shakespeare is one of those scholars whose works received a wider audience and he gained a lot of respect and popularity. He was popularly known as the “Bard of Avon” and he wrote poems, plays, sonnets and narratives.

From 1589 to 1613 he produced a lot of literature works and most of his plays were touching on historical events of the time and some were largely based on comedy. He did most of his performances in large theaters in London which attracted kings and other prominent people in the society. His works were translated into many languages and his plays have been acted in very many occasions even today (Donne 15).

John Donne is another popular artist who participated in writing classic literature. It is believed that he was born and raised in England. He was a catholic priest and at the same time he participated in writing various literature materials. He came to be known as one of the most prolific writers of “metaphysical poems” (Ricks and Burrow 22).

He also wrote several sonnets and other literature works, which gained much reputation just like Shakespeare’s. This was because of his unique language and poetic devices which were more interesting than those of the other artists. His literature works are still enjoyed by many people today (Herbert 24). This paper seeks to make a comparison of “John Donne’s and Shakespeare’s sonnets”.

Definition of a Sonnet

A sonnet can be defined as “a fourteen-line lyric poem, traditionally written in iambic pentameter–that is, in lines ten syllables long, with accents falling on every second syllable, as in: ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’” (Ricks and Burrow 8). A sonnet is mainly concerned with identification of an issue, analysis of the issue and it finally gives a solution to the dilemma.

During the ancient time in England, Sonnets were commonly used as a means of expressing love and romance. When a person is analyzing the sonnets of Shakespeare and John Donne, he or she will realize that they both exhibit similar poetic devices and they also illuminate contemporary issues in the society. In addition to these, most of their sonnets always have similar themes but they are developed using different information.

A Comparison of “John Donne’s Sonnet 14 and William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130”

John Donne wrote his 14th sonnet to express his personal faith and trust in God. It was a reflection of his personal relationship with God. According to the message of the sonnet, John Donne seems to be blaming the devil for his sins.

He says that the devil made him engage in bad behavior and it would not be very easy for him to get saved. He is also pleading with God to help him develop a strong a faith by showing him how powerful he is so that he can change his attitudes. This poem was written by Donne when he had just been ordained in the Catholic Church (Williamson 34).

After renouncing his trust in the Catholic religious beliefs due to fear of being persecuted, Donne became a protestant. The words “external damnation” as used in the poem indicates that Donne was excluded from the love, security and blessings that God gave to the people who were saved. Donne seems to be in a great dilemma of whether to embrace the good things in the world or continue being strong in his religious faith.

Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 is about love and it is meant for a public audience which is contrary to Donne’s sonnet 14 that reflects on his personal feelings about religion. In the first line a simile has been used. ”My mistress eyes are nothing like the son,” in this case he tries to indicate that the eyes of her loved one are not good compared to the bright rays from the son.

In many poems talking about love, the poets always give nice descriptions of the people they like but this is not the case in this poem. Shakespeare instead has given a vivid description of her lover’s physical appearance which does not seem to be good from the description.

In most of the lines he has continuously given negative descriptions of the woman but close to the end he changed his manner of description. For example towards the end of the poem, he commented that he still loved her so much despite her bad physical appearance. He used a regular rhyme scheme (ababcdcdefefgg) in the sonnet. The structure of the sonnet is accurate but the message is quite unusual. Apart from these he also used euphony in most parts of the poem in order to develop humor and sarcastic tone.

The use of long vowels was done with the purpose of making the sonnet easy to read. It is very interesting to read a poem like this one because the content gives a true reflection of what is being described unlike most poems whose contents are often exaggerated using hyperbole. These two poems differ in meaning but they are developed using a similar structure (Shakespeare 23).

A Comparison of “John Donne’s Sonnet 10 and William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55”

Shakespeare and Donne in their sonnets 10 and 55 respectively have expressed their attitudes toward death differently. John Donne says in his sonnet 10 that death will never disappear until everything shall have been declared dead.

He also addressed death as if it were a normal human being that he does not fear and by doing this he was also trying to show that death is not mighty. In this case he used personification as a poetic device by simply giving death the qualities of human beings. This is depicted in the following lines:”Though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so” (Donne 37).

This sonnet was developed using carefully chosen poetic devices and good vocabulary which evokes certain reactions from the audience or readers. He has extensively used metaphors in the sonnet for example he compared death to sleep. The theme of the poem is further enhanced by continuous use of connation.

For example he has used connotation to express his dislike of the pride of death. He has used the word mighty and dreadful in line two to show that people fear death. He the word Mighty here expresses the superiority of death over all human beings and other living things. Dreadful indicates the pain people endure because of death (Donne 39).

Shakespeare on the hand expresses his views about death as follows. In his sonnet 55 titled “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments”, he tries to construct a figurative monument to the fair lord who is his beloved. The fair lord has however not been described in any part of the sonnet. The poem simply talks about immortality in a given stanza. Immortality as one of the themes in the sonnet is expressed in most of the verses. For example in verse 18, Shakespeare has told fair lord not to worry about death because he was not going to die.

Ravage of time is another significant theme in the sonnet and it has been continuously explored by the poet who describes its in evitable impact on the beauty and youthful nature of fair lord (Shakespeare 29). Monuments and statues are likely to be destroyed by fire and wars.Line12 and 13 of the sonnet talks about the judgment day when all the souls will be judged before God. After that event there will be no reason for a person to be immortalized in a given poem.

A Comparison of “John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ Sonnet and William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116”

Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare is a popular poem which many people have always enjoyed reading. This sonnet gives an interesting description about the true nature of love. The sonnet was developed using a simplified structure and all the couplets give a clear description of the nature of true love.

According to Shakespeare, true love does not recognize problems and it does not change in any given situation. The persona says that” love acts like a guiding star for lost sheep, not shaken in storms” (Shakespeare 32). The first verse states that true love remains static. The second verse has a number of metaphors which elaborate the permanent nature of true love for example line five “ever fixed mark”.

The poet used this line to compare permanent love with a sea route guide that can be used by sailors. These metaphors indicate that true love is consistent and reliable. The theme of love has been clearly stated and developed right from the first to the last line of the poem. It has also been commonly understood that Shakespeare used this poem to illustrate his understanding of true love.

John Donne also wrote a love poem called “A valediction forbidding mourning”. This poem expresses the theme of cheating in a relationship. The poem to some extend is giving a warning message to the poet’s lover. John Donne is actually the persona in the poem and he wrote it in order to console his wife as he was going to France for commercial activities.

The title of the poem suggests that they should not feel sad while away from each other. In the first verse the poet employed a “metaphysical conceit” to make a comparison between parting ways from each other to two people dying. Donne and his wife did not have the chance to show physical love while they were away from each other (Herbert 25).

The poet says that even if they were not together they were still in love spiritually because they had one soul. John Donne also says that the love they had was greater that physical lust between a man and woman. He used figurative language to show how close they were to each other. For example he said that “he and his beloved were like the feet of the compass”. Unlike most of his sonnets, this particular sonnet gives a clear distinction between the normal love that people always have and his unique love (Donne 42).

He also looks down upon the untrue love that most people always have. The couplets are developed using a simplified structure which makes his theme to be easily understood. The form of this poem is therefore quite unique compared to the other poems that he wrote about love. He has also extensively used metaphors to aid the development of his theme of love.

From the above comparison we see that both John Donne and William Shakespeare are unique artists whose works are really different from most of the artists whose works do not indicate any degree of originality and talent. These two poets seem to be talking about the contemporary issues in their society like love and death. However, the manner in which they discuss these issues is what makes the difference between them. Nonetheless, they employ a similar structure in their compositions.

For example in some cases we find that they start by highlighting an issue then they move a step forward to elaborate the theme and finally they draw a conclusion (Ricks and Burrow 10). In some instances for example when they were talking a bout love they developed the theme consistently right from the beginning to the end of the sonnets. They have also used many figures of speech like metaphors, similes and also personification. This makes their descriptions more fascinating and realistic.

Apart from this, they also help in the development of the themes in the sonnets. They also extensively used iambic pentameter in most of their sonnets. This technique refers to a type of rhythm created by words used in a particular line. The rhythm is usually measured inform of small syllable units. These syllable units are commonly referred to as “feet” by poets (Ricks and Burrow 12).


We can therefore conclude that the classic artists like John Donne and William Shakespeare had very interesting and inspiring literature works especially their sonnets and plays (Ricks and Burrow 37).

Most of the artists to day are trying to modify a few of their verses in a bid to create new poems. This has however been met by some challenges. For example some people who try to develop new poems from the classic sonnets do not have a proper understanding of the structures and themes in those sonnets and they always come up with poems with mixed up structures and distorted themes.

Because of the rich knowledge in the classic poems, the modern poets should not forget to refer to them and they should come up with mechanisms to make them lively and more appealing to the readers and the audience at large. This can be done through several analysis and comparisons of sonnets from different artists. Several institutions should also incorporate the study of classic literature in their syllabus. This would probably help students to develop a positive attitude toward poetry and literature at large (Donne 45).

Works Cited

Donne, John. The complete poetry and selected prose of John Donne. New York: Modern Library, 1994.

Herbert, George. The complete english poems (penguin classics) . New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Ricks, Christopher and Colin Burrow. Metaphysical poetry (penguin classics. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.

Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare sonnets. New York: Yale University Press, 2000.

Williamson, George. Six metaphysical poets: a readers guide. Washington D.C: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

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