A Glimpse of Salvation Anxiety: The Holy Sonnets

The sonnet was a product of the cultural transformation known as the Renaissance. The Renaissance gave way to the reemerging values of the classical world. One of them was humanism. Humanism submitted that people should educate themselves in many significant disciplines as a way to reach their full potential. These categories included history, philosophy, and most importantly, for this discussion, poetry (Matthews, Platt, and Noble 310). There were already many types of poetry being written, but credit is given to a Sicilian poet named Giacomo da Lentino for inventing the sonnet (Oppenheimer 289). Since Italy was the heart and center of the Renaissance, the sonnet style spread quickly throughout Europe with the help of patronage and entrepreneurship, for entrepreneurship fueled cross-cultural transfers and connections (Matthews, Platt, and Noble 310). The word, sonnet, literally means “little song” (Oppenheimer 291). Many people began writing sonnets in order to express themselves and the current issues of society. One of these prominent themes was salvation anxiety. Because philosophy was a hallmark of the Renaissance, scholars were no longer content with simply accepting preconceived notions of the Greeks and Christians (Matthews, Platt, and Noble 312). Some educated people of the era went to great lengths to develop their own metaphysical opinions. With the stress of the early Reformation, people turned to poetry, especially to sonnets, as an outlet and coping mechanism. Michelangelo Buonarroti’s On the Brink of Death andJohn Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud  are two sonnets of the Renaissance that range from indecisive to assertive and show the spectrum of responses towards salvation anxiety.

An important catalyst of Renaissance change was Michelangelo Buonarroti. He is most famous for his repertoire of artwork, including David, the Pietà, and various pieces in the Sistine Chapel. However, following the true spirit of the Studia Humanitatis, Michelangelo also took up poetry. One of my favorites is his fifty-sixth sonnet, On the Brink of Death. He opens up by suggesting his past, “Now hath my life across a stormy sea” (Buonarroti 1). This automatically sets a somber and reminiscent tone. He wants to make it very clear that life has been rough. As we read on, we find out what has made his journey across the sea of life so disturbed. Buonarroti writes, “Now know I well how that fond phantasy / Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall / Of earthly art, is vain” (5-7). This shows that regardless of his accomplishments in aesthetic mediums, he is unsatisfied because he believes that his contributions may not be of great spiritual importance. Buonarroti repents for “Those amorous thoughts that were so lightly dressed” (9). This is a very personal statement that gives us perspective on the emotional connection between sonnet and sonneteer. He is basically confessing to the frivolous sins that have shaped his spirit.  Also, in this statement, he puts his art on the same level as sin. Since he is nearing his death, the only thing that holds importance in his life is salvation, which is addressed in the next few lines: “What are they when the double death is nigh? The one I know for sure, the other dread” (Buonarroti 10-11). The two deaths that he speaks of are Heaven and Hell. He claims that he will go to Heaven (the opposite of dread), but the next lines sound uncertain. As he reflects on his past, he sees that he has spent too much of his life on earthly matters. He would have been familiar with Biblical tradition which states, “Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth,” (New King James Version, Col. 3.2). Such earthly things include desire and physical as well as evil and idolatry (Holy Bible: NKJV, Col. 3.5). After multiple lines in which he brings up painful memories, it seems as if Michelangelo engages in forms of denial by saying that Heaven is certainly awaiting him and thus there is no chance of eternal suffering. Michelangelo was unsure of himself. Unfortunately, the only course of action left for him was to remain hopeful. After all, the clergy and Papacy at that time struggled for power with the signori; this might have resulted in a lack of religious guidance to direct and/or confirm his thoughts on theology. He knows that there will be a final judgment; we can see this when he writes, “Ere the final reckoning fall / Of good and evil for eternity.” (Buonarroti 3-4). However, the last two lines (couplet) which usually define the whole sonnet show us where he puts his hope and faith. Michelangelo writes “My soul that turns to His great love on high / Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread” (13-14). He combats denial by reassuring himself that he is seeking Christ.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was like most people of the Renaissance; he questioned his fate often. John Donne, however, belonged to the minority that was quite different. Michelangelo Buonarroti was an Italian artist of the High Renaissance while John Donne was an English priest who grew up during the end of the Late Renaissance. Yes, priests often have stronger faith and more theological meditations regarding such heavy topics. However, John Donne wrote with such force and assertion that his Holy Sonnets remain unmatched (at least by others of his time) with respect to such spiritual matters. Death, Be Not Proud, one of Donne’s most famous Holy Sonnets, is a perfect example of his transcendent faith. He directly attacks salvation anxiety and death itself. Donne starts off by discrediting death. He declares that death has an intimidating reputation that is false by writing, “Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so” (2). It’s almost as if he is taunting death by saying, “O Death, where is your sting?” (Holy Bible: NKJV, 1 Cor. 15.55). He knows that death is an eminent, destructive force: “and dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell” (Donne 10). Nevertheless, he (at the same time) conveys that death should not be feared. Death offers individuals the “Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.” (Donne 8). In this, he means delivery of the soul to the kingdom of God. Although there are many great lines in this sonnet, the greatest, in my opinion, are found in the couplet. Every word in line thirteen is positive: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally” (Donne 13). When people think of their impending deaths, they usually hope for death to be quick and painless, such as in a short sleep. The second half of this line mentions the afterlife, a principle of many religions throughout the world. For John Donne, the afterlife is a joyous one that awaits our entry. Lastly, Donne ends with a spectacular paradox: “And death shall be no more; Death shall die” (Donne 14). By Death, though, he means more than the physical occurrence. He insinuates that everything surrounding death, such as pain, mourning, weeping, and sorrow shall be wiped out (Holy Bible: NKJV, Rev. 21.4). So, in contrast to Michelangelo Buonarroti, John Donne is very straightforward in his faith and he trusts in his beliefs without blinking an eye.

Whether in a declarative or speculative fashion, these two authors provide a genuine glimpse of the Renaissance spirit. Renaissance philosophers and poets would often question a subject and then transform their discoveries into elegant, assertive statements. Theology was a main topic of discussion that generated many questions and many intellectual statements throughout the Renaissance and Reformation. Salvation anxiety intensified. Anxiety, along with other strong emotions, inspired people to divulge themselves in the little songs that we call sonnets.


Donne, John. “Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud.” 1635. U of Toronto Libraries. Web. 27 Mar. 2012.

Holy Bible: New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. 664-723. Print.

Matthews, Roy T., F. D. Platt, and Thomas F. Noble. The Western Humanities. Seventh ed. Vol. 2. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2011. 310-12. 2 vols. Print.

Michelangelo Buonarroti. “On the Brink of Death.” Trans. by John Addington Symonds. Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry Online. 2012. Columbia University Press. Web. 26 Mar. 2012.

Oppenheimer, Paul. “The Origin of the Sonnet.” Comparative Literature. 1982.  289-305. Academic Search Complete (EBSCO Host). Web. 24 Mar. 2012.