On Reason in Milton’s Paradise Lost and John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” – Theologies on Agency in Christian Faith

Note to the Reader: John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, is a poetic recounting of the fall of man in Genesis. Milton finesses the story of man’s origin and his encounter with Satan by imagining the scenes of demons exiled to Hell, the birth of Death, the war in heaven, and the conversations of Adam and Eve with God and the angels. In contrast, John Donne, in “Holy Sonnet XIV,” utilizes the sonnet structure to illustrate man’s utter dependency on God. This paper addresses the theologies and imaginations of Renaissance poets who bring forth biblical ideas to a literary audience in order to explicate both the rationality and beauty of their faith.

Holy Sonnet XIV
by John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

In his essay Areopagitica, Milton argues, “reason is but choosing” (Milton 252). He presents reason as the freedom to choose obedience in Paradise Lost, in which Adam and Eve ultimately disobey God. John Donne approaches the idea of reason in a different light; reason is God’s “viceroy” in man (Donne line 7). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, reason is a “power,” a “capacity for rational thought” and a “mental faculty,” (“reason,” II.5.a, OED) and resides innately in human beings. Both poets acknowledge this internal nature of reason, but emphasize the varying degrees to which reason enables man’s relationship with God. Donne’s eroticized “Holy Sonnet XIV” frames reason as a fallen force through which the speaker seeks an impassioned, homoerotic union with God. Paradise Lost emphasizes temperance between passion and reason through discourse and prayer. By examining reason in the fallen and unfallen phases of Paradise Lost in comparison with reason as portrayed in Donne’s sonnet, this paper will first illuminate the common theme of man’s dependency in the poets’ theologies and then note their subtly contrasting emphases. Both poets agree on the necessity of man’s dependence on God through reason. However, Donne stresses the weakness of reason in man’s sinful nature as a way to seek God. Milton, in contrast, advocates greater agency of the Christian person by emphasizing the power of reason through discourse and prayer before and after the fall of man.

In Book III of Paradise Lost, before the fall, God speaks to the Son about reason and free will:

What pleasure I from such obedience paid,

When will and reason (reason also is choice)

Useless and vain, of freedom both despoiled,

Made passive both, had served necessity,

Not me. (III.107-110)

In this passage, God explains the necessity of “will and reason” (III.108) as “proof…/ Of true allegiance” (III.104-105) to Him; God would not receive pleasure from “obedience paid” out of “necessity.” He equates reason with choice, echoing the idea in Areopagitica; without freedom, will and reason are “[m]ade passive” (109), and become “[u]seless and vain” (108). Thus, reason before the fall is “proof” (104) and “pledge of [man’s] obedience” (III.95) – a sign of man’s allegiance to God. Raphael reiterates God’s purpose for reason in man. He explains to Adam in Book V, “God made thee perfect, not immutable; / And good he made thee, but to persevere / He left it in thy power…” (V.524-525). Adam, who is “not immutable” (V.524) will face the trial of choosing obedience in order to persevere in his faith; the merit of his faith lies in his choice to persevere. Raphael also repeats God’s ideas that man is “not overruled by fate / Inextricable, or strict necessity” (V.525-526). The enjambment detaches “fate” and “inextricable” to reflect Adam’s freedom from fate and “strict necessity.”

Just as the freedom of reason symbolizes man’s obedience to God, it also challenges the idea that man is “sufficient to have stood” (III.99). How does reason enable man to stand, or resist sin, in Paradise Lost? As reason enables man to freely obey, it also exposes man to error, or worse, to sin. Adam and Eve must choose to refrain from eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge as a sign of their obedience. Thus, their transgression after the fall is not simply eating the fruit, but choosing to eat it. Moving beyond the idea of choice to describe reason, Milton provides an answer to the issue of Adam’s sufficiency to stand by examining the difference between angels and human beings. Raphael explains that reason resides differently in celestial and earthly bodies: “Reason is [the soul’s] being / Discursive, or intuitive; discourse / Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours, / Differing but in degree, of kind the same” (V.488-490). The angel’s comment points to the degrees of reason in man and angel: discourse and intuition, respectively. For angels, reason is intuition. In contrast, reason in man requires discourse, “the process or faculty of reasoning” (“discourse” 2.a, OED) or the “communication of thought by speech; talk, conversation” (“discourse” 3.a OED). These complementary definitions illuminate the dynamic nature of reason in human beings as a process as well as a conversation.

The latter definition of discourse as a conversation suggests that man cannot reason alone, but in conversation with another, such as an angel or God. To solidify this idea, Milton highlights moments where Adam and Eve use reason rightly and wrongly. For example, Adam hones his reason in his extensive conversations with Raphael and Michael. Raphael comments, “[S]uch commission from above / I have received, to answer thy desire / Of knowledge within bounds” (VII.118-120), to suggest that the wisdom he bestows upon Adam is ordained by God. The enjambment juxtaposes Adam’s “desire” and “knowledge within bounds” to underscore the angel’s temperate approach to Adam’s reason and knowledge. Conversely, Milton also emphasizes man’s reliance on God’s discourse by explicitly pointing to a moment of sinful dialogue when Eve converses with Satan. In the moment preceding Eve’s fall, the narrator describes, “In her ears the sound / Yet rung of his persuasive words, impregned / With reason, to her seeming, and with truth” (IX.736-738). Here, Milton highlights the peril of rhetoric and Eve’s inability to distinguish pure reason from sinful reason, which ultimately leads her to her fall. Satan’s persuasive presentation of his reason merely seems to hold reason and truth, which suggests Eve’s flawed use of discourse. In these moments, Milton nuances his idea of reason to show the need for Adam and Eve to use discourse wisely, as seen in Adam’s conversations with the angels or God. Thus, the implications of man’s discursive reason points to the irony of obedience: for man to be “sufficient to stand,” he is dependent on divine wisdom through discourse.

Similar to Milton, John Donne also carries forth and magnifies the ideas of man’s dependency and weakness through the use of paradox in “Holy Sonnet XIV”. Donne accentuates the idea of weakness in man through his emphasis on the insufficiency of reason. The speaker in the sonnet states:

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,

Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue


This second quatrain illustrates the speaker’s conflict between reason – God’s “viceroy” (7) in him – and sin. The first line in the quatrain presents a simile that likens the speaker to “an usurped town” (5) – to suggest that he is forcefully seized by “another” (5), which refers to sin or Satan. This simile also illustrates the subjugation of man to the authority of sin. He is “due” (5) – obligated – to his own sinful nature. Donne literally presents God’s inherent authority in the speaker as “Reason” (7). Reason is God’s viceroy in man – God’s figure of authority – meant to govern and “defend” (7) mankind. The object pronoun, “me,” is held in the middle of the line to portray the authority of Reason encompassing the speaker to “defend” (7) him. In addition, the repetition of “me” also accents the speaker’s breathless desperation. However, reason is “captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue” (8), because it resides within the sinful speaker, usurped by Satan. In terms of the sonnet’s form, the rhyme scheme, A-B-B-A, magnifies the speaker’s struggle “to no end” (6), as the quatrain extends and rises to the B-rhyme: the speaker’s –“labour to admit” (6) God. The speaker’s weakness overcomes his struggle as the rhyme dwindles back to the A-rhyme and reason proves “untrue” (8). Thus, the violent imagery, simile, and rhyme indicate Donne’s argument that reason in a fallen world is insufficient for man; reason “proves weak or untrue” (8).

Milton’s perspective on reason after the fall resists Donne’s emphasis on man’s utter insufficiency. Instead, he maintains and modifies the ideal of reason that enables Adam to stand. After Adam and Eve transgress, Michael describes to Adam the state of reason man after the fall:

Since thy original lapse, true liberty

Is lost, which always with right reason dwells

Twinned, and from her hath no dividual being:


Michael delineates the loss of “true liberty,” because of Adam and Eve’s “original lapse” (XII.83). His next statement explains the inherent link between “right reason” (XII.84) – “the inherent ability to perceive the good” (Milton 919) – and “true liberty” (XII.83). Reason in the fallen world is no longer absolute, but qualified as “right.” Michael recalls the idea that reason is choice, but true liberty and “right reason” is lost because of their transgression. Thus, this passage also illuminates the title of Milton’s epic: Paradise Lost. Paradise for man is a place of “true liberty…which always with right reason dwells,” (XII.83-84) and after the fall, true liberty “[i]s lost” (XII.84). Furthermore, in terms of the poem’s form, the enjambment in the line, “true liberty / Is lost,” shows the loss of Adam’s liberty to the next line, emphasizing the attribute of man that “Is lost.”

Michael continues his speech to further reveal the change in reason after the fall. He states:

Reason in man obscured, or not obeyed,

Immediately inordinate desires

And upstart passions catch the government

From reason, and to servitude reduce

Man till then free.


The description of reason in this passage – “obscured, or not obeyed” – evokes a direct comparison to Donne’s description of reason as “captiv’d,” “weak,” and “untrue.” Though both poets acknowledge the tainted nature of reason in man’s sinful state, Donne advances an exacerbated understanding of reason after original sin. For Milton, reason is simply “obscured, or not obeyed,” due to “inordinate desires / And upstart passions” that dims Adam’s discernment of “right reason” (XII.84). His understanding still implies the existence of reason as an ideal in the fallen world, but acknowledges the augmented difficulty for man to obey God through reason. In contrast, Donne presents a seemingly irredeemable view of reason, “weak or untrue” (8), as a facet of the speaker’s overt self-effacement.

Though the consequences of man’s sinful reason manifest differently in Milton’s epic and Donne’s sonnet, their poems agree on the importance of man’s love for God. While Donne builds upon the speaker’s self-effacement to convey this idea, Milton persistently appeals to reason and discourse to present the unifying crux of his theology – love. For example, the volta in Donne’s sonnet triggers a change in rhyme and tone to highlight the speaker’s love:

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I


The speaker describes his ardent love for God; however, his bondage to God’s “enemy” (10), Satan, prevents him from being loved in return. In this third quatrain, the rhyme scheme changes to A-B-A-B, which drives the poem toward an intimate union with God. The rhyme, “enemy,” and “I” reflect the betrothal of man to sin, and the interfering line between the rhyme represents the power of God to “divorce,” “untie, or break” (11) the sinful union. Furthermore, Donne shows reason as a facet of man’s extreme weakness to magnify God’s power and of the speaker’s desire to unite with God, as the final couplet suggests: “Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me” (13-14). The placement of “I,” a subject pronoun, at the end of the line not only diminishes the speaker’s active presence in the line, but also causes an enjambment preceding the couplet. This enjambment enables God’s presence in the poem to interrupt the speaker, paradoxically separating and binding the speaker to his freedom and chastity through God. Furthermore, the concluding paradox illustrates that man’s freedom and chastity stems from God’s imprisonment and rape; the chiasmic couplet shows God’s overpowering strength encompassing the speaker. He ironically commands ravishment from God – a nonconsensual act – to intensify his severe desire to be powerless against God. Donne hyperbolizes the speaker’s weakness and amplifies God’s power over man through this overtly erotic description of the speaker’s consummation with God. In Donne’s poem, love manifests through Donne’s extreme, impassioned use of marital and erotic imagery to convey the speaker’s relationship to God.

Similarly, though with a milder resonance, the angels and Adam echo the significance of love for God in Paradise Lost. Before the fall, Raphael explains, “Because we freely love, as in our will / To love or not; in this we stand or fall” (V.539-540). He reiterates his point in the same speech: “Yet that we never shall forget to love / Our maker, and obey him” (V.550-551). After the fall, Michael emphasizes the same idea: “The law of God exact he shall fulfil / Both by obedience and by love, though love / Alone fulfil the law” (XII.402-404); he places love above obedience as a way to fulfill God’s law. To further advance the significance of love, Adam receives Michael’s wisdom and reasons, “Henceforth I learn, that to obey is best, / And love with fear the only God, to walk / As in presence, ever to observe / His providence and on him sole depend” (XII.561-564). These concluding thoughts are reverberations of Raphael’s insight in Book VIII: “In loving thou dost well” and “love refines the thoughts, and….hath his seat / In reason” (VIII.588-590). Through the angels’ conversations with Adam, Milton persistently highlights the affinity between love, obedience and reason, through which Adam “mayst ascend,” (VIII.592) and stand. The fallen world presents the challenge of obeying God’s law, which evokes a “love with fear” (XII.562), in Adam, to suggest his reverence for God through love. Like Donne, Milton stresses God’s power over man, “His providence” (XII.563), as well as Adam’s need for God, on whom he will “sole depend” (XII.564). Milton implies hope for mankind in this discourse of reason through prayer. For example, Michael teaches Adam, “Sufficient that thy prayers are heard… / wherein thou mayst repent” (XI.252, 255). The angel’s insight on prayer and repentance suggests that Adam requires prayer and repentance to be sufficient to stand in a fallen world. Thus, love in Milton’s comprehensive epic manifests through the actions of man: prayer, repentance and reason. In contrast, love in Donne’s sonnet emerges through a homoerotic plea to consummate the speaker’s relationship with God. Milton and Donne evidently agree on the humility required of the Christian person. However, Milton’s framing of Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost suggests a greater agency within human beings to seek God through the power of reason, while Donne presents an extreme, self-effacing, and powerless image of man.

Though Donne and Milton agree on the crux of their theologies – man’s dependence on God – they magnify differing degrees of dependency and agency in the fallen human being. The comprehensive, didactic capacity of the epic form enables Milton to advance his poetic agency as he examines the nuances in reason, obedience and love. John Donne accomplishes a different feat: the impassioned plea of desperation and desire for God through the Petrarchan sonnet tradition. The striking convergence of sacred and erotic ideas in Donne’s use of paradox conveys man’s extreme weakness and lack of agency against God. Their contrasting ideas on the Christian posture in the face of sin also speak to their ideas regarding the nature of God. Milton imagines a rational divine authority while Donne envisions a forceful and wrathful supreme being. Milton and Donne both transform and even exaggerate the elements of the sonnet and the epic to advance religious ideas, merging Christian doctrine with art.

Though the theologies appear contradictory, Milton and Donne’s poems, together, illustrate a more coherent image of the fallen man. Milton states, “reason is but choosing”; reason depends on a person’s free will to be utilized for either man’s pleasure, or God’s glory. Tainted by sin, reason – one’s God-given capacity for thought – can lose its sole purpose: to know the Lord. As Milton shows, reason through prayer enables us to meet our heavenly Father, and choose his way. By God’s grace, reason helps us to discern God’s logic and turn away from our own, humanistic and finite understanding of life. Reason, both viceroy and choice, hindrance and gift, challenges us to delight in God’s truth. Dr. Tim Keller puts it best: “Reason can get you to probability, but only commitment can get you to certainty.”



  1. Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet XIV.”
  2. Milton, John. “Areopagitica.” John Milton: The Major Works. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. 236-72. Print.
  3. Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” John Milton: The Major Works. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. 355-618. Print.
  4. “reason, n.1”. OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. 12 December 2011 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/159068?rskey=8v85cD&result=1&isAdvanced=false>.
  5. “discourse, n.”. OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. 12 December 2011 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/53985?rskey=36gOpM&result=1&isAdvanced=false>.


Trina Hyun is a senior in the College studying English.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,