William Alabaster (1597-1598?) Within William Alabaster's sonnet sequences that compose his The Divine Meditations, Sonnet 46 falls into the category critics later labeled "Personal Sonnets." All of the poems are categorized as devotional poetry, a subgenre abundant since the Middle Ages, producing a tradition of allegory that carried into the beginning of the 17th century as poets such as John Donne used it liberally. The sonnet form proved especially conducive to religious consideration, particularly in the Petrarchan version, Alabaster's favored type. Highly dramatic, the Petrarchan sonnet introduces a problem or question in its first eight lines to which the final six lines respond. A poet could introduce a soul-searching plea in the first part of the poem, to which his own, or another voice, might reply in the closing lines.
Alabaster employed symbolism, repetition, rhetorical questions, antithesis, strong verbs, and vivid imagery drawn from traditional Christianity in an attempt to stir his readers. The 14-line fixed sonnet format encouraged concentration of emotion and thought, proving an excellent vehicle for Alabaster's high passion. Despite their often weak conclusions, the poems work beautifully as a sequence to characterize the poet's approach to meditation. The "Personal Sonnets"
unite many of the themes represented by the six sonnet sequences that precede this grouping.
Titled "Of His Conversion," Sonnet 46 is a ringing testimony to the power of Alabaster's faith. Although he moved from Protestantism to Catholicism more than once, the changes seemed more in reaction to fear for personal safety caused by the politics of the day than testimony to any weakness of conviction. His first lines ward fear away, declaring "no false fire / Which thou dost make can ought my courage quail," a valid declaration from a man once threatened by the Inquisition. He establishes the traditional imagery of fire as symbolic of damnation, a conceit he will extend throughout the sonnet. He adds that he will not "run or strike my sail" and declares he will not be moved by public sentiment when he writes, "What if the world do frown at my retire," employing the term world to distinguish man's domain from that of God. In a skillful use of repetition and alliteration to establish a pulsating rhythm, the next lines declare "What if denial dash my wished desire, / And purblind pity do my state bewail," building dramatic tension through repetition of the conjunction And until he challenges death: "And wonder cross itself and free speech rail, /And greatness take it not and death show nigher!"
In the six-line rejoinder Alabaster bids his soul reply to explain "the fears that make me quake," those fears firmly rooted in traditional imagery of hell. In a cascade of multiple rapid syllables he notes that he fears "The smouldering brimstone and the burning lake, / Life feeding death, death ever life devouring," adopting the participle verb form to suggest ongoing processes and employing strong antithesis as he illustrates how life and death literally feed on one another. He offers a paradox and adopts the figurative language (figure of speech) of personification in the 12th line, "Torments not moved, unheard, yet still roaring," challenging readers who might deny the existence of hell, whether it be in this life or the next. The final couplet sustains tension better than many of Alabaster's conclusions, as his persona seems not only to accept, but actually to invite, a chance for martyrdom, suggesting that conversion from one faith to another does not promise peace: "God lost, hell found,—ever, never begun: / Now bid me into flame from smoke to run!"
378 "SONNET TO THE NOBLE LADY, THE LADY MARY WROTH, A"
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