Revelation loomed large in the political conflicts of seventeenth-century England. On every side, the images of whore and bride were deployed to defend one church and condemn another. Una and Duessa in Spenser are one version of this battle.
According to Esther Richey’s The Politics of Revelation in the English Renaissance, Donne also entered the lists in the battle, but with a very different ecclesiology and a very different reading of Revelation. Instead of assigning the labels whore and bride to different ecclesiastical parties, he suggested that the church is always both. Holy Sonnet 18 blurs the distinction into ambiguity. “Show me deare Christ, thy spouse, so bring and cleare,” he requests, but the request is followed by questions: “Sleepes she a thousand, then peepes up one yeare? / Is she self truth and errs? now new, now’outwore? / Doth she, ‘and did she, and shall she evermore, / On one, on seaven, or on no hill appeare?”
Richey finds a similar ecclesiology at work behind Donne’s more famous Sonnet 14, “Batter my heart.” According to Donne, the church exists for the present in paradox and “it is only when God joins himself to the ‘truth church’ in the end that he effects a final communion and a final purification, making her inviolable. In the time ‘between,’ she remains in this world and, as Donne suggests in Sonnet 18, open to all.” The church is not chaste, and her chastity depend on “the final, liberating act of God himself” (102-5).