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John Donne's Holy Sonnet I

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

John Donne

John Donne

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet I

The speaker begins John Donne's classic series of supplications to the Divine, seeking to be to delivered him from his self-induced state of despair and decay. In the throes of a degenerating physical encasement, the speaker seeks succor from the only source able to give it—his Blessèd Creator.

Holy Sonnet I

Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

Reading of Holy Sonnet 1

Commentary

The speaker is suffering from an aging and crippling physical body. He is engaging with his Beloved Creator, as he prayerfully contemplates his mortality and immortality.

First Quatrain: Contemplating His Demise

Thou hast made me, and shall Thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
I run to death, and Death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday.

The speaker in John Donne's Holy Sonnet 1 addresses his Creator. He appears in a conflicted state that the great Divine Beloved could create such as he and then allow that creation to sink into decomposition and disillusion. He then immediately commands of his Heavenly Father to make him whole, admitting that he feels that the end of his life is near, he seems to be moving quickly toward death, and he can no longer find pleasure in living as he always had before this period of aging and illness.

The speaker is no stranger to reliance on the Divine Father. That he would so easily command the Divine Beloved demonstrates a closeness that he has cultivated throughout his lifetime. Because the Blessed Creator has created his children, they should always feel comfortable speaking to Him, and even at times chiding Him, and even demanding from Him those things and situation that are needed by the divine child. And with this speaker, it is despite his spirituality that he finds himself in such dire straits.

Second Quatrain: The Looming Demise

I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
Despair behind, and Death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.

The speaker reports that he no longer has the courage to look about him for fear of sensing and being reminded of his past despair and the fact that death is approaching. That his demise is looming renders him terrorized. His flesh has become enfeebled from the sin he has allowed himself to engage in during his lifetime.

The speaker even suspects himself being cast in to hell because of his lifetimes of frivolity and endless engagement in sensual pleasure. He remains on the cusp of accepting his responsibility for his lot, but nevertheless he still feels the need to confess and seek forgiveness and reparations from his Divine Beloved.

Third Quatrain: Summary

Only Thou art above, and when towards Thee
By Thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour myself I can sustain.

The speaker confronts the fact that his Divine Beloved remains in control of the speaker's life, actions, and death. He positions the Creator "above" and suggests that only toward the Divine can he safely cast his glances. As he realizes the infallible presence of his Creator, he finds that he can rally somewhat.

But then the old tormenter, Satan, "our old foe," again flaunts his magic on the sense-enslaved body and the speaker then finds it difficult to remain focused on the only Presence that matters. The speaker knows that he must keep his consciousness above the physical encasement in order to remain locked in the arms of the Divine, but he continues to struggle as he attempts to keep spiritually focused.

The Couplet: Mercy Through Grace

Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art
And Thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.

In the couplet, the speaker makes his most positive comment. It is indeed the intersession of the Heavenly Father that will be able to keep Satan from practicing his magic on the speaker. It is the Divine Beloved alone who will be able to attract and keep the attention of the speaker.

The speaker metaphorically likens his heart to iron and the Divine Creator to a magnet. He fashions his claim with a set of images that concentrate the motions of flying "wing me" to the hard texture of the hardest stone or metal "adamant." And he thus places his total faith in the "grace" that the Lord will fly to him and attract his heart away from the pleasure-mad, sin-inducing scheme of the satanic force.

Monument

Reading of "Death's Duel"

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the main idea in John Donne's Holy Sonnet 1?

Answer: In Donne's Holy Sonnet sequence, the speaker is offering a series of supplications to the Divine to deliver him from his self-induced state of despair and decay. In the throes of a degenerating physical encasement, the speaker seeks succor from the only source able to give it—his Blessed Creator, God.

Question: How does John Donne begin his Sonnet 1?

Answer: The speaker begins a series of supplications to the Divine to deliver him from his self-induced state of despair and decay. In the throes of a degenerating physical encasement, the speaker seeks succor from the only source able to give it—his Blessed Creator.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on July 13, 2018:

Wow, how wonderful that you got to experience the works and bio of such a great poet at such an early age. Do you still have the paper? I wish I had some of my high school papers, although they would likely cause me much embarrassment.

Donne is certainly one of the greats and well worth an in-depth study. I am continuing to comment on the Holy Sonnets, but I know I will not stop there. His output is amazingly large, rich, and varied.

Thanks for the response and those marvelous angels. Always love hearing from you, Patricia!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on July 12, 2018:

when I was a senior is high school I wrote an in depth (for a high school student) research paper on John Donne and his works. It is interesting to see his work discussed here. Angels are on the way to you this evening ps