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John Donne's Holy Sonnet II

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

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet II

In John Donne's Holy Sonnet II, the speaker is again lamenting his aging, decaying body, but also continuing to bemoan his own strength of spirit. He feels that he has denigrated himself through his earlier engagement in worldly activities and that he may not be able to purify himself. He bemoans the fact that the satanic force, a force of hate, will continue to dominate him, while the Divine Creator, the force of love, may simply pass him by.

The speaker's melancholy remains a result of his own doing, and he well knows his own situation. He continues to supplicate while describing exactly his own position. He knows he is made divinely, but he fears that he has squandered too much divine energy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or Divine Unity.

The speaker's enlightening dramas offers magnificent example of a suffering soul that continues to engage his Divine Beloved, in order to both understand and to bring himself nearer to his Creator.

Holy Sonnet II

As due by many titles I resign
Myself to thee, O God. First I was made
By Thee; and for Thee, and when I was decay'd
Thy blood bought that, the which before was Thine.
I am Thy son, made with Thyself to shine,
Thy servant, whose pains Thou hast still repaid,
Thy sheep, Thine image, and—till I betray'd
Myself—a temple of Thy Spirit divine.
Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish, that's Thy right?
Except Thou rise and for Thine own work fight,
O! I shall soon despair, when I shall see
That Thou lovest mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.

Reading of Holy Sonnet II

Commentary

As the speaker laments his lot, he also demonstrates his undying faith in the grace of his Blessed Creator-God. Although he remains in a quagmire of doubt, he shows that he has the spiritual strength to eventually pull himself out of it.

First Quatrain: Seeking Absolution

As due by many titles I resign
Myself to thee, O God. First I was made
By Thee; and for Thee, and when I was decay'd
Thy blood bought that, the which before was Thine.

The speaker, who has served on the physical plane of existence in many capacities, comes now to address his Beloved Maker, to implore for his beleaguered body and mind absolution. The speaker first confesses his dedication of his entire being to his Divine Creator, without Whom he were never brought to existence.

The speaker then begins at the beginning stating that he was in the beginning made by his Divine Beloved. He then reports that he was not only made for himself and the world, but also that his Blessed Maker-God created him for Himself. The sentiment of the Creator-God making humankind for Himself remains a missing element in many sermons and prayers, a sentiment that would help explain the activities and trajectory of the Ineffable as It trails Its behavior through the often incredulous and always bewildered world of humankind.

The speaker then alludes to the passion and crucifixion of the Christ, juxtaposing what at first seems an odd placement of his own physical "decay" with the taking on a karma that Jesus Christ endured. Jesus the Christ bought back with his blood a large portion of all humankind for past, present, and future generations. The speaker well understands that sacred, humble, and generous act. But he also knows that that selfless act merely bought back what was already in possession by the Divine Beloved.

Second Quatrain: Made in the Divine Image

I am Thy son, made with Thyself to shine,
Thy servant, whose pains Thou hast still repaid,
Thy sheep, Thine image, and—till I betray'd
Myself—a temple of Thy Spirit divine.

The speaker then offers a full complement of images that reveal the speaker's understanding of his place in relationship to the Creator-God. First of all, he is the son of God, as all children of God are the Divine Maker's children. The speaker knows that his soul shines forth as does the spirit of the Divine Beloved.

As a child of God, the speaker also realizes that he is the Lord's "servant," and he is one whose tribulations have been taken back by the grace of the Divine Beloved. The speaker continues to report that he is also a "sheep" of the Divine Shepherd. Plainly, he is the image of God, for he knows that the Blessed Maker-God has, indeed, created him in His image, as all holy scripture avers.

But this speaker now confesses that his own sins have led him astray as he earlier in his life went about betraying the trust of the gift of life he had been afforded by his Divine Beloved. He feels that his body "temple" has been defiled; he had been created to wear the physical encasement of the spirit divine, and until he acted against that spirit, he had been perfect.

Third Quatrain: Good vs Evil

Why doth the devil then usurp on me?
Why doth he steal, nay ravish, that's Thy right?
Except Thou rise and for Thine own work fight,
O! I shall soon despair, when I shall see

The speaker then offers a pair of questions, designed to demonstrate his keen awareness of the answers. He knows why the "devil" is playing and defiling him, even as he puts for the query. And he knows why that satanic force has attempted to "steal" what belongs to the Divine Beloved. The speaker has demonstrated and will continue to demonstrate his sharp awareness that it is his own sin that has invited the satanic force, colorfully called "the devil," to "ravish" and rob from him what his Divine Beloved has afforded him.

The speaker then laments that if the Blessed Creator Lord does not bring to the forefront his own special power in this poor straying child of His, that child will "soon despair." The speaker splits his thought between the third quatrain and the couplet in order to emphasis the importance and the profundity of its import.

The Couplet: In Satan's Grasp

That Thou lovest mankind well, yet wilt not choose me,
And Satan hates me, yet is loth to lose me.

The speaker entertains deep fears that he will not be able to atone for his earlier sins. He thus lays out his worries to this Beloved Maker, telling Him that if/when he observes that the Creator loves all humankind but fails to unite his soul with Ultimate Spirit, he will then find himself mightily in despair.

The speaker then makes a marvelous comparison between the force of Good and the force of Evil: Good (God, Divine Maker, Creator), loves humankind, while Evil (the devil, Satan) hates humankind. However, the speaker finds himself in agony that the one who hates him, Satan, will not deign to let him go, while he must continue to doubt that he can become clean enough for his beloved Divine Maker to lift him up in divine unity.

Job in Distress

Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes