John Donne's Holy Sonnet III

Updated on April 19, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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 III

John Donne's speaker in Holy Sonnet III is lamenting through many episodes of tears and the agony of sighing that have left him in a deep state of melancholic grief. He avers that those who have committed ordinary sins against society such as thieves and the overweening proud, at least, have past joys to think on. He cannot look back at his own transgressions with but a jaundiced eye. He committed his sins in suffering, and now he must face continued punishment as he experiences great sorrow for his earlier transgressions.

Holy Sonnet III

O! might those sighs and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourn'd in vain.
In mine idolatry what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste? what griefs my heart did rent?
That sufferance was my sin, I now repent;
'Cause I did suffer, I must suffer pain.
Th' hydroptic drunkard, and night-scouting thief,
The itchy lecher, and self-tickling proud
Have the remembrance of past joys, for relief
Of coming ills. To poor me is allow'd
No ease ; for long, yet vehement grief hath been
Th' effect and cause, the punishment and sin.

Reading of Holy Sonnet III


The speaker is continuing to lament his lot of suffering the pain of having transgressed against his higher nature earlier in his lifetime.

First Quatrain: A Request for Deliverance

O! might those sighs and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourn'd in vain.

The speaker begins his lament by requesting that all the sorrow that has caused him to shed tears and engaging in sighing come again to him so that he can ultimately find some results from his suffering. Thus far, he has cried and sighed and mourned without consequence. His vain lament seems to have gone unnoticed by his Divine Beloved, and he has determined to continue in his heretofore vain efforts until he has touched the heart of God and has proof of his connection with the Divine.

Second Quatrain: Wasted Tears

In mine idolatry what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste? what griefs my heart did rent?
That sufferance was my sin, I now repent;
'Cause I did suffer, I must suffer pain.

The speaker now castigates himself for his "idolatry" and how that sin has caused him to weep tears in abundance. He exaggerates his crying spells calling them colorfully, "showers of rain." And he also asserts that his eyes have wasted that water on his grief. But the speaker frames his mention of vast tears and griefs as questions, in order to usher in his conclusions regarding their origin.

The speaker then lays the blame for his tears and grief at the door of his "sin." He remarks that he is suffering because of his earlier sin. But now he comes before his Lord Creator to "repent." He reports that because of the sin has suffered he now must endure "pain." He demonstrates his awareness of the concept of sowing and reaping, although he may have come to understand that concept a little too late for his liking.

Third Quatrain: Memory of Earlier Happiness

Th' hydroptic drunkard, and night-scouting thief,
The itchy lecher, and self-tickling proud
Have the remembrance of past joys, for relief
Of coming ills. To poor me is allow'd

The speaker now catalogues a list of other types of sinners, including the "drunkard," the "thief," the "lecher," and the "proud." He asserts all of these sinners who have sown evil in their wake at least possess a memory of "past joys." And he surmises that those joys may somehow mitigate the "coming ills" that are sure to follow their transgressions.

The speaker is now setting up a contrast between himself and his commission of sin and that of what one might think of as ordinary sins against society. This speaker has not named his own sin, and thus his audience must assume that his sin is a private matter, a transgression that only a union between himself and Maker can mitigate, which would render that transgression of even mightier import and seriousness.

The Couplet: Harsh Self-Judgment

No ease; for long, yet vehement grief hath been
Th' effect and cause, the punishment and sin.

Beginning in the fourth quatrain and completing itself in the couplet, the evaluation of the speaker's lot determines that this speaker thinks of himself as "poor me," and to this "poor me" no comfort is forthcoming, thus far.

The speaker believes this state of his condition to be what it is because for a long time his deep pain remained the effect of his transgression, while the cause of his pain is the "punishment" that he now must accept for the sin he has committed.

Reading of Holy Sonnet III interspersed with scenes from "Breaking Bad"

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


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    22 months ago from U.S.A.


    Thank you for your response. You make a valid point. It doesn't matter, though, whether the speaker of the poem identifies a specific sin or not; after all, it is desire for anything worldly that keeps the soul veiled off from its spiritual Goal.

    I personally believe that Donne's main lament in the Holy Sonnet sequence is that he engaged in too many sexual conquests as a young man. Examples of this behavior can be seen in his early poems, such as "The Fleas," "The Apparition," and "The Bait"—and these are only the ones I have written about.

    Donne seems to hint that physically that lustful activity has destroyed his health, and of course, it usurped his spiritual journey. But because he has finally come to understand his problem, he can now study his situation and pray without ceasing to alleviate it.

  • profile image


    22 months ago from Colorado Mountains

    I think that the speaker’s “sin” is perhaps less specific than many say.

    The editor of the Norton edition of 1966, for example, glosses the speaker’s “idolatry” as “[a time] when I worshipped a mistress.” Much too specific, I think. Lately I’ve been meditating with this sonnet. I find myself thinking that his grief lies in his having wasted so much of his life grieving over worldly things, grieving in the way Buddhism says is inevitable when we live with desire for the world. All along, he knew his grieving was wasteful, unnecessary, sinful (in the sense that it caused him to focus on vain things rather than on God. Thus it was simultaneously a sin and even then incurred its own punishment.

    Now, the hope is that by true repentance (turning away from worldly desire and the grief and suffering that such desire brings with it) he may grieve in a more productive way, bringing him closer to communion with his God. He grieves over the wasted grief of the past, he grieves over the separation from God such wasted grief has brought, and he hopes that now, “in this holy discontent” he might “mourn with some fruit.” Thanks for your entry on this Sonnet.


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