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John Donne's Holy Sonnet IV

John Donne's early poems focus on secular topics, while his Holy Sonnets enlighten and enliven the beautiful tradition in spiritual writing.

John Donne

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet IV

In Holy Sonnet IV, John Donne's speaker is continuing his lament of his current melancholy state. He likens his errant soul to those who have broken laws that landed them in prison and to those who have committed treason against their own native lands.

The speaker remains harsh with himself, as he continues to explore how he came to be in such dire straits. He judges himself without excuse, often commanding himself what to think and what to do.

Holy Sonnet IV

O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death's herald and champion;
Thou'rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he's fled;
Or like a thief, which till death's doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver'd from prison,
But damn'd and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ's blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white

Reading of Holy Sonnet IV

Commentary

Again, the speaker finds himself lamenting his painful lot but then admonishing himself about which course of action he must take to remedy his situation.

First Quatrain: Soul-Sickness

O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death's herald and champion;
Thou'rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he's fled;

The speaker's despondency remains at such a degraded level that he labels his own vital essence, "my black soul." Addressing his beleaguered soul, he states that that soul is now being called by illness. He further describes the unhealthful state of "sickness" as a "herald and champion" of Death.

The speaker then likens his poor "black soul" to a citizen traveler who has committed the act of treason against his own country in a foreign land and dares not return to his own native land. This treasonous comparison is quite apt. The soul of each unenlightened individual remains connected to that mind and heart that will continue to suffer until they can become aware of that perfect soul that is their true origin and destination.

Although the soul is a spark of Divinity and remains perfect even when incarnated, the human mind and heart can become so ravaged by trials and tribulations that it feels that even the soul is suffering along with them. The illusion of the mayic state is so strong that even the well-informed who possess an abundance of faith may suffer this soul-sickness. While the soul remains the only harbor of total enlightenment, those ultra difficult circumstances confuse and befuddle the mind and heart influencing them to accept falsehood over truth.

Second Quatrain: Comparisons of Sins to Crimes

Or like a thief, which till death's doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver'd from prison,
But damn'd and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned

The speaker then continues with a further comparison, likening his soul to a "thief," and this thief has desired to be released from prison, but then he is summoned to be executed for his crimes and then wishes to remain in prison, for at least he would still be alive.

The speaker's earlier sins have caused him great regret and now he is urged to find comparisons that speak to his situation. He knows he is merely operating under the spiritual law of sowing and reaping. But he will not remain merely depressed or in neutrality about his lot; he will explore it in order to understand completely the laws of karma and retribution.

Third Quatrain: Repentance Leading to Grace

Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;

The speaker then affirms that repentance is the way to find grace. Still the speaker admits that he is finding it difficult to even begin to repent. He then commands himself to accept his mournful state of "black" because through truth he knows he can reach the holy.

The speaker then also commands himself to "blush" red for the act of blushing demonstrates his complete acceptance that he has indeed sinned against his holy temple and diminished his health and mental capacity. He accepts his lot as he knows he has, in fact, brought about his sorrowful situation, and he now remains in a melancholy state exploring all avenues that will lead him in the proper direction back to soul purity in the arms of the Beloved Creator.

The Couplet: Only Through Christ

Or wash thee in Christ's blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

As the speaker has commanded himself to accept his soul-sickness and blush to show contrition, he also adds that another possibility for attaining grace is to unite with Christ-Consciousness, the ultimate goal of humanity. Once untied with Christ-Consciousness, the soul comes into contact with it Divine Father, Whom it has always craved, even as it has failed to seek that Blessed Reality.

The Christian metaphor for uniting with Christ-Consciousness is "to be washed in Christ's blood." Thus the aptness of the "red" of that metaphoric blood possessing the powerful ability to turn those blushing, sinful beings with tainted souls to "white," which is a metaphor for the state of soul being after removal of all sin and sins' affects. In addition to a metaphor, "white" remains a symbol for Divine Unity, as it connotes cleanliness and purity.

John Donne Monument

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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