John Donne's Holy Sonnet IV

Updated on June 17, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

John Donne

Source

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet IV

In Holy Sonnet IV, the speaker continues 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

Source

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"

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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