Updated date:

John Donne's Holy Sonnet IX

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 IX

The speaker of John Donne's Holy Sonnet IX again finds himself "disputing" with his Blessed Creator. He is exploring creation to understand the reason that his earlier sins are now threatening to cast him into total destruction and suffering.

In this poem, the speaker compares his own status as a child of the Creator to other created beings that while lower on the evolutionary scale seem to be given a pass receiving less punishment than himself as the highest evolved being of the progressing scale of beings. His suffering continues as he searches for answers to his spiritual questions, which he then turns into ever increasingly intense dramas.

Holy Sonnet IX

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on (else immortal) us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn'd, alas! why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?
And, mercy being easy, and glorious
To God, in His stern wrath why threatens He?
But who am I, that dare dispute with Thee?
O God, O! of Thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin's black memory.
That Thou remember them, some claim as debt;
I think it mercy if Thou wilt forget.

Reading of Holy Sonnet IX

Commentary

The speaker expresses his desire that his past sins might be erased and he be forgiven as easily as the Blessed Heavenly Father forgives the unpleasantries of his lesser evolved creatures.

First Quatrain: If This Is, Why Is This Not

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on (else immortal) us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn'd, alas! why should I be?

In three "if" clauses, the speaker begins his query regarding the ultimate punishment of various entities created by the same Creator-God. Under the notion that God's lesser beings escape accountability for their behavior, the speaker wonders why that is. How can it be that he, a highly evolved, self-aware child of the Creator, must be "damn'd" for his sins, while the lower creatures get a pass.

The speaker first cites "poisonous minerals" as, in his opinion, a candidate for punishment. He then moves quickly to "that tree" in the Garden of Eden, from which the guilty Adam and Eve ate, thereby casting themselves and their descendants into the realm of mayic delusion where they must experience rounds of life and death. Interestingly, the speaker includes the fact that if the glutinous pair had not partaken of the fruit from that tree, they would have remained "immortal."

The speaker moves on to call out "lecherous goats" and "serpents envious"—as he then exclaims "alas!" querying why he should be dammed if those unpleasant blemishes on the environment are not.

The speaker's relationship with his Divine Father is so close that he feels comfortable "disputing" with Him, that is, questioning the Creator-Lord's motives and reasons for creating His Creation as He has. The speaker finds himself troubled by certain issues and his knowledge that he belongs eternally to the Blessed Creator allows him the audacity to question and even rebuke certain features of Creation.

Second Quatrain: Nothing too Difficult for the Infinite Creator

Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?
And, mercy being easy, and glorious
To God, in His stern wrath why threatens He?

Moving from the structure of the "if" clause plus question, the speaker now directly fashions his questioning of his Father Divine. He wants to understand "why" should his sins be judged "more heinous" simply because he has the ability to form "intent" and to reason. He assumes that his sins are otherwise "equal" to any of the sins committed by those lesser beings that he has called out in the first quatrain.

The speaker then essentially suggests that because nothing is too difficult for God to accomplish, why is the speaker continually blamed while he could be on the receiving end of God's glory and mercy. He suggests that it is not difficult for God to grant mercy to his children, and he asserts that mercy is a marvelous thing in the eyes of both God and his children.

That God possesses "stern wrath" and inflicts it against the sinner causes the speaker such consternation that he must continue to explore, reason, and pray for answers to his many questions. He cannot merely accept everything that he does not understand without at least some attempt to acquire answers from his Heavenly Father.

Third Quatrain: A Humble Inquiry

But who am I, that dare dispute with Thee?
O God, O! of Thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin's black memory.

The speaker has waxed particularly bold in his inquiries. Now he makes a turn on himself and puts forth the rhetorical question, "who am I" to "dispute with Thee?" This statement—as a rhetorical question, the question becomes a statement, as it contains its own answer—seems especially proper at this point. He has blatantly questioned the motives of God, implying that they are unjust and perhaps overstrict, and even one who feels himself intimate with the Divine Creator must back away with some humility as he faces his own station.

The speaker then offers his most poignant and humble prayer to his Heavenly Father, asking Him to remove from him his "sin's black memory." He asks the Father to send the Christian blood that washes clean to combine with his own "tears" and allow him cross the Greek mythological River of Lethe, after which all earthly memory is erased.

The Couplet: The Mercy of Forgetfulness

That Thou remember them, some claim as debt;
I think it mercy if Thou wilt forget.

The speaker then offers his last preference that even God forget the speaker's past sins, but he frames that preference not as a request but as simply what he would consider that forgetting to be. He calls it "mercy" that the Lord would simply treat his sins as they had not existed and that the Lord should forget about them.

The speaker's exploration has again resulted in a classic drama that has fashioned his lamentation and sorrow over his past sins into an artistic prayer with his plea to this Creator. His desire for deliverance from his past evil will continue to grow as he sculpts his musings and study for discovery into memorable little dramatic verse pieces. The poet's craftsmanship reveals that his only desire is truth that informs beauty and love.

John Donne Monument

Reading of "Death's Duel"

Questions & Answers

Question: What tree is the poem referring to in the first line?

Answer: The "tree" in the first line is an allusion to the Garden of Eden's "tree of the knowledge of good and evil," a metaphor for the human body.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles