John Donne's Holy Sonnet IX

Updated on November 3, 2019
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 IX

The speaker of John Donne's Holy Sonnet IX again finds himself "disputing" with his Blessed Creator. He explores 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


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


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

  • What tree is the poem referring to in the first line?

    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


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