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John Donne's Holy Sonnet V

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 V

John Donne's Holy Sonnet V finds the speaker bemoaning his past sins, as he has been doing in Holy Sonnets I-IV. He begins by describing a spiritual truth: he, like all of humankind, is essentially a soul, or spiritual essence, which he colorfully calls "an angelic sprite," who possesses a body made of "elements." He is seeking from his Blessed Creator release from the agony caused by his sinning in his earlier life. He is desperate to cleanse himself of those sins so that he may unite with his Divine Goal and be relieved of the suffering of mind, body, and soul.

Although he speaker has demonstrated his spiritual awareness that he is a soul that possesses a body, nevertheless, he continues to lament that his many past sins have caused him to require extended cleansing to erase those sins. He thus is demanding that his Divine Beloved remove those sins through the strongest methods, even from drowning with water to burning with fire.

Holy Sonnet V

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite;
But black sin hath betray'd to endless night
My world's both parts, and, O, both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown'd no more.
But O, it must be burnt; alas! the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; let their flames retire,
And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.

Reading of Holy Sonnet V

Commentary

The speaker is showing his spiritual awareness that he is a soul encased in a body. He continues to lament his many past sins, as he seeks relief from the ravages of their effect on his body, mind, and soul.

First Quatrain: A Spiritual Essence in a Physical Form

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite;
But black sin hath betray'd to endless night
My world's both parts, and, O, both parts must die.

The speaker colorfully describes himself as a "little world" composed of "elements" plus "an angelic sprite." His physical encasement, or physical body, is made of atoms and molecules which he conglomerates as elements, while infusing that encasement is his soul that he playfully refers to as the "angelic sprite."

This delightful combination of elements and soul would remain in a haven of joyful bliss, except for one thing, "black sin." That black sin has caused him to betray treasonously his two parts. And now he laments that both parts must be purged of that sin.

Second Quatrain: His Myriad Tears

You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,

The speaker then addresses a concept of his Divine Creator as one who has ranged beyond the heavenly sphere and discovered new areas of existence and is now capable of spreading the news about those new discoveries. The speaker then begs of this Manifestation to cleanse his vision—indeed to cleanse his whole world through his continued earnest "weeping."

The speaker exaggerates the act of cleansing by calling for the God-Manifestion to "pour new seas in [his] eyes." And to "[d]rown [his] world." The fact is that he has cried so many tears that he likely feels that such exaggeration is only on a small scale.

Third Quatrain: Water vs Fire

Or wash it if it must be drown'd no more.
But O, it must be burnt; alas! the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; let their flames retire,

The speaker then lightens his command somewhat as he adds an alternative to the drowning by water. He asks, at least, to be washed if his sins can no longer be drowned. He then turns to cleansing through fire, stating that his sins must "be burnt." He realizes that the "fire / Of lust and envy" has burned in his heart until now. It has caused his once pure heart to become foul.

The speaker thus asks for cleaning through fire that corresponds to the corruption that has engaged his body and mind. If water is not strong enough to cleanse through his myriad tears, then perhaps fire may be able to burn through his dross, making him pure once more. He knows he has cried and sought forgiveness through both liquid and etherial means.

The Couplet: To Become Clean Again

And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal.

The speaker continues with the fire as cleanser metaphor, asking the Blessed Creator to burn him in a "fiery zeal." In the house of the Lord, the speaker wishes to remain. He is aware that the cleansing effect of fire which "eat[s]" all bacteria and leaves behind a cleansed canvass would afford him succor after having burned his sins to ash.

The speaker seems to be tossed hither and yon in his metaphoric ramblings for mercy. He sometimes exaggerates his own culpability and offers an equal exaggeration in order to correct his wrong doing. The speaker, however, continues to possess a strong level of courage and a constant direction as he seeks to cleanse his body and soul in order to unite with his Divine Beloved.

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"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes