John Donne's Holy Sonnet VI

Updated on July 31, 2020
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 VI

In John Donne's "Holy Sonnet VI," as the speaker's final moments draw him closer to death, he likens his life to a play, and he is in the "last scene." He feels that he has moved speedily through his God-directed journey. His greatest wish, the goal that he constantly engages, is to be delivered from the ravages of sin that have caused his body to writhe in physical pain, and his mind to remain concentrated on a deep melancholy.

The speaker demonstrates in each sonnet that his faith is deep and strong. He relies upon God now more than he has ever before done. And his active, creative mind fashions his little dramas that hold his speculations regarding his last moments as well as his likely journey that will continue after his soul has left its miserable physical encasement.

Holy Sonnet VI

This is my play's last scene ; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage's last mile ; and my race
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace;
My span's last inch, my minute's latest point;
And gluttonous Death will instantly unjoint
My body and soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
Then, as my soul to heaven her first seat takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they're bred and would press me to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purged of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.

Reading of Holy Sonnet VI


The speaker in John Donne's Holy Sonnet VI now finds himself very close to leaving his physical body. He speculates about the journey he will take up, after death has led his soul out of its physical encasement.

First Quatrain: The Final Moments of Life

This is my play's last scene ; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage's last mile ; and my race
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace;
My span's last inch, my minute's latest point;

Engaging a theatre metaphor which then turns to a racing metaphor, the speaker now reports that his last moments on earth have arrived. His journey continues to be guided by the Heavenly Father God, his Creator, Who directs his every movement and thought. The speaker implies that his life has gone by speedily, even though he has too often spent his time "idly." Thus he finds himself now facing the "last pace" of the race he has been running: not only his last pace but also his last "inch" while he remains now at the pinnacle of his last minute.

John Donne actually preached what has been considered his own funeral sermon titled aptly, "Death's Duel." Thus, that he would have taken up a similar drama in the Holy Sonnets is hardly surprising. The intensity of the sonnet speaker grows throughout the sequence as the speaker grows closer to that fated day of leaving the physical body and the physical level of existence.

Second Quatrain: Hungry Death Approaches

And gluttonous Death will instantly unjoint
My body and soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.

The speaker now refers to "gluttonous Death," the entity that will cause the uncoupling of his body from his soul. He then speculates that he will "sleep" for a while; the soul seems to pause after leaving the cage of the body, a state that might be thought of metaphorically as "sleep."

Then after that brief pause, although his body will be gone, his all-knowing, "ever-waking part," that is, his soul will be able to sense God's face. His "fear" or respect and awe for his Creator is already causing him to tremble in anticipation of meeting his Creator Father.

Third Quatrain: Leaving All Sins

Then, as my soul to heaven her first seat takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they're bred and would press me to hell.

The speaker then continues to speculate that while his soul is resting in heaven, his body that was born of the earth will dwell "in the earth." And his sins will then fall back to where they originated, where they may continue to possess a force but no longer are capable of ensnaring the speaker.

The strong force that results from sense awareness leads the mind to all sorts of activities that may later result in physical and mental disharmonies, including physical illness and not less mental illness. Where that force originates remains a blind alley, but the play between the senses apparatuses, the nerves, and the brain continues as long as the soul remains in a physical, hide-bound body.

Those sense trammels are ultimately responsible for all of the sin that exists on the physical level or earth-level of existence. And those same trammels are responsible for all of the suicides that are simply an attempt to find relief from the agony brought on by the over-indulgences through the senses.

The Couplet: Delivered from Evil

Impute me righteous, thus purged of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.

The speaker then commands the Undeclared Force to infuse him with righteousness and deliver him from evil. He insists that his leaving this world is for the sake of abandoning the flesh and the devil. He is certain that he will be washed clean of those sins and thus be able to partake of the purity waiting for him on the higher planes of existence. Evil, sin, and the devil belong to the earth plane. This speaker's heart, mind, and soul are now trained on the higher planes of existence where evil no longer has sway.

Death, No Guarantee of Purity

While this speaker seems to assume that his dying will automatically deliver him from his sins and into the arms of the Almighty, his soul-force remains aware that its karmic past may still insist that he return to an earth-like planet to continue its journey toward perfect sinlessness and into God-unity and self-realization.

As a born Catholic and later an Anglican minister, John Donne likely believed strongly that simply dying would, in fact, deliver him from all the sins he had committed while on earth. And although the law of karma determines that entry of the soul into heaven, the strong faith of the individual while incarnate also plays a significant role, one that can never be determined or even surmised by third parties, thus the command, "Judge not, lest ye be judged" (Matthew 7:1 KJV).

The speaker in Donne's sonnets is a highly educated individual whose faith is rock-solid. He calls upon his Beloved Creator for all eventualities of his life; thus the Holy Sonnets exude that strong faith and should be understood as one man's attempt to explore his life and his mind as he peculates about his existence beyond the grave.

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"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes


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