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John Donne's Holy Sonnet VIII

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 VIII

This speaker in John Donne's Holy Sonnet VII is using a set of logical consequences and circumstances to urge himself to rely solely on God. He accepts certain affects to reflect truth, and he believes that only truth should guide the soul on its journey back to its Creator Divine.

Holy Sonnet VIII

If faithful souls be alike glorified
As angels, then my father's soul doth see,
And adds this even to full felicity,
That valiantly I hell's wide mouth o'erstride.
But if our minds to these souls be descried
By circumstances, and by signs that be
Apparent in us not immediately,
How shall my mind's white truth by them be tried?
They see idolatrous lovers weep and mourn,
And vile blasphemous conjurers to call
On Jesus' name, and pharisaical
Dissemblers feign devotion. Then turn,
O pensive soul, to God, for He knows best
Thy grief, for He put it into my breast.

Reading of Holy Sonnet VIII

Commentary

While addressing his own soul, the speaker reasons that reliance solely on his Divine Creator can lead him in the direction he knows he is destined to travel.

First Quatrain: Employing Faith

If faithful souls be alike glorified
As angels, then my father's soul doth see,
And adds this even to full felicity,
That valiantly I hell's wide mouth o'erstride.

The speaker explores the phenomenon of true faith vs fake dissembling. He reasons that if true faith has the power to glorify each individual soul to the status of angels, then his Heavenly Father, of course, knows and further will attribute to his own soul the ability to transcend Hell on his way back to unification with the Divine Reality. His status will rise to "full felicity," as he even "valiantly" overcomes "hell's wide mouth."

The fact that Hell has a "wide mouth" makes it easier for souls to succumb to its pull. The old notion that it is easier to be bad than good, harder to choose the right path than the wrong path, applies to this situation. Hell's wide mouth would swallow us all, were we to allow ourselves to come near its opening.

The speaker then continues to reason, to pray, and worship all good and holy things in order to rise above the need to spend any time in Hell. He finds that although the soul's faith in its Creator is the only act necessary, the path leading to that ultimate awareness can be long and winding.

Second Quatrain: The Mind and Delusion

But if our minds to these souls be descried
By circumstances, and by signs that be
Apparent in us not immediately,
How shall my mind's white truth by them be tried?

On the other hand, the speaker knows that the mind can lend itself easily to delusion, causing the soul to be hemmed round by "circumstances." There also may be indications of things that humankind cannot quickly perceive.

The speaker thus wonders how he can find the ultimate truth through such a mind that allows all manner of folly, sin, and illusion to cloud it. He thus questions how his mind can come to "white truth" if the mind darting hither and yon keeps his path obstructed by debris of canceled thoughts, oblivious obstruction, and myriad dissatisfactions.

Third Quatrain: Appalling Hypocrisy

They see idolatrous lovers weep and mourn,
And vile blasphemous conjurers to call
On Jesus' name, and pharisaical
Dissemblers feign devotion. Then turn,

The speaker continues elucidating acts that "our minds" are wont to commit: the mind takes in all manner of evil events that continually parade through the lives of humanity. Those minds behold "Idolatrous lovers" and find cause to become melancholy at that sight. Those who hypocritically call on the name of the Lord burn ugly images into the mind, as "pharisaical / Dissemblers feign devotion."

The speaker is appalled by such dissembling; thus he vehemently warns himself against such vain activity. His disdain for evil action nevertheless requires him not to avoid them but instead to explore their nature in order to understand why he is avoiding and disdaining. The speaker then begins his command to his own soul, a command which he concludes in the couplet. To add further emphasis to his final thought, the speaker of these sonnets often employs that technique of beginning the line in the second quatrain and then finishing the thought in the couplet.

The Couplet: Reliance on the Creator

O pensive soul, to God, for He knows best
Thy grief, for He put it into my breast.

The speaker thus is commanding his own soul to turn to God. He calls his soul "pensive," which literally refers to the mind, thus his address to the soul becomes metaphorical. But he manages to include all three bodily encasements in his command: the physical body, in whose "breast" he claims God has instilled his grief, the mental body, which account for the soul becomeing "pensive," and the soul itself which then remains both figurative and literal.

The speaker is aware that God includes the totality of all creation. The speaker's ultimate reasoning thus indicates a pantheistic point of view, otherwise the notion that a compassionate Creator would instill grief in the breast of his child would appear to be grossly non-compassionate as well as unfair.

John Donne

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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