John Donne's Holy Sonnet VIII

Updated on July 20, 2018
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

Source

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet VIII

This speaker 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

Source

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

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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