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John Donne's Holy Sonnet XI

John Donne's early poems focus on secular topics, while his Holy Sonnets enlighten and enliven the beautiful tradition in spiritual writing.

John Donne

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet XI

The speaker in John Donne's classic, Holy Sonnet XI, finds himself facing his own lot in life by examining the tenets of his faith. He is facing a destiny that he knows he cannot circumvent in any other way but by wading through the whole pools of pain. He compares and contrasts the suffering of humanity with that of the Blessed Lord Jesus Christ. Knowing that the Ultimate Reality, the Heavenly Father Himself, clothed Himself in the same flesh of humankind to prove his love offers considerable comfort to the speaker's suffering mind and heart.

Holy Sonnet XI

Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn'd, and sinne', and only He,
Who could do no iniquity, hath died.
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews' impiety.
They kill'd once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
O let me then His strange love still admire;
Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment;
And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,
But to supplant, and with gainful intent ;
God clothed Himself in vile man's flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

Reading of Holy Sonnet XI

Commentary

The speaker continues to consider his own pain and suffering. He muses on the factors of his faith that strengthen his ability to face his own destiny.

First Quatrain: Comparative Suffering

Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn'd, and sinne', and only He,
Who could do no iniquity, hath died.

By today's standards, the speaker would be accused of speaking against the dictates of political correctness. He calls out the "Jews" for having participated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. At the time of that crucifixion, Rome was occupying the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora had been continued by those Roman conquerors. Technically, it was the invading, occupying Romans who were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, even though the political leaders of the Jewish people would have been involved, albeit through coercion.

But this speaker's purpose is not to rehash Roman/Jewish history, but to compare and contrast his own sins and his suffering to that of the Christ. He therefore taunts those who scourged Jesus to do the same to him. The speaker suggests that he deserves punishment while his Lord and Savior did not. The speaker reports that he has actually sinned and continues sinning while the Blessed Lord Christ Jesus remained sinless. Yet ironically, it is Jesus who died, while the sinner/speaker continues to live.

Second Quatrain: Liberation from Sin and Suffering

But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews' impiety.
They kill'd once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.

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The speaker then elaborates the even though he may die his sins will not be assuaged until he can unite his soul with the Ultimate Reality. He even claims that his sins are greater than those who crucified Jesus because they crucified Him only once, while the speaker now continues to "[c]rucify him daily."

Those who beat and crucified Jesus only punished the physical body, or "an inglorious man," while the speaker/sinner now continues to "crucify" Him after He has become "glorified." Again, the speaker suggests that his current iniquity is worse than those who crucified the body of Jesus Christ.

Third Quatrain: Admiration for Glory

O let me then His strange love still admire;
Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment;
And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,
But to supplant, and with gainful intent;

The speaker then demands that he be allowed to hold a measure of admiration for the love, given so unquestionably puzzling for the non-liberated mind. While leaders of nations may offer pardon to those accused, the Blessed Lord Jesus Christ suffered the punishment Himself to alleviate the karma of his followers.

The speaker alludes to Jacob, father of Joseph of the Coat of Many Colors, whose life reflected only the ways of man. The speaker employs this allusion to set up his contrast between the ways of man and the ways of the Divine Reality, which he concludes in the couplet.

The Couplet: Proof of Divine Love

God clothed Himself in vile man's flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

The Divine Beloved took the form of a human being, clothing himself in "vile man's flesh," and He did this in order to show humankind the suffering that he was willing to undergo for the sake of each human soul, who is each a child of that Blessed Reality.

The speaker continues to muse on his situation and his faith, on which he relies to alleviate the burden of his pain. By contrasting his own paltry pain to that of the suffering Christ at crucifixion, he hope to come to accept his lot with greater equanimity.

John Donne Monument

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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