Updated date:

John Donne's Holy Sonnet XI

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 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.

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

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