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John Donne's Holy Sonnet XII

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

John Donne

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet XII

The speaker in John Donne's spiritual classic, Holy Sonnet XII, once again is focusing on his displeasure with physical phenomena, particularly what seems to constitute an out-of-whack harmony in the natural order. He finds humankind's privilege over the lower creatures on the evolutionary scale to be an unhealthy and destructive force; he chafes at the injustice of it all.

Although the physical strength of those lower evolved creatures often far surpasses that of any man or woman, it is humankind that has the ability to thrive in ways those poor lesser creatures do not. The speaker is furthermore tormented that humankind is so prone to sin, while the lower creatures are not. He finds such an imbalance of justice an issue to take to his Creator for an answer.

Holy Sonnet XII

Why are we by all creatures waited on?
Why do the prodigal elements supply
Life and food to me, being more pure than I,
Simpler and further from corruption?
Why brook'st thou, ignorant horse, subjection?
Why dost thou, bull and boar, so sillily
Dissemble weakness, and by one man's stroke die,
Whose whole kind you might swallow and feed upon?
Weaker I am, woe's me, and worse than you;
You have not sinn'd, nor need be timorous.
But wonder at a greater, for to us
Created nature doth these things subdue;
But their Creator, whom sin, nor nature tied,
For us, His creatures, and His foes, hath died.

Reading of Holy Sonnet XII

Commentary

In Holy Sonnet XII, the speaker is exploring his discontent with what appears to constitute an imbalance of justice in nature. Devotees on the spiritual path desire balance and harmony in their lives.

First Quatrain: Humankind's Position in the World

Why are we by all creatures waited on?
Why do the prodigal elements supply
Life and food to me, being more pure than I,
Simpler and further from corruption?

The speaker is speculating about humankind's position in the world as it appears to exist at the top of the evolutionary scale, thus possessing certain privileges that are not afforded the lower creatures. He is at the same time bemoaning the fact that he belongs to that privileged class for the simple reason that he is capable of sin, while those lower creature are not.

The speaker asserts his opinion that because those lower creature are "simpler" as well as "further from corruption," they should deserve more than he to be "waited on" and afforded "life and food." He seems to suggest that he deserves to suffer more and strive harder for his own nourishment than he has had to do. This speaker is continuing his lament for his earlier life that he feels he wasted in idle sensuality.

Second Quatrain: What of the Horses, Bulls, and Boars?

Why brook'st thou, ignorant horse, subjection?
Why dost thou, bull and boar, so sillily
Dissemble weakness, and by one man's stroke die,
Whose whole kind you might swallow and feed upon?

The speaker then becomes quite specific in addressing those lower creature. He engages the "ignorant horse," whom is not castigating but merely offering his query, wanting to ascertain why the horse allows itself to be subjugated by humankind. He then addresses the "bull and bear," inquiring of them why they remain so silly as to profess weakness as they allow themselves to be killed by a man, sometimes with only "one man's stroke,"when by physical strength they could turn on humankind and devour it.

The speaker's observation of the interaction between humankind, his own species, and the lower creatures informs his criticism, and his own hatred of his past sexual depravity motivates him to make the comparisons and contrasts he engages to once again flog himself in punishment over his earlier transgressions against his soul.

Third Quatrain: Sinners vs the Sinless

Weaker I am, woe's me, and worse than you;
You have not sinn'd, nor need be timorous.
But wonder at a greater, for to us
Created nature doth these things subdue;

The speaker then blatantly offers his notion that at least he of the species known as humankind is "weaker" and even "worse then" the horse, the bull, and the boar. And of course, he offers the reason, which is, that the horse, bull, and boar have not "sinn'd"; thus they need not be of lesser courage than a man.

However, the speaker then admits that nature being what it is causes the thinking man to wonder about why it allows what seem to his human mind atrocities. Creation does not seem to reflect the mercy of the Creator, at least this speaker seems to search for that mercy.

The Couplet: Equality in the Creator's Eyes

But their Creator, whom sin, nor nature tied,
For us, His creatures, and His foes, hath died.

Still the speaker must admit that the Creator, for Whom sin as well as nature remain equal, sent His representative "Son" to reclaim the karma from all of creation alike. The speaker can thus take some comfort from that special level of equality that evens out through eternity.

The speaker remains on his journey to self-realization. He focuses on various phenomena of creation to provide topics for his speculation and also to allow him room to philosophize about the nature of God and humankind, the Creator's greatest creation.

John Donne Monument

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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