John Donne's Holy Sonnet XII

Updated on August 27, 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 XII

The speaker in John Donne's Holy Sonnet XII 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.

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

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"

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