John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIII - Owlcation - Education
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John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIII

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

Petrus Christus' The Last Judgement

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet XIII

The speaker in John Donne's classic collection's Holy Sonnet XIII begins with a profound speculation regarding the end of the world, an exaggeration representing his own demise. He then begins his musing regarding the nature of forgiveness, particularly that nature of the Christian forgiveness originating from Jesus Christ's effusion on the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!" (Luke 23:34 KJV)

Holy Sonnet XIII

What if this present were the world's last night?
Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether His countenance can thee affright.
Tears in His eyes quench the amazing light;
Blood fills his frowns, which from His pierced head fell;
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which pray'd forgiveness for His foes' fierce spite?
No, no; but as in my idolatry
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty of pity, foulness only is
A sign of rigour; so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign'd;
This beauteous form assures a piteous mind.

Reading of Holy Sonnet XIII

Commentary

The speaker again muses on his own soul status after it leaves its physical encasement.

First Quatrain: What if the World Ends Now?

What if this present were the world's last night?
Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether His countenance can thee affright.

The speaker begins by speculating about the termination of the world. He is addressing his own soul, first with a question and then a command. He instructs his soul to observe the image it holds of the Blessed Lord Christ upon the cross to determine if the face of that crucified holy savior can cause fear in him.

The speaker is attempting to ascertain his own feelings and thoughts at time of his own death. By exaggerating his own terminus with that of the world, he engages the profundity involved in the holy act of the soul leaving its physical encasement.

Second Quatrain: The Visage of Christ

Tears in His eyes quench the amazing light;
Blood fills his frowns, which from His pierced head fell;
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which pray'd forgiveness for His foes' fierce spite?

The speaking then appears to be taking his imagery from a painting of the crucified Christ or more likely he has internalized that image that many paintings have been known to capture. Thus, the speaker remarks that Christ's eyes, filled with tears from his physical agony and his pity for the world are so strong as to put out the "amazing light" that blazes across the scene.

The speaker then returns to the common thread of his own judgment by the Blessed Lord, as the former wonders if the Holy One, Who has forgiven even those who are guilty of crucifying Him, could possibly send this lowly speaker of much lesser sins "unto hell."

This speaker remains ever concerned for his soul, fearing his earlier misdeeds might have already sealed his postmortem fate.

Third Quatrain: A Comparison

No, no; but as in my idolatry
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty of pity, foulness only is
A sign of rigour; so I say to thee,

The speaker decides doubly in the negative; then he adds a proviso. He flashes back to his days "in [his] idolatry," at a time when he would tell his "profane mistresses" about how he reckoned it to be a sign of energy and strength to see the "beauty" in "pity" and "foulness."

The speaker then continues with the comparison as he had said to those mistresses he is now averring to "wicked spirits," and he concludes his thought in the couplet.

The Couplet: The Face of Forgiveness

To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign'd;
This beauteous form assures a piteous mind.

To those "wicked spirits" the speaker now declaims that only ugliness adorns the wicked. Because Christ remains ever in a "beauteous form," the Blessed One will always take pity on His Father's children.

Thus the speaker has again found consolation in his analysis of the relationship between Christ and himself. The speaker would also aver that his own physical encasement retains the beauty of the Father, after Whose image he is gloriously created.

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

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