Skip to main content
Updated date:

John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIII

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

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?

Read More From Owlcation

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

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles