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John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIX

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

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet XIX

In John Donne's classic work, Holy Sonnet XIX, the speaker continues his soul searching journey, stating fervently his continuing desire to be taken into the arms of the Divine Ultimate Reality. He is employing a set of seven similes to compare his state of mind to various states of awareness.

The speaker's only goal remains constant: he has studied, researched, prayed, and meditated in order to acquire the proper direction for his heart and mind, desirous that his direction remains ever aimed toward soul-awareness, for he knows that spark of Divinity is the only instrument that can cleanse his physical and mental quirks which in his youth so often led him astray.

Holy Sonnet XIX

Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one:
Inconstancy unnaturally hath begot
A constant habit; that when I would not
I change in vows, and in devotion.
As humorous is my contrition
As my profane love, and soon forgot:
As riddlingly distempered, cold and hot,
As praying, as mute; as infinite, as none.
I durst not view heaven yesterday; and today
In prayers and flattering speeches I court God:
Tomorrow I quake with true fear of his rod.
So my devout fits come and go away
Like a fantastic ague; save that here
Those are my best days, when I shake with feare.

Reading of Holy Sonnet XIX

Commentary

Seeking complete union with his Creator, the speaker offers a prayer that serves as both a confession and prediction of soul reality,

First Quatrain: The Karmic Wheel

Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one:
Inconstancy unnaturally hath begot
A constant habit; that when I would not
I change in vows, and in devotion.

The speaker laments that the pairs of opposites that hold the human mind and heart to the wheel of karma have over his life-time remained fully functioning in him to his utter shame and dismay. While he would vow to behave only with dignity and grace, the weakness of the flesh has repeatedly motivated him to abandon his good intentions, laying him waste to the debauchery that ensues from following the urges of the sensual body within the physical encasement.

The speaker is clarifying his utmost desire to rid himself of all trammels of physical behaviors that lead to decay and demolition. He deeply craves that his soul become afire with only the desire for the love of his Divine Belovèd. He has suffered from the continued behavior that prompts mortals caught in the web of delusion to repeat. Without desire to achieve a spiritual cleansing, the human heart and mind remain in a fallen state eschewing vows and lacking devotion. This speaker deeply seeks to remedy that common plight.

Second Quatrain: Seven Similes

As humorous is my contrition
As my profane love, and soon forgot:
As riddlingly distempered, cold and hot,
As praying, as mute; as infinite, as none.

Through seven similes, the speaker then likens his position (1 ) to the comedy of "contrition," which leads to utter nothingness, (2) to "profane love," which had led him to his current state though after each debauched act was "soon forgot," (3) to a temperament that caused his remaining puzzled while running "cold and hot," (4) to his spiritual striving through prayer that seems to remain a constance, (5) to his inability to respond to his situation, (6) to his fluttering mind that seemed to fly off in all directions, (7) to the utter nothingness that remaining on the physical level brings the spiritual aspirant who recognizes that the dust of lust opposes the luster of spiritual love and soul power.

Third Quatrain: Cleansing Mind and Heart

I durst not view heaven yesterday; and today
In prayers and flattering speeches I court God:
Tomorrow I quake with true fear of his rod.
So my devout fits come and go away

The speaker gathers his comparisons into the simple thought that while he has not taken on the ability to cleanse his mind and heart in the past, in the present he finds himself totally in the aspect of one pursuing his Divine Creator, although he seems to do so "in prayers" as well as in "flattering speeches."

The speaker then predicts that because of yesterday's audacity and today's contemplation, tomorrow should find his respecting the Ultimate Reality with a true and sacrosanct "fear," which does not refer to being afraid but instead means deep and abiding respect and admiration for the Great Spirit.

The speaker remains in hope that his "devout fits," which "come and go," will nevertheless elevate his soul to the place where he can experience the rest and clarity he needs to experience his soul's power and autonomy.

The Couplet: Quaking with Devotion

Like a fantastic ague; save that here
Those are my best days, when I shake with feare.

The speaker had begun to describe the position regarding his "devout fits" in the third quatrain and then finishes it in the couple. He declares that those "devout fits" that "come and go" have done so like a fever in the physical encasement would do.

The speaker concludes with a remarkable claim that on his "best days," he has found himself moved deeply with his love, respect, and affection for the Divine Belovèd. He knows that his deep love of God is the only aspect of his life that can elevate his soul to the status of a true son, a status which he desires above all else. His faith is sealed, and now he can await the call to Heaven.

John Donne—Monumental Effigy

John Donne—Monumental Effigy

Reading of "Death's Duel"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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