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John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIX

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

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

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