John Donne's Holy Sonnet XV

Updated on September 14, 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 XV

The speaker in Holy Sonnet XV addresses his soul in mediation, commanding it to completely understand its nature—that it is an image of the Divine. As he always does, this speaker is examining his own understanding of his faith.

The speaker likely has reasoned that if he can put own his mystical awareness in his little dramas, that ability will assure him that he does, in fact, comprehend what he is learning from his studies, his meditations, and his prayers.

Holy Sonnet XV

Wilt thou love God as he thee? then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In heaven, doth make His temple in thy breast.
The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting—for he ne'er begun—
Hath deign'd to choose thee by adoption,
Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath's endless rest.
And as a robb'd man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,
The Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.
'Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

Reading of Holy Sonnet XV

Commentary

The speaker commands his soul to seek assurance of his faith.

First Quatrain: Commanding the Soul

Wilt thou love God as he thee? then digest,
My soul, this wholesome meditation,
How God the Spirit, by angels waited on
In heaven, doth make His temple in thy breast.

The speaker addresses his soul in meditation, asking it to understand the beautiful idea that the Divine Beloved lives in his own heart. He asks his soul if it is capable of loving God as God loves the human soul. Assuming that a positive answer is in the offing, he then commands that soul to take into itself and live the faith and efficacy that knowing that the spark of the Divine resides in him can bring.

It must be remembered that this speaker is seeking solace in his knowledge that he will be departing this earth soon. He can intuit that his soul will leave its physical encasement and as he prepares for that eventuality, he continues to examine his faith vis-à-vis biblical lore. All he knows is now being employed to reason and understand his own nature and that of his Creator.

Second Quatrain: Complex Relationships

The Father having begot a Son most blest,
And still begetting—for he ne'er begun—
Hath deign'd to choose thee by adoption,
Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath's endless rest.

The speaker then reasons that he can compare his own relationship to the Beloved Creator as an adopted son. The Creator fashioned a "most blest" "Son" and continued to create—or in reality nothing begins and nothing ends—but the speaker contends that his own existence cannot compare to that of the Christ's. Thus his own "sonship" must resemble an adopted son.

Still the speaker is aware that he is "co-heir" to the most blessed one's "glory." He deserves to share the glory and the eternal "rest" offered by a day of prayer and meditation. He will not remain shy about demanding what he knows he deserves as a child of God.

Third Quatrain: Divine Awareness

And as a robb'd man, which by search doth find
His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,
The Son of glory came down, and was slain,
Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.

The speaker then compares humankind's lot to the man who is robbed. When the victim tries to regain his stolen possessions, he has the choice of buying them back or just letting them go. That "Son of glory" who descended to earth and allowed his physical encasement to be shattered did so to "unbind" humankind from that Satan-robbed status.

That Satan would rob humankind of its soul qualities remains part of the science of duality under which each soul must struggle to overcome its karma. The speaker understands the relationships that grow and transform under the laws of karma and reincarnation. That he is meditating on those qualities demonstrates that knows the nature of stillness and its relationship to Divine awareness.

The Couplet: Made in the Image

'Twas much, that man was made like God before,
But, that God should be made like man, much more.

The speaker then alludes to the human being having been made in the "image of God." He finds that such knowledge is great, yet even greater is the awareness that God is also made in the image of humankind.

That co-equality is hardly ever addressed because it makes the human being sound as if he is making a god of himself; the seeming blasphemy is hard for fundamentalists to grasp. But this speaker, however, sees that if a man is made in the image of God, then that obviously means that God also exists in the image of the man. Of course, he knows that such ancient and sacred knowledge does not belong solely to the physical encasement but does inhere to the soul.

As the reader recalls that the speaker began by addressing his "soul," it becomes obvious that the speaker is not saying a man in his physical encasement is an exact replica of his Creator, but, instead that the Creator is, however, an exact replica (image) of the soul. This speaker has learned to live and move by soul power, and as he continues to create his dramas, he become stronger and more determined in his faith and trust in the Divine Reality.

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"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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