John Donne's Holy Sonnet XVI

Updated on September 23, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Donne

Source

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet XVI

The speaker's little drama in Holy Sonnet XVI features a legal metaphor as he prays that his "legacy" will finally remain strong and thus elevate his soul permitting it to rest eternally in the arms of its Heavenly Creator. The legal metaphor includes the terms "interest," "jointure," "wills," "legacy," "invest," "laws," "statutes," and "law and letter."

Donne's poetic talent ranks his accomplishment in the Holy Sonnets along side that of the Shakespeare sonnets. As the speaker in Donne's sonnets seeks ultimate absolution for his soul, the Shakespeare speaker sought to create his best expressions of beauty, love, and truth. Both writers understood many aspects of the nature of their relationship to the Divine Reality, and both were aware of their reliance of their poetic gifts for creating fine art.

Holy Sonnet XVI

Father, part of His double interest
Unto Thy kingdom Thy Son gives to me;
His jointure in the knotty Trinity
He keeps, and gives to me his death's conquest.
This Lamb, whose death with life the world hath blest,
Was from the world's beginning slain, and He
Hath made two wills, which with the legacy
Of His and Thy kingdom do Thy sons invest.
Yet such are these laws, that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfil.
None doth; but Thy all-healing grace and Spirit
Revive again what law and letter kill.
Thy law's abridgement, and Thy last command
Is all but love; O let this last Will stand!

Reading of Holy Sonnet XVI

Commentary

A legal metaphor likens humankind to the inheritor of all that is bestowed by the Divine Creator. The speaker in Holy Sonnet XVI demonstrates his yearning to accept that legacy that will purify his soul.

First Quatrain: Relationship of Inheritor to Bequeather

Father, part of His double interest
Unto Thy kingdom Thy Son gives to me;
His jointure in the knotty Trinity
He keeps, and gives to me his death's conquest.

Addressing his Heavenly Father, the speaker expresses his intuitive knowledge regarding the scientific and spiritual laws that govern the relationship between fallen souls and their Creator, who has extended the curtesy of blessed assurance of redemption through the intervention of Blessed Lord Jesus Christ.

The speaker is exploring his relationship with the Christ, or the Christ Consciousness, as exemplified in the body and life Lord Jesus Christ. The speaker has intuited that a "double interest" exists with Christ possessing both interests but allowing the speaker a "part."

While Christ remains steadfastly ensconced in the Holy Trinity, He thus possesses the ability to take up the karma of fallen sons such as the speaker. Christ, therefore, has bequeathed his conquest of death on the speaker and all who fall into that fallen category.

Second Quatrain: The Double Will of the Over-Soul

This Lamb, whose death with life the world hath blest,
Was from the world's beginning slain, and He
Hath made two wills, which with the legacy
Of His and Thy kingdom do Thy sons invest.

The speaker continues his legal metaphor which he began with the terms "interest" and "jointure." The latter term expresses the close relationship of the parts of the Holy Trinity by metaphorically comparing that intimate relationship to a wife's interest in the holdings of her late husband.

The speaker now employs the term "wills" likening the created souls' position to that of one inheriting property from another on the physical, earth plane. The speaker expresses the main feature of the Christ crucifixion which essentially gave life to all created souls even as the body of Jesus underwent "death."

The speaker contends that although the death of the Christ existed from the beginning, the Blessed one had "made two wills." And the "legacy" of those wills extends from both the kingdom of God and from the legendary act of taking up the karma of all created souls. Thus this marvelous, selfless act that has been invested in those souls had blessed the whole world.

Third Quatrain: An Ongoing Philosophical Inquiry

Yet such are Thy laws, that men argue yet
Whether a man those statutes can fulfil.
None doth; but Thy all-healing grace and Spirit
Revive again what law and letter kill.

The speaker then refers to the ongoing philosophical discussion regarding the ability of humankind to "fulfil" God's laws. The speaker has determined quite definitely that humankind has not fulfilled those laws.

However, the speaker has become aware that through the "all-healing grace" of the Divine, the soul of each human being can "revive again," even after having undergone the metaphoric death foisted onto it by the letter of the law.

The Couplet: Saving Grace

Thy law's abridgement, and Thy last command
Is all but love; O let this last Will stand!

The speaker accepts as the ultimate reality that while God's laws are immutable, the Divine Creator Himself can abridge them. The speaker then alludes to the final command that Jesus gave before His crucifixion: "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another (John 13:34–35 KJV)."

The speaker, having become sufficiently ensconced in divine love, now prays that the Blessed Creator will find the wherewithal to bestow on him the final legacy that allows his soul to recover its sonship and rest in eternal peace in Divine Grace.

Monumental Effigy

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"

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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