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John Donne's Holy Sonnet XVIII

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 XVIII

The speaker of John Donne's Holy Sonnet XVIII is continuing to research and study the entire history of revelation of Christian theory. He employs the metaphor of the bride of Christ ("spouse"), often referred to in Christian lore, as Christ's church.

After establishing the controlling metaphor of husband and wife for Christ and His church, the speaker then puts both questions and commands to the Lord Savior. The reader will remember that this speaker is still seeking his own salvation as he gathers all the information he might need to accept the notion that he, in fact, can be forgiven his earlier sins of fornication and debauchery arising from the sex urge.

Holy Sonnet XVIII

Show me, dear Christ, Thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

Reading of Holy Sonnet XVIII

Commentary

The controlling metaphor in this sonnet features the relationship between a husband (Christ) and a wife (Christ's church of teachings and followers).

First Quatrain: The Nature of Christ's Teachings and His Church

Show me, dear Christ, Thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?

In Christian lore, the "bride" of Christ, or "spouse," as Donne here mentions, is often interpreted as the church or more generally the entire following which Jesus Christ gathered with his teachings. Those who follow the teachings of Christianity may metaphorically be considered the "spouse" or "bride" of Christ. The closeness implied by the term, "spouse," attaches to the closeness of Christ's teachings and their followers, or Christians.

In Holy Sonnet XVIII, the speaker addresses the Christ commanding the Lord Savior to reveal to him the nature and essence of his teachings. The speaker is searching for the results that following those teachings brings to the devotees who follow them. The speaker calls those teachings, "so bright and clear."

But then the speaker hints that they have not apparently been so clear to many others in the world. For example, the speaker wonders if it is actually the true church, that is, teachings of the Christ that has received lush praise and attention or can it be that that church and teachings have, instead, been plundered, disfigured, and thus bemoans its station in places like "Germany " as well as England.

Second Quatrain: Speculation, Acceptance, and Reliance

Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?

The speaker continues to speculate about the acceptance of Christ's teachings by asking if those teachings have remained dormant for a millennium or if they just seem to suddenly appear out of the blue. The speaker also wants to know if Christ's tenants are self-evident and contain both truth and errors. He also asks if they are both "new" and worn-out.

The speaker also seeks knowledge regarding the past, present, future appearance of those teachings as well as where they may appear. He asks if they ("she") will appear on one hill, or on seven hills, or on no hill. The allusion to seven hills is likely motivated by the lines in Revelation 17:9: "And here is the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth." But the speaker leaves open the possibility that as those teachings emerge again, no hill may be involved.

Third Quatrain: A Clear Understanding of the Church

Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, thy spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,

The speaker then offers a rather adventurous and colorful speciation that the church (Christ's teachings) may simply reside in the hearts and minds of humankind, or they may, like traveling "knights," go off on an adventure and then return to "make love." It is not likely that the speaker is referencing sexual congress by the phrase "make love"; more likely he means literally herald an atmosphere in which love, affection, and compassion may thrive.

The speaker then demands of Christ that He make perfectly clear and understandable to him the nature and essence of that church (teachings), so the speaker can with comprehension and determination pursue the teachings which will give him grace, absolve his sins, and afford him ultimate rest for his soul.

The Couplet: Understanding, Pleasing to the Lord

Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

The speaker then offers the reasoning that has prompted his speculation and final commands. He intuits that having His teachings understood and then followed will be "pleasing" to the Lord. Having His guidance followed and "embraced" by "most men" will offer not only true leadership on the spiritual path to the followers but will also remains a peaceful and pleasurable thought for the Lord Christ to hold in His memory.

John Donne - Monument

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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