John Donne: Holy Sonnet 5

Poem: Holy Sonnet 5
Subject: Forgiveness; Redemption
Theme: The speaker tries to imagine how his corrupted world can be redeemed. He decides that the only way for his world to be redeemed is through destruction.

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic spright,
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My worlds both parts, and oh! both parts must die.
You, which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres and of new lands can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it, if it must be drowned no more:
But oh! it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.

Continue reading “John Donne: Holy Sonnet 5”

John Donne: Holy Sonnet 5

John Donne: Holy Sonnet 14

Donne’s speaker experiences the paradox of desiring God to change him while realizing that this desire by itself will not change him.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The sets of verbs in Lines 2 and 4 contain some interesting scriptural allusions. Continue reading “John Donne: Holy Sonnet 14”

John Donne: Holy Sonnet 14

Holy Sonnet 7

Here is the John Donne poem Holy Sonnet 7.

At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou hadst seal’d my pardon with thy blood.

The speaker imagines the future in order to better cope with his present, which (it turns out) is related to what Christ did in the past.

The poem works backwards from the future (lines 1-8) to the present (lines 9-13) to the past (line 14).

The speaker imaginatively projects each step.

The opening eight lines take the biblical account of the final judgment (Revelation 7 and 8), compare it to current scientific understanding, and then drown (or burn?) the reader in rhetorical flourishes. The implications are clear. As starkly as the Bible describes the apocalypse–with its angels, resurrections, fire, and four horseman (invoked in the “war, dearth, age, and agues” of line 6)–it all remains a little too symbolic. The bluster of Donne’s rhetoric here (he gives us the four horsemen…then adds four more ways for people to die) is designed to conjure up as horrible a fate as possible. That requires the imagination, a person’s interpretation of the Bible’s symbolic truth.

This imaginative exercise continues when we reach the speaker’s present conundrum. The word “if”in line 10 is crucial. The speaker does not admit he is the world’s greatest sinner. His sinfulness is hypothetical.

As the speaker contemplates how to address this imagined sinfulness, he comes up with three scenarios: 1) Christ shows grace to him at the final judgment, 2) Christ teaches him how to repent here and now, or 3) Christ already secured the speaker’s pardon by shedding his blood at Calvary. The speaker doesn’t think Option #1 is likely. The speaker asks for Option #2, a sort of “Give a man a fish…teach a man to fish” gesture.

The final line is very confusing, however. Why is the effectiveness of Christ’s pardon hypothetical? Why the “as if”? Why compare the effectiveness of repentance TO the effectiveness of Christ’s blood if they are in fact part of the same process? Shouldn’t the line reflect that repentance is how Christ’s blood seals the speaker’s pardon (i.e. the speaker must accept Christ’s offering in order for it to work)?

The entire poem is a thought experiment, one that is designed to prompt spiritual insight “here on this lowly ground” in advance of the judgment. Instead, the speaker uncovers flaws in his own thinking about how to prepare in the present for that future which are, in turn, based on flawed thinking about what Christ did to secure his pardon in the past.

Holy Sonnet 7

The Epitaph

Here is a short poem attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Even such is Time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, and all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust,
Who in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days,
And from which earth, and grave, and dust
The Lord will raise me up, I trust.

Written in a Bible that Raleigh had in his cell before his execution, the poem’s first six lines come from another Raleigh poem about Time, and the final couplet is new.

The poem juxtaposes two kinds of trust: Time’s management of Raleigh’s life and Raleigh’s belief that the Lord will resurrect him. The ratio of six lines to two pits the certainty of a personified Time with the speaker’s naked hope that God will grant him eternal life. Another conspicuous shift? The third person plural pronouns of the first six liens (“our”, “us”, “we”) and the personal pronouns of the last line (“me” and “I”). The speaker’s faith is not comprehensive. In this moment of doubt and fear, he only has faith enough for himself.

The Epitaph

Amoretti 1

Here is the first sonnet in Edmund Spenser’s sonnet sequence Amoretti (1595).

Happy ye leaves! whenas those lily hands,
Which hold my life in their dead doing might,
Shall handle you, and hold in love’s soft bands,
Like captives trembling at the victor’s sight.
And happy lines! on which, with starry light,
Those lamping eyes will deign sometimes to look,
And read the sorrows of my dying sprite,
Written with tears in heart’s close bleeding book.
And happy rhymes! bathed in the sacred brook
Of Helicon, whence she derived is,
When ye behold that angel’s blessed look,
My soul’s long lacked food, my heaven’s bliss.
Leaves, lines, and rhymes seek her to please alone,
Whom if ye please, I care for other none.

I think the poem’s most important line is the fourth one:

lyke captives trembling at the victors sight.

I think the above line can be read one of two ways:
A. like captives trembling when they see the victor
B. like captives trembling when they are seen by the victor

If this is really ambiguous, then I think it encapsulates the poem’s dilemma: are the poems the speaker’s projection of the beloved (option A) or are the poems a reaction to the beloved’s reality (option B)?

The imagery shift from the first quatrain to the third quatrain is pretty dramatic. We go from the beloved being a victor who holds death in her hands (1-4) to the beloved being an angel who was born in Helicon and feeds the speaker’s soul (9-12).

But the speaker is also projecting himself. The second quatrain isn’t really about the beloved at all. It’s about the beloved’s eyes reading lines that were written in tears in a bleeding book of the speaker’s heart. The book’s material parts will perform the speaker’s.

And of course, the leaves, lines, and rhymes are supposed to all be “happy” in the face of their captivity.

The entire poem is supposed to “please” the beloved. She could react to the image of herself (someone who is in control, who has celestial light emanating from her eyes, who is actually divine) or the image of the speaker (embodied in the book).

I’m not sure all of this holds together; in short, we get a problem rather than a solution, which itself may be the answer. It also may be why such poems are better examined within the context of the entire sequence instead of on their own.

Amoretti 1