Versecraft

"Holy Sonnet IX" by John Donne

April 12, 2023 Elijah Perseus Blumov Season 3 Episode 5
"Holy Sonnet IX" by John Donne
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Versecraft
"Holy Sonnet IX" by John Donne
Apr 12, 2023 Season 3 Episode 5
Elijah Perseus Blumov

Note: At the 19:27 mark, a word cuts out. That word is "specious!" 

Topics discussed in this episode include:

-Make symposia happen!

-Hey mom, I'm on Sleerickets !

-Also on Sleerickets here

-The Inhumanism of Robinson Jeffers

-Aspects of Metaphysical Poetry

-The 20th century Donne revival 

-T.S. Eliot's essay The Metaphysical Poets 

-The Dissociation of Sensibility 

-Intellect as decoration

-The life and times of Johnny

-Donne's treatise on suicide, Biathanatos 

-Hybrid sonnet redux

-Metrically, Donne likes it rough

-There are such things as stupid questions

-Casuistry! 

-Pascal's Provincial Letters 

-Louis Martz's The Poetry of Meditation 

-Another Jesuit poet? 

-Consequentialism

-Eliot's Objective Correlative

-Apophasis

-Hypallage returns!

-"Chug your own blood til you forget what I've done"

-To forget is to be merciless

-Not a saint, but our favorite sinner

Text of poem:

Holy Sonnet IX

 

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree

Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious

Cannot be damn'd, alas, why should I be?

Why should intent or reason, born in me,

Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?

And mercy being easy, and glorious

To God, in his stern wrath why threatens he?

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee,

O God? Oh, of thine only worthy blood

And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,

And drown in it my sins' black memory.

That thou remember them, some claim as debt;

I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Show Notes Transcript

Note: At the 19:27 mark, a word cuts out. That word is "specious!" 

Topics discussed in this episode include:

-Make symposia happen!

-Hey mom, I'm on Sleerickets !

-Also on Sleerickets here

-The Inhumanism of Robinson Jeffers

-Aspects of Metaphysical Poetry

-The 20th century Donne revival 

-T.S. Eliot's essay The Metaphysical Poets 

-The Dissociation of Sensibility 

-Intellect as decoration

-The life and times of Johnny

-Donne's treatise on suicide, Biathanatos 

-Hybrid sonnet redux

-Metrically, Donne likes it rough

-There are such things as stupid questions

-Casuistry! 

-Pascal's Provincial Letters 

-Louis Martz's The Poetry of Meditation 

-Another Jesuit poet? 

-Consequentialism

-Eliot's Objective Correlative

-Apophasis

-Hypallage returns!

-"Chug your own blood til you forget what I've done"

-To forget is to be merciless

-Not a saint, but our favorite sinner

Text of poem:

Holy Sonnet IX

 

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree

Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious

Cannot be damn'd, alas, why should I be?

Why should intent or reason, born in me,

Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?

And mercy being easy, and glorious

To God, in his stern wrath why threatens he?

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee,

O God? Oh, of thine only worthy blood

And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,

And drown in it my sins' black memory.

That thou remember them, some claim as debt;

I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

Support the Show.

BUY VERSECRAFT MERCH HERE.

Please subscribe, rate, and review! Thanks so much for listening.

You can leave me a tip, support the podcast, or request a commission here!

TikTok: @versecraft
Send me a note at: versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight

Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug

List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)

Versecraft 3-5: “Holy Sonnet IX” by John Donne

 

Hey everyone, welcome back to the show, or welcome to the show as the case may be. I know it’s been a long couple weeks, but I’m very excited to be back in action, putting verse in your universe. I hope you’ve had a lovely Spring fertility ritual, whether that be Passover, Easter, Ostara, or something else, and that April has not in fact been a cruel month for you, but a moment of rejuvenation. For my own part, spending Passover in Austin was not only a precious and increasingly rare opportunity to see my parents, my siblings, and my dear friend all together, but the Passover Seder itself was, as it always is, a reminder that symposia-style parties are truly one of the most engaging and enriching ways to socialize. Take a group of interesting people, put them in a room, give them some wine and hors d’oeuvres, and give them some structured conversational prompts to chew on into the night, and you’ve got an incredible evening on your hands. It sounds like a simple enough event to put together, but it happens frustratingly rarely. I call upon my listeners, and American culture at large: normalize and practice symposia! The art of living is not complete without them. Essentially what you’re doing is having a mass podcast session with wine. I ask you, what could be better? 

Speaking of podcasts, in other big news, I recently achieved one of my bucket list goals of being a guest on Sleerickets, my favorite poetry show outside my own, hosted by my poetic elder brother Matthew Buckley Smith. He, myself, and our lovely amazing friend Alice Allan from my other favorite podcast Poetry Says had a fascinating discussion about theology, the pathetic fallacy, morality, and many other things. If you’re a fan of this podcast, I think you’ll really enjoy our episode together, and it’s an opportunity, if you’re curious, to hear me speak off the top of my head instead of from a script like I do here. The episode is split into two parts: the first is free to access, the second requires a subscription to Matthew’s Secret Show, but you can get a week’s worth of the Secret Show free when you sign up. I’ll attach links in the show notes to both parts, and I hope you enjoy! 

So, originally, this episode was going to be about Robinson Jeffers and his doctrine of Inhumanism. After much reflection however, I decided against this, not only because Jeffers doesn’t write in meter, but because, after looking at his work recently, I realized that neither his poetry nor his thought is as compelling as I once thought it was, and, in fact, it strikes me now as immature and morally repugnant. His extremist views on humanity’s relationship to nature are interesting to consider, especially given the environmental crisis that he presciently anticipated and which we now face, but they are not worth half an hour of our time together here. Yvor Winters would’ve said I told you so. If you are interested in Jeffers and his thought, and you’d like to talk about it, or talk about anything else poetry related, please feel free to email me at versecraftpodcast@gmail.com

I’ll also take this opportunity to request that if you like this episode, please consider leaving me a tip or becoming a supporter of Versecraft, which you can easily do at my link in the show notes. It’s always my intention to keep the show free, but it would be great if I could eventually make enough money from this show that I can work fewer hours at my day job, and spend more time doing what I love to do, which is write and talk about poetry. Anything that you would care to contribute to that dream would be amazing and much appreciated. 

So anyway, since I jettisoned Jeffers I had to come up with a replacement. I then recalled that after my Unholy Sonnet episode, I had several people, including Alice and my mom, ask me—well, so when are you going to do one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets? Well ladies, now is the time. 

Where does one begin with John Donne? He is almost certainly the most influential lyric poet of what many consider the golden age of European literature, the 17th century, and the most important English poet between the times of Shakespeare and Milton. He is widely considered the central, even foundational figure in the movement known as Metaphysical Poetry, the English counterpart of the Mannerist and Baroque poetry of continental Europe, a style characterized by far-fetched extended metaphors known as metaphysical conceits, the deliberate use of facile argument to playfully make a point, hyperbole of comparison and emotion, the extravagant display of erudition and wordplay, a disregard for metrical polish, and the confusion of erotic and spiritual themes. Intelligent poetry, but unmistakably decadent poetry. We encountered an exceptionally sober instance of Metaphysical poetry in our George Herbert episode. Here too, in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, we experience Donne at his most grave and thoughtful. Nevertheless, Metaphysical poetry was often a rather frivolous affair, and Donne, as you will see if you read him, is, even when he attempts to be otherwise, a fundamentally facetious man. I was talking to Alice about this issue a couple months ago, and I said the following: 

“Donne is brilliant, Donne is passionate, but he often luxuriates in his brilliance and passion at the expense of doing profound, sober justice to his subject matter. I don't think he's insincere exactly... it's less that he isn't being true to his thoughts and feelings as that his thoughts and feelings themselves are of a slightly unserious nature. Even an intense piece of spiritual angst like "Batter My Heart" has a whiff of frivolous posturing to it. I believe in his anxiety, I believe in his fervor, but he can't help but use his most serious experiences as an opportunity to showboat to others, to strut his extravagant mind and heart like a peacock.” 

This sums up my view of Donne pretty well, as well as the view of the Neoclassical 18th century, which tempered its admiration of Donne with considerable reservations. The Romantics of the early 19th century were deeply attracted to and influenced by the emotional floridity of Donne and the other Metaphysicals, but it was, ironically, only in the early 20th century, when the Metaphysicals were painted as an intellectual antidote to Romanticism, that they attained the central canonical status they hold today. 

T.S. Eliot, whom you may know from the hit musical Cats, made it his critical mission to elevate Donne in the public consciousness as someone who, unlike the hysterical Romantics, embodied a unity of thought and feeling in his poetry. Since the time of Donne, Eliot claimed, poetry had undergone a dissociation of sensibility—a breach between thought and feeling which led to stuffy rationalist classicism on one hand and effusive, messy Romanticism on the other. I personally have found the concept of the dissociation of sensibility to be incredibly useful, possibly the most valuable element of Eliot’s criticism, but I cannot help but take issue with Eliot’s assessment of Donne as the paragon of thought balanced with feeling. Donne is one of the wittiest poets we have, to be sure—but his thoughts, like his conceits, are largely decorative. He is fundamentally a feeler, through and through, and frankly, I believe this is one reason why he has become so popular in our still very Romantic modern era. Just as Eliot notoriously claimed to do the opposite of what he actually did most of the time, so too, Donne has acquired prestige because of what he is not, and retained that prestige because of what he is. 

            But let us now get to know our poet a bit better. John Donne, who lived from 1572-1631, was born into a recusant Catholic family—that is, an English family that continued to practice Catholicism after the Anglican reformation. Because of his Catholic identity, he was unable to acquire academic degrees despite his considerable education. After a stint fighting alongside fellow poet Walter Ralegh in the Anglo-Spanish War and spending several years womanizing and gallivanting around Spain and Italy, Donne returned to England at twenty-five determined to begin a career as a diplomat, and got himself a promising position as the secretary to the prominent political official Sir Thomas Egerton. Unfortunately, over the next several years Donne fell in love with Egerton’s niece, Anne More, and following his elopement with her, his career was effectively ruined. 

            The next decade, his thirties, was a miserable time for Donne. Though he loved his wife deeply, and though he did manage to become an elected a member of Parliament, his day job as a low-level lawyer barely paid the bills for his ever-growing family, which increased by about one child every year—in sixteen years of marriage, he and his wife had a total of twelve children, several of whom were either stillborn or died young. The increasing grief, squalor, destitution, and desperation of his life drove Donne to suicidal despair. In 1608, he wrote a fascinating treatise entitled Biathanatos, in which he gives an absurdly learned and convoluted argument for the theological legitimacy of suicide. Donne never published this document, and, thankfully, never took his life either.

            Eventually, Donne’s years-long search for poetic patronage was rewarded. In 1610, he received financial support from Robert Drury of Hawsted, who gave him a place to live in his house on Drury Lane, presumably adjacent to the Muffin Man. During this time, Donne also made the angst-ridden transition from Catholicism to Anglicanism, and many scholars believe that it was in this period of uncertainty that Donne first began to write what would later become known as his Holy Sonnets, a series revolutionary in their time for abandoning the typical matter of sonnets, romantic love, and instead taking up meditations on divine love and explicitly religious subjects. 

            In 1615, despite many attempts to insinuate himself into political life, Donne was refused a position at court by King James I, who instead suggested that he take up holy orders, which he eventually acquiesced to. After receiving an honorary Doctorate in Divinity from Cambridge, Donne became a successful minister and chaplain, eventually receiving the religious position for which he is now best known, the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. A famous poet already, as a religious leader Donne became equally if not better known for his sermons, culminating with his famous speech “Death’s Duel,” which he gave before King Charles I a month before his own death on March 31st, 1631. 

            Much has been made of Donne’s dramatic progress from a virile, swashbuckling rogue to a stern, disease-ravaged reverend. Though Donne certainly did evolve as a man and an artist, the mischievous wit never entirely went away, and the religious fervor that so characterizes his later work is more of a transmutation of an always passionate character than a starkly new development. Let’s keep both of these qualities in mind as we read today’s poem, the lesser known but philosophically interesting Holy Sonnet IX: 

 

Holy Sonnet IX

 

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree

Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious

Cannot be damn'd, alas, why should I be?

Why should intent or reason, born in me,

Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?

And mercy being easy, and glorious

To God, in his stern wrath why threatens he?

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee,

O God? Oh, of thine only worthy blood

And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,

And drown in it my sins' black memory.

That thou remember them, some claim as debt;

I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

 

Alright, time for a little Versecraft quiz. What form is Holy Sonnet IX in? If you guessed that Holy Sonnet IX is a sonnet, you’re correct! Amazing. Look how far we’ve come. No, but how about a more serious question—what kind of sonnet are we looking at, Italian or English? Pause and take a second if you need to… alright, if you said, “Elijah, you bozo, this is a trick question, this isn’t an Italian or an English sonnet” you’d be correct! This is, in fact, a hybrid sonnet. We haven’t seen a hybrid sonnet since our Thomas Hardy episode. Even though that sonnet doesn’t look like this one, they both do something similar, namely, combine features of the Italian and English sonnets together. Interestingly, whereas Hardy had English on top, Italian on the bottom, Donne has the opposite—Italian on top, English on the bottom. Let’s look at the rhyme scheme. It runs: ABBA, ABBA, ACCA, DD. The two quatrains of ABBA form the octet that we know so well from Italian sonnets. The third quatrain is unusual in that it retains the A rhymes, but because it encloses C rhymes it sets itself apart from the octet. We conclude of course, in classic English fashion, with a rhyming couplet, DD. 

Speaking of rhyming couplets though, we will notice that this unusual arrangement we have, which places so many rhymes back to back, is sonically very similar to a heroic sonnet, a sonnet that is just rhyming couplets all the way through. If we look at the rhymes again, we see that only the first and twelfth lines do not rhyme with a line that immediately precedes or follows them. We have then a sonnet which is organized into typical stanzas like octets, quatrains, and couplets, but which sounds to the ear almost like a string of couplets all the way through. This does a couple things—firstly, it makes the rhymes especially noticeable and chiming. Secondly, it makes the implicit stanzas of the poem stand out less from one another, and crucially, makes the final couplet sound less unique and separated from the rest of the poem—it’s merely the final couplet among many couplets. Interestingly, what all of this does is make the poem sound more Italian than it really is. Because the stanzas sound blended together, and because the final couplet sounds more of a piece with what came before it, rather than a separate, sonorous, bow-tying conclusion, the poem has the more organic feel of an Italian sonnet, rather than the segmented, insectoid structure of an English one. All this in spite of the fact that, if we really wanted to, we could reasonably break down this poem into three quatrains and a couplet, which is the textbook definition of an English sonnet. 

The last thing worth pointing out about this hybrid form is that it gives Donne two opportunities to make a volta—one at the ninth line where the sestet of an Italian sonnet would begin, and one at the thirteenth line where the couplet of an English sonnet would begin. Needless to say, Donne avails himself of both of these opportunities: In line 9, “But who am I” marks a shift away from argumentation toward supplication. In lines 13 and 14, Donne offers a snappy, epigrammatic summation of his views on salvation. 

If we look at the prosody, we see that it is about as smooth as we would expect from poetry of this period, though with a few very thorny exceptions. The Metaphysical poets in general, and Donne in particular, were notorious for letting their meter fall by the wayside. The two great Jo(h)nsons, Ben and Samuel, had little patience for this technical negligence. The latter Johnson complained that Metaphysical poets wrote “such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.” The former Jonson wrote, even more acidly: “Donne, for not keeping accent, deserved hanging.” 

Some of the metrical roughness we encounter in this poem can be explained, as I mentioned in an early episode, by the fact that 17th century poets often elided syllables in order to make certain words fit the meter, and expected their readers to do the same. As a result, there are places in this poem where we would read an anapestic substitution, as in the word “poisonous” in line one, or “lecherous” in line 3, but Donne would have read these as “pois’nous” and “lech’rous.” 

There are other lines however where such excuses are not possible, and where metrical discrepancies come off less like conscious expressive choices than clumsy and unmusical carelessness. Take line 6 for example: “Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous” As I once told Alice regarding a different poem, “final foot trochaic substitutions ain’t cute.” The word “heinous,” a strong trochee, not only brings the momentum of the line to a screeching, exposed halt right where it should be most rhythmically smooth, at the end of the line, but is even more heinous because it throws the rhyme scheme in jeopardy. It’s debatable whether the word “heinous” even properly rhymes with a word like “envious” when their rhythms are so different. In every other B rhyme: “us,” “envious” “glorious,” the “us” sound resounds on a primary or secondary accent—in the word “heinous” the “us” is unaccented and does not chime. Add to all this the fact that the trochee “heinous” follows an ungraceful fourth foot trochaic substitution, and you have a real train-wreck of a line. 

In the following line, line 7, the rhythm is not as ugly, but it is awkward. “And mercy being easy, and glorious.” The real trouble here is the strong caesura at the comma after “easy.” Were it not for that, we could read this as an iambic line with a fourth foot anapestic substitution, a line that has a bit of a hiccupping sound but is otherwise fine. The caesura however forces me to scan “-ing easy” as an amphibrach right in the middle of the line, creating an odd pause before the iambs pick up again in the fourth foot. 

Possibly the worst offender however is line 11. “And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood.” This is arguably not even pentameter. In order to read it as pentameter, we have to read the first word “and” as a strong accent, which is already weird. Then, however, because we have a strong caesura after the word tears, it is difficult not to read these first two feet as comprising a single, two-beat cretic foot. The next foot, “make a hea” gives us an unavoidable anapest, and then the final two feet are either anapests or iambs depending on whether you elide them or not. As opposed to all this contortion, it might be tempting to scan the line exactly how it sounds: as one of pure anapestic tetrameter. 

One final thing to notice is that there is no enjambment whatsoever in this poem. Donne is of course entitled to enjamb or not as he pleases, but I cannot help but wonder if his rugged versification might not have been better served by utilizing enjambment. When each line stands so distinctly on its own, metrical problems become all the more conspicuous. 

Let’s now begin the poem again, and focus on the first quatrain: 

 

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree

Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious

Cannot be damn'd, alas, why should I be?

 

Already we see Donne being facetious, even when he’s writing about a deadly serious topic. He asks a rudimentary question of God which any schoolchild of the period would know the answer to-- why should humans be damned for the harm they do when plants, animals, and minerals are not? Less interesting than his asking of this question is the way he frames it—he knows that the answer is conscious agency or lack thereof, and so to make his question more compelling he misleadingly ascribes agency to beings that do not possess it: he says that the tree “threw death” on humanity, when the tree of course was passive, and it was in fact Adam and Eve who chose to partake of the forbidden fruit. 

Similarly, while it is true that goats may possess high libidos, it is unfair to call any goat lecherous— lechery implies not only a high sex drive, but a sex drive that one permits to override one’s rational decision-making faculties. Given that goats do not possess the ability to make fully conscious rational decisions, lechery is not a vice that can be applied to them. A fortiori, if goats cannot be lecherous, then snakes certainly cannot be envious, envy being a far more complex sin than lust. In ascribing envy to the snake, Donne is deliberately confusing the mind of a snake with the mind of Satan in his serpentine form, envious of the exalted place God had offered to humankind, and thereby driven to tempt Eve to ruin her standing by eating from the aforementioned Tree of Knowledge. 

There are no metaphysical conceits in this poem, but already we are seeing another hallmark of the Metaphysical style: the use of a consciously specious argument to force a self-serving conclusion. Such arguments are not meant to actually convince, but merely to be displays of wit. Again, it is odd that Donne is peacocking in this way on such an important subject, particularly when the poem suggests an intimate encounter between the poet and the divine, with no one else to impress. One gets the sense that Donne simply cannot help himself. 

The particular method of argument Donne is using is known as casuistry—a method popular among the Jesuits of his time, and a favorite of the Metaphysical poets. A casuistical argument is an argument in which the truth of a proposition in a particular case is advanced as evidence that a similar or identical proposition is true in another case. Casuistry is a method that can often be abused, and the contemporary connotation of casuistry as a synonym for sophistry is due to the disrepute into which casuistry fell when the method was savagely criticized by Blaise Pascal in his Provincial Letters. For the Metaphysical poets however, as I have said, the abuse of logic was not a problem, but an amusement. In the case of this poem, Donne takes one case— say, the fact that despite being guilty of envy, the serpent is not condemned to hell— in order to justify his own case that, as another creation of God not dissimilar to the snake, his own guilt should not condemn him to hell. Clearly there are some necessary distinctions which are being brushed aside, but for Donne, that is the fun of it. 

There has been much speculation that because Donne’s uncle, Jasper Haywood, was a prominent Jesuit, that Donne himself received instruction from the Jesuits. The scholar Louis Martz has observed in his book The Poetry of Meditation that the structure of Donne’s Holy Sonnets often mirrors the tripartite structure of an Ignatian spiritual exercise: a scene is imaginatively conjured, the scene is analyzed and internalized, and the practitioner concludes by appealing to God for forgiveness or guidance. In this sonnet, we do roughly see such a movement: Donne moves from challenging God, to analyzing his own challenge, to appealing to God for mercy. If we place this pattern of thought next to Donne’s fondness for casuistry, it is clear that regardless of whether Donne was instructed by Jesuits or not, he was certainly influenced by their way of thinking. We should remember also that Donne worked as a lawyer for many years, and no doubt acquired much of his knowledge of argumentation in jurisprudential as well as theological contexts. 

            Let’s now begin the poem again, this time moving on to the next quatrain:

 

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree

Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious

Cannot be damn'd, alas, why should I be?

Why should intent or reason, born in me,

Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?

And mercy being easy, and glorious

To God, in his stern wrath why threatens he?

 

            In the second quatrain, Donne immediately reveals that he knew the answer to his first question all along— “intent or reason” makes all the difference. Nevertheless he doubles down: why does the mere fact that he possesses reason make the sins he commits worse than that of a goat or a snake? While once again Donne is sneakily applying the language of moral agency to amoral creatures—a snake cannot actually “sin,” after all— he is ultimately asking quite an interesting philosophical question: when it comes to harming people, why does intent matter? For the moment at least, Donne adopts a position of radical consequentialism. In moral philosophy, a consequentialist is someone who believes that the rightness or wrongness of someone’s conduct is entirely dependent on the consequences of that conduct. For a person on the extreme end of the consequentialist spectrum, there would be no moral difference between murder and manslaughter, no difference between death by sniper and death by tiger—someone is killed either way. On this view, if offenses such as lechery and envy are acquitted in the case of animals, it is only fair that they should also be acquitted in the case of human beings. Such a radical claim obviously glosses over the fact that humans alone have the freedom to choose how they act, which in turn affects the degree of moral responsibility which is incumbent upon them.

            Donne is not done, however. He goes on to ask: if mercy is so easy for an all-powerful God to offer, and if it brings glory to God to be merciful, why does God threaten damnation at all in the first place? Once again, Donne is willfully playing dumb. Just as he knows quite well that moral agency or lack thereof makes all the difference in determining someone’s culpability for a crime, so too he knows quite well that the threat of damnation serves an obvious function: namely, to dissuade people from committing sin. He furthermore ignores the fact that the only reason mercy is glorious to God is because each act of mercy is an act of conscious judgement, of weighing the potential redemption of a soul against damnation. If mercy were automatic, and damnation didn’t exist, the universe would be functionally amoral, and mercy would give no glory to God whatsoever. Moral excellence presupposes the existence of a moral order. 

            Donne has now spent the entire octet asking questions which he obviously knows the answers to. So why ask them at all? Beyond the fiendish glee he takes in heterodox speculation, we get the sense that he is not asking these questions in order to receive serious answers, but merely in order to express his own feelings of spiritual desperation and moral anxiety. To borrow another term from Eliot, the radical moral questions are the objective correlative of Donne’s emotional turmoil. This gets close to what I mean when I say that Donne’s intellect is decorative rather than essential to his poetry. He expresses himself through ideas, but it is the expression, not the ideas, that really matter. 

            Let’s now begin the poem again, and this time, read all the way through:

 

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree

Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious

Cannot be damn'd, alas, why should I be?

Why should intent or reason, born in me,

Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?

And mercy being easy, and glorious

To God, in his stern wrath why threatens he?

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee,

O God? Oh, of thine only worthy blood

And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,

And drown in it my sins' black memory.

That thou remember them, some claim as debt;

I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

 

            Donne uses the volta at the sestet: “But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?” to move from argumentation to a phase of Ignatian supplication. We might well be suspicious of this abrupt turn, however. Why has Donne gone to the trouble to make all these arguments, only to abandon them? We remarked already that they primarily serve as vehicles for emotional expression. But to ask so many provocative questions and then neither wait for nor formulate a response smacks of the rhetorical technique known as apophasis. This is the maneuver whereby someone mentions something which it is indecorous to talk about and gets away with it by saying they’re not going to talk about it. For instance, a politician might say something like, “Now is not the time to speak of my opponent’s history of tax evasion.” Perhaps the most famous example of extended apophasis is Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar, in which Antony says “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” and then proceeds to incite the crowd against Brutus by praising Caesar. Here, Donne performs a sort of apophasis in reverse— “here are all these grievances I have—but then again, who am I to dispute with thee?” We cannot help but suspect that, even if Donne’s forthcoming supplication is sincere, he also seeks to vent some actual theological frustration, and possibly even cast a shadow of doubt on orthodox assumptions about divine justice. 

            In lines 10 through 12, Donne gives us an image that gets more bizarre the more you think about it: Donne asks God to make a cocktail of Christ’s blood and his own penitent tears, create a river out of it in heaven, and then drink from it in order to forget Donne’s own wrongdoings. Even if we remember that Lethe is the river in the Greek underworld that causes newly arrived souls, upon drinking from it, to forget their previous lives, this doesn’t go far towards making sense of this very strange request. Indeed, given that the Greek underworld is so often associated with Christian hell, as in Dante’s Inferno, to place Lethe in heaven seems highly unorthodox. Moreover, not only is Donne requesting that God drink God’s own blood, but that God drink from the equivalent of the river Lethe, which would make God the equivalent of a departed shade in the Greek underworld. All of this is only made more confusing by the use of hypallage in line 12. You might remember from the Stallings episode that hypallage is the rhetorical device whereby a modifier is syntactically attached to a different word than the one it semantically modifies. We see this in the phrase “sin’s black memory.” Sin itself is not sentient and does not have the capacity to remember anything. What Donne is actually saying is that God carries a negative memory of Donne’s sins which Donne would like to have erased. By suggesting the idea that sin does have sentience however, Donne seeks to distance himself from his sins, viewing them as a malevolent force outside himself. 

            This brings us to the last, somewhat paradoxical couplet. Donne says that while it is true that some people “claim as debt” the fact that God remembers sins, Donne claims that God would be more merciful, and by extension bring Himself more glory, if He would forget Donne’s wrongdoings. The phrase “claim as debt” is a bit ambiguous—it could mean that people claim that God’s record of sins is just, as it is a record of penance owed to God in order to rectify wrongdoing, or, more intriguingly, it could mean that people claim God’s memory of wrongdoing as something owed to them, a service which God provides which is necessary in order for the soul to be properly held accountable and thereby grow worthy of salvation. By contrast, Donne desires to suffer neither the black fire of Hell nor the refining fire of Purgatory—he merely wishes God to forget his sins, and to insist that for God to give Himself such convenient amnesia would actually do credit to God’s mercy. 

            We have already discussed how a blanket application of mercy undermines the significance of mercy in the first place. Beyond this however, Donne fails to consider that if God were to somehow wipe away all memory of Donne’s sins, there would be nothing for God to forgive, and therefore mercy would actually be impossible. In order to act mercifully, one must be conscious of acting leniently in the face of justifiably punishable wrongdoing. If knowledge of that wrongdoing is erased, then there is no possibility of mercy, only of oblivious ignorance. Surely, this could do no credit to God. Furthermore, for Donne to presume to convince God to do something out of pursuit of greater glory is to ascribe disturbingly petty interests to God. Whether serious or in jest, Donne is doing nothing but procrastinating his own hard penance, and if we find his Holy Sonnets compelling, it is less because they offer a model of devotion, and more because they reveal to us the weakness, desperation, and vulnerability which plagues the sinful individual in times of spiritual crisis. 

            With all that we have learned and explored, let’s read through this poem one last time, as an old friend:

 

Holy Sonnet IX

 

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree

Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,

If lecherous goats, if serpents envious

Cannot be damn'd, alas, why should I be?

Why should intent or reason, born in me,

Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?

And mercy being easy, and glorious

To God, in his stern wrath why threatens he?

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee,

O God? Oh, of thine only worthy blood

And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,

And drown in it my sins' black memory.

That thou remember them, some claim as debt;

I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.