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Sunday, December 4, 2011

O, My Black Soul, Now Thou Art Summoned

(Marble funeral effigy of John Donne, 1631,
at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, where he
is buried)

John Donne (1572-1631) is among the finest of the English poets. He is one of the Metaphysical poets, the lyric poets who often used one surprising metaphor to bring together two very different ideas. And he is a master of the sonnet.

Donne favored the Petrarchan form of the sonnet but added his own touches. Sometimes he made slight changes to the rhyme or to the meter and he used enjambment or the run-on line to allow for a more free expression of sentiment.

His sonnets demonstrate the truth of an interesting paradox about art: the limits imposed by hard and fast rules often encourage creativity.

In the sonnet below, for example, in a mere fourteen lines, Donne reveals a profound insight into man’s most difficult question, how to confront his mortality. Here, as in his other works, he displays his usual fanciful imagery and subtlety of thought.


O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death’s herald and champion;
Thou’rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he’s fled;
Or like a thief, which till death’s doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver’d from prison,
But damn’d and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ's blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

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