John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet IV’ (O, my black soul) is one of his famous religious sonnets in which he talks about a speaker’s sinful soul. This poem is full of vivid imagery and symbolism.
John Donne was a proponent of metaphysical poetry. His innovative style and poetic expression made him famous in contemporary times. Moreover, his “Holy Sonnets”, a sequence of 19 sonnets, portray his mastery over religious themes. In those sonnets, the poet expresses his devotion to God and his self-doubts regarding getting the god’s grace. Similarly, in ‘Holy Sonnet IV’ or “O, my black soul, now thou art summoned,” the poet depicts his yearning to get rid of the blackness of sin from his soul.
Summary of Holy Sonnet IV
In this poem, the speaker or the poet is sick and he thinks his “black soul” is responsible for his suffering. Moreover, he thinks that sickness, “Death’s herald and champion”, has summoned his soul. Thereafter, the poet goes on comparing his soul to a pilgrim convicted for treason in his country and a thief imprisoned for his crimes. However, in the latter part of the poem, the poet says if one wants to get god’s grace to wash off their sins, they have to be truthful to themselves. Lastly, he says that “Christ’s blood” can also purify the black souls.
Structure of Holy Sonnet IV
This poem of Donne is a Petrarchan or Italian Sonnet. The poem consists of an octave and a sestet. In the octave the poet talks about his problem and in the following section, he provides the solution. Apart from that, the rhyme scheme of the poem is ABBAABBA CDCDEE. So, the sestet ends with a rhyming couplet. Here, readers can find the influence of the Shakespearean sonnet. But, Donne does not follow the complete model while writing this poem. The overall poem is composed in iambic pentameter. However, there are a few metrical variations in this poem.
Literary Devices in Holy Sonnet IV
Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet IV’ begins with an apostrophe. Thereafter, the poet uses a metaphor in “my black soul”. Here the comparison is made between the color “black” and sin. In the second line, the poet compares “sickness” to “Death’s herald and champion” metaphorically. It is also a metaphysical conceit. Thereafter, readers can find similes in the third and fifth lines. In these lines, the poet compares his soul to a “pilgrim” and later to a “thief”. The octave ends with irony. Thereafter, in the sestet, the poet makes use of a rhetorical question in the line, “But who shall give thee that grace to begin?” In this line, the phrase, “thee that” contains alliteration. Moreover, in the 11th line, “black” is a metonym for repentance. The last two lines of the poem contain a paradox.
Analysis of Holy Sonnet IV
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;
The ‘Holy Sonnet IV’ begins with an invocation of the poet’s soul. The poetic persona of the poem refers to his soul as “my black soul.” Here, the color “black” is a symbol of sinfulness. However, the poet says his soul is summoned by sickness. According to him, sickness is “Death’s herald and champion.” As the poet is old, for him, sickness is, no doubt, an early sign of “Death”. As grave sickness leads one to death, the poet thinks, it is the champion knight of the monarch named “Death”.
In the following lines, the poet compares his soul to a pilgrim who has fled his native land for committing treason. Here, the poet compares “treason” to sin. Sin causes a soul to flee from its native abode.
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.
In this section of the octave, the poet thinks that his soul is like a “thief”. This thief knows that he is going to be punished in near future. Hence he badly wishes to be free from prison. At last, when he is damned and haled to execution, he desires for the safety of the prison walls. It is important to decode this metaphysical conceit. Here, the poet’s sin-ridden soul is like the thief and his body is the “prison”. The execution referred to in this section is a hint at the doomsday. Thus, the speaker’s soul is agitated inside this mundane body. But the thought of god’s wrath on doomsday makes him fearful. So, he feels the body might be a safe place to escape the finale.
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.
The sestet of this sonnet provides a solution for such mental agony. The poet assures his soul that it can get god’s grace if he wishes to repent its misdoings. Thereafter the poet poses a question: “But who shall give thee that grace to begin?” Here, the poet indirectly says that the soul cannot get god’s grace from someone else or someone else’s virtue.
For this reason, the poet tells his soul to blacken itself with “holy mourning” and redden with “blushing”. As it dwells with sin, it should be ashamed of this act. Moreover, in the penultimate couplet, the poet orders his soul to wash with “Christ’s blood” which has the “might” to purify it from sinfulness. At last, Donne makes a paradoxical statement. He remarks that “Christ’s blood” can dye the “red souls to white.” Here, using the Eucharist doctrine, the poet refers to the magical quality of Christ’s blood that also has the ability to purify the sinful souls.
Historical Context of Holy Sonnet IV
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne contains a series of nineteen sonnets. The sonnet sequence is also known as the “Divine Meditations” or “Divine Sonnets”. The sonnets were published two years after Donne’s death in 1633. Moreover, in these sonnets, the poet employs divine themes such as mortality, divine judgment, love of God, penance, and anxiety. However, the sonnet “O, my black soul, now that art summoned” survives in fifteen manuscript copies. The poem was composed in 1609 and it was the fifth sonnet in the original sequence. During that time, Donne was going through a period of depression and strife due to his physical, emotional, and financial hardships. That’s why this poem reflects the poet’s state of affairs at that time and his insecurities.
Here is a list of poems that contains similar religious themes present in ‘Holy Sonnet VI’, one of John Donne’s best poems.
- The Retreat by Henry Vaughan – This poem describes a speaker’s desire to escape to the past where he was purer and eternally blessed.
- Redemption by George Herbert – This poem speaks on a man’s long journey to find God and therefore to start a new life.
- Batter my Heart (Holy Sonnet 14) by John Donne – This poem presents a speaker’s request to God to take hold of him, using deeply spiritual images.
- The Coronet by Andrew Marvell – In this poem, the poet refers back to the Crucifixion episode and he wants to make amends for the wrongs done to Jesus.