The poem speaker spends most of its lines debating sin, searching for spiritual answers, and trying to figure out why he, an evolved human being, is punished more than the creatures below him. ‘Holy Sonnet IX’ challenges God’s reasoning and then, regretting his tone, conveys the speaker’s regret.
Holy Sonnet IX John DonneIf poisonous minerals, and if that tree,Whose fruit threw death on (else immortal) us,If lecherous goats, if serpents enviousCannot 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 gloriousTo God, in His stern wrath why threatens He ?But who am I, that dare dispute with Thee ?O God, O ! of Thine only worthy blood,And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,And drown in it my sin's black memory.That Thou remember them, some claim as debt ;I think it mercy if Thou wilt forget.
Explore Holy Sonnet IX
‘Holy Sonnet IX’ by John Donne is a poem addressed to God that challenges how the speaker is punished for his sins.
In the first part of the poem, the speaker begins by asking God why he’s punished more severely than the other living things around him. He feels as though just because he’s capable of thinking and reasoning that his sins shouldn’t be punished more harshly than the goat, tree, or snake. The speaker asks God to deliver mercy instead.
The poem ends with a turn. The poet’s speaker transitions into discussing how he shouldn’t question God. His demanding tone in the first lines turns into an apologetic and regretful one. He asks that God washes him clean of sin, so clean that even God forgets he ever did anything wrong.
The main themes of this poem are forgiveness and sin. The speaker addresses this poem to God, asking him why he’s treated more severely than other equally sinful living creatures around him. Just because he has the ability to reason, something a tree or mineral does not, doesn’t mean he should be punished more harshly than they are.
Structure and Form
‘Holy Sonnet IX’ by John Donne is a fourteen-line sonnet that follows the rhyme scheme of ABBAABBAACCADD. This is an unusual rhyme scheme that uses the standard octet associated with Petrarchan sonnets but then uses an entirely different, unique sestet. The poet also chose to structure this poem in iambic pentameter. This means that the lines contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second of which is stressed. This is the common metrical pattern used in sonnets.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Caesura: a pause in the middle of a line of verse because of the poet’s use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. For example, “But who am I, that dare dispute with Thee?”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “dare dispute” in line nine.
- Sibilance: the repetition of the “s” sound in poetry. For example, “lecherous goats, if serpents envious.”
- Enjambment: a transition between two lines that do not use end-punctation and leaves a phrase incomplete. For example, the transition between lines three and four as well as lines seven and eight.
- Allusion: a reference to something not explained within the text of a poem. For example, throughout this piece, Donne alludes to elements of Christianity. This is seen through his references to the “tree,” “fruit,” “Lethean flood,” and sin generally.
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?
In the first lines of ‘Holy Sonnet IX,’ the speaker begins by mentioning several living things that he feels should be damned before he is. He knows he’s sinned but doesn’t feel as though he’s as deserving of punishment as the “goat,” “minerals,” the tree that grew the forbidden fruit, and envious serpents.
These other creations of God’s are lesser than he and should then, therefore, receive more of a punishment than they do. Why does he have to be “damn’d” for his sins and all other elements of creation get to skate by unpunished?
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 next four lines, the speaker says that he doesn’t believe it’s fair that his ability to think and reason means that he should be punished more severely. He continues to question God, feeling empowered to share his opinion on sin without concern.
His sins, he feels, as just as bad as any other living thing’s, yet other living things aren’t punished as he is.
God, he says, is capable of anything. He believes God could easily grant mercy to his creation. Mercy is a positive attribute and something “glorious” that God could give to his children.
But who am I, that dare dispute with Thee?
O God, O! of Thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin’s black memory.
That Thou remember them, some claim as debt;
I think it mercy if Thou wilt forget.
In the final six lines, the speaker asks who he thinks he is and that he’s willing to argue with God. This rhetorical question answers itself. He stops questioning God and directs to him a prayer of longing. He hopes that God will send a flood that washes away his sin and cleans him of his need to question or dispute God’s creation.
“Lethean” is an allusion that refers to the River Lethe that flowed through the underworld. All those who drank from it were said to completely forget their lives.
He hopes his sins will be so clean and destroyed that even God won’t remember them.
The meaning is that no one should question God, even when they are concerned about their fate. God does not do well with disputes and after the first eight lines, the speaker feels as though he never should’ve challenged God’s choice to punish him.
The poem is about sin and prayer. The speaker’s relationship with God is rocky. He feels as though he’s been treated unfairly and even questions God about it, suggesting that he’s less well taken care of than animals and living things below him.
Donne wrote this poem in order to explore the ways that he, and other living beings, are (or are not) punished for their sins. It also suggests that Donne’s relationship with God was not a perfectly faithful one.
Readers who enjoyed this should also consider reading some other John Donne poems. For example:
- ‘A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day’ – is one of the poet’s best poems about love and loss. It depicts the speaker’s grief after the death of someone he loved.
- ‘Death, be not Proud’ – tells the listener not to fear Death as he keeps morally corrupt company and only leads to Heaven.
- ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning‘ – uses one of his famous conceits to depict the steadfast nature of his love.