The ironic title ‘Unholy Sonnet 13’ of Mark Jarman’s poem is a hint at the subject matter. It is not a religious sonnet that praises God and his marvelous creation. Rather, it introspects on an “unholy” question that is “Who needed God?” The repetition of this line rhetorically illustrates the role of God in modern times. Besides, it also surfaces the question related to atheism. However, Jarman expresses his faith belief in God no matter how ignorant he was in his youth.
Explore Unholy Sonnet 13
‘Unholy Sonnet 13’ by Mark Jarman is a sonnet on a speaker’s realization about God’s existence in nature.
This sonnet begins with a warm image of two companions drinking together on Umbrian hills in Italy. They drank on the cajoling beauty of nature including a pink cloud at dusk, the moon, its glowing smile, and friendship. The question of God’s existence was not important for the speaker or his friend. The momentary beauty was all that mattered to them most. Later, as a grown-up man, the speaker realizes that there is something stirring in the details that keep coming back into his mind. There God hints at his existence. So, now he can explore the role of God alongside other things.
You can read the full poem here.
Drunk on the Umbrian hills at dusk and drunk
Far from home and wanting this forever—
Jarman’s ‘Unholy Sonnet 13’ begins with an important term “Drunk”. This term refers to the boozed evening the speaker spent with his friend at Umbrian hills. It also refers to the spiritual drunkenness of the speaker. In his youth, he was so invested in the carnal pleasures that he unknowingly ignored his spirit. It resulted in his spiritual drunkenness. He only indulged in worldly pleasures like drinking, carousing with friends, and enjoying the high-spirited hours of youth.
On the Umbrian hills, he drank with his friends on the charismatic beauty of the sky. At dusk, a pink cloud appeared beside the moon. They drank on it. Not only that they cheered their glasses of wine on the moon, its “marble smile”, and on their friendship. In “marble smile”, Jarman metaphorically compares the color of the moon to that of marble.
In the line “Two young Americans …” Jarman refers to the identity of his speaker and his friend. They were two American youths who drank on their friendship. The friends made the most of the moment by drinking the rich wine far from their country in Italy. They wanted the moment, unrealistically, forever.
Who needed God? We had our bodies, bread,
Enormous softly burning ancient stars.
In the sixth line, Jarman asks the most important question of this piece: “Who needed God?” This question hints at their preliminary belief about God. They did not have faith in his existence. The worldly senses were so active in their youth that they thought it was meaningless to introspect on his existence. Rather they were pleased to have their “bodies”, a symbolic reference to worldliness, “bread”, and “wine”.
Readers can easily understand why the poet has referred to these three things in the 6th and 7th lines if they are aware of the three things that God provided to humankind. He tries to describe their ignorance of the things God generously provided to humankind. They were just enjoying them, not knowing for whom they had those things.
In the following lines, Jarman ironically describes the night sky. The “Godless darkness” of the sky is loosely related to the sky’s description. Rather it is a symbol of their minds. Their minds were in perfect darkness for the absence of God. However, the sky, glowing with its “burning ancient stars” tried to communicate to their souls. But, the communication failed due to their ignorance and spiritual blindness.
Who needed God? And why do I ask now?
Our bodies, bread, a sharp Umbrian wine.
The volta of ‘Unholy Sonnet 13’ occurs in the first line of this section. It begins with the rhetorical question asked in the sixth line. This time, the question is used to illustrate shifting viewpoints and the collapsing gap between ignorance and spirituality.
As a mature, old person, the speaker now asks the question to look back at his ignorance. Whenever he remembers such beautiful nights filled with materialistic pleasures, it makes him realize that God exists. If there is no God, those scenes would have appeared dull to him. As his very existence stirs in nature, it delighted their souls.
Those details are as vivid as it was then. It is clear evidence that God’s existence made those scenes memorable in their hearts. Besides, the thoughts related to carnal pleasures are still in his mind. The spiritual darkness helps him to realize the importance of the divine light.
Jarman’s poem is a modern sonnet consisting of fourteen unrhymed lines. There is not a set structure like conventional sonnets. The volta occurs at the end of line 9. While in an Italian sonnet, it occurs after the octave. This piece is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker who uses the plural pronoun “we” in order to bring home his ideas. Readers can divide the text into two sections. Lines 1-9 present a complex question. In the next lines, Jarman provides the answer. Regarding the meter, it does not have a set scheme.
Jarman uses the following literary devices in ‘Unholy Sonnet 13’.
- Repetition: There is a repetition of the term “Drunk” in the first three lines. It refers to youth’s spiritual drunkenness or ignorance.
- Alliteration: It occurs in “dusk and drunk”, “moon, a marble”, “Far from”, etc.
- Rhetorical Question: Jarman makes use of this device in “Who needed God?” This question is repeated twice.
- Personification: It occurs in “our Godless perfect darkness breed/ Enormous softly burning ancient stars”.
- Epigram: This device is used in “I think God stirs/ In details that keep bringing back that time”.
Mark Jarman’s poem ‘Unholy Sonnet 13’ was first published in Questions for Ecclesiastes. The book was published in 1997. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997 and won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1998. The Unholy Sonnets series were later published in 2000. These poems are written in a later stage when Jarman matured as a poet. He belongs to a religious family. So he had faith in God from the earlier stages of his life. In his poems, he explores the omnipresence of God in everyday scenes. In this sonnet, Jarman similarly presents how he was spiritually blind in his youth. As he matured, he realized why humankind needs God.
In Mark Jarman’s ‘Unholy Sonnet 13,’ the “unholy” aspect is the speaker’s spiritual ignorance in his youth. Then he thought, there was no need for God in day-to-day life. Later, he realizes how God’s very existence matters in minute things.
It is a modern sonnet that does not conform to the English or Italian model. This fourteener consists of two sections. The first nine lines present a conflict. In the next lines, the poet unfolds the knot.
The poem was first published in 1997. It appears in Mark Jarman’s best-known book of poetry Questions for Ecclesiastes.
The speaker of this piece is none other than the poet Mark Jarman. He speaks in this piece from a grown-up man’s perspective who is spiritually awakened.
This poem taps on the themes of spirituality, ignorance, worldliness, pleasures, nature, and God.
Here is a list of poems that are similar to the themes present in Mark Jarman’s ‘Unholy Sonnet 13’.
- ‘The Coronet’ by Andrew Marvell — This poem was written in honor of Christ and how his sinfulness caused pain to God. Explore more Andrew Marvell poems.
- ‘oh antic God’ by Lucille Clifton — This piece centers on the happy memories of the past. Read more Lucille Clifton poems.
- ‘To Find God’ by Robert Herrick — In this poem, Herrick raises the question of God’s existence. Explore more Robert Herrick poems.
- ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –’ by Emily Dickinson — It’s one of the best-known poems of Emily Dickinson. This piece features a speaker’s disbelief in rituals and her intention to seek salvation without using any conventional means. Read more Emily Dickinson poems.
You can also read about the best-loved poems about God.