Spit in my face, you Jews (Holy Sonnet 11) by John Donne

‘Spit in my face, you Jews’ (Holy Sonnet XI) by John Donne is one of the poet’s Holy Sonnets. There are nineteen in total and are sometimes referred to as Divine Meditations or Divine Sonnets.  The sonnets were published after Donne’s death in 1633, and the majority follow the same pattern of rhyme and rhythm. In the case of ‘Spit in my face, you Jews,’ there are the traditional fourteen lines as well as a structured rhyme scheme and metrical pattern.

 Donne makes use of elements of the Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets in the text. The lines follow a rhyming pattern of ABBAABBACDCDEE and they can be separated into one set of eight lines, known in this case as an octet, and one set of six, or sestet. The first part of the rhyme scheme is clearly Petrarchan, but the last sestet is Shakespearean. 

In regards to the metrical pattern, the lines are written in iambic pentameter. This means that each is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.

 

Poetic Techniques 

Donne makes use of a few other poetic techniques within ‘Spit in my face, you Jews.’ One of these is enjambment. This occurs when a line break happens in the middle of a phrase, cutting off a thought before it is completed. One perfect example is between lines one and two.There are also a number of instances of caesura, or pauses in the middle of lines. These are used to increase drama, separate clauses or connect two obscure thoughts together. Two examples are in lines twelve and thirteen.

 

Summary of Spit in my Face, you Jews

‘Spit in my face, you Jews’ by John Donne contains the guilt a speaker feels over his similarities to Jesus and the daily sins he commits. 

In the first lines of this piece the speaker begins by daring the “Jews” who killed Jesus to kill him too. He is a sinner and seems to believe that he should be treated the same. In fact, he knows himself to be much worse than Jesus. His sins are real, unlike Jesus’. 

He goes on to explain how his death will not remove his sins and that everyday he continues to sin, killing Jesus in a worse way than the Jews did. The poem concludes with the speaker asking that he be allowed to appreciate Jesus’ pure love and the way that God put on human flesh and let himself be sacrificed for humanity. 

 

Analysis of Spit in my Face, you Jews

Lines 1-4 

Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,

Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,

For I have sinn’d, and sinne’, and only He,

Who could do no iniquity, hath died.

In the first lines of ‘Spit in my face, you Jews’ the speaker begins with the line that came to be utilized as the title. This is common practice, especially within sonnets. The line is abrasive and shocking, but the subject matter becomes clear almost immediately. The speaker compares himself to Jesus Christ, referring to his crucifixion and the spear that pierced his side.

 In particular, the speaker draws attention to the role that the “Jews” played in Jesus’ death. While this is believed to be the case by many, history was more complicated. During this period of time the Jewish homeland was under the control of the Romans. The majority of the blame lies with them. This is an unimportant detail in the larger scheme of things. What the speaker really wants is to draw the reader into the comparison between himself and Christ. 

He feels that, just like Jesus, the world is ready to “scoff, scourge, and crucify” him. The way that he directs these words so bluntly at the “Jews” makes it seem as if he is egging them on, trying to get them to do the same to him. The reason for this particular attitude is made clear in the next lines. 

There is a big different between the two of them.  Jesus died, and the speaker has not. The difference is further emphasized by the fact that Jesus “could do no iniquity” or wrong. This implies that the speaker can. He wants to draw attention to how unfair the world ends up being as someone who does not sin dies, and someone who does day in and day out continues to live. 

 

Read more poetry analysis:   The Anniversary by John Donne

Lines 5-8 

But by my death can not be satisfied

My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety.

They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I

Crucify him daily, being now glorified.

In the next quatrain the speaker begins by explaining that though he feels like Jesus in a lot of ways, his death will not remove his sins. He has done things which are far worse than anything that could be blamed on Jesus. They are worse than the “Jews’ impiety.” The fact that he is still alive and continues to sin bothers him. But he can’t stop making mistakes. 

The next two lines continue to expand on the differences. The speaker brings in the fact that the Jews physically killed Jesus once, but the speaker kills him “daily.” There is a difference between the death the Jews inflicted and that the speaker participates in. This comes from the “inglorious” and “glorious” versions of Christ. After he has died, and become “glorious” the speaker can only crucify him spiritually, within his own mind. 

 

Lines 9-12 

O let me then His strange love still admire ;

Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment ;

And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,

But to supplant, and with gainful intent ;

In the sestet of ‘Spit in my face, you Jews’ the speaker begins by asking the listener that he be allowed to “admire” the love that Jesus gives. It is one that is “strange” and sometimes hard to understand. He compares the way Jesus treated his disciples to the way that human kings do: generally the kings “pardon.” This contrasts significantly with the way that Jesus “bore” the “punishment” of the whole human race.

Lines eleven and twelve are more complicated and refers to Jacob and his choice to clothe himself in the skin of goats. This was with the intention of winning his father’s blessing. These lines lead into the final couplet. 

Lines 13-14 

God clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh, that so

He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

Here, the same transformation is used in another situation. God is said to clothe himself in the flesh of human beings in order to draw close to them and spread his message. This was Jesus, and his weakness allowed him to “suffer woe” and therefore die for human sins. 

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