‘Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?’ by John Donne is a fourteen line sonnet that is contained within one block of text. The lines follow a consistent pattern of rhyme that conforms to the traditional Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet form.
The Petrarchan Sonnet Form
In this particular instance the sonnet follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA CDCDEE. Petrarchan sonnets are most easily recognized by the first eight lines, or octave. These lines are divided into sets of four, or quatrains, and usually follow the pattern of ABBA ABBA. The final six lines can explore any number of patterns with three new end rhymes. Donne’s choice of CDCDEE is a common one.
Another element of the Petrarchan sonnet is the metrical pattern. The lines follow a scheme of iambic pentameter. This mean that each is made up of five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed.
Additionally, this kind of sonnet often presents a problem and a solution. The problem is contained within the first eight lines, and the solution in the concluding sestet. This is most certainly the case in ‘Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?’ The octave presents the speaker’s problem of constant temptation by the sins of his earlier years, and the sestet provides God’s attraction as the solution.
Summary of Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
‘Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?’ by John Donne describes a speaker’s battle against returning to his sinful previous life.
The poem begins with the speaker asking God if he’s going to allow his creation, the speaker, to fall into “decay.” He has lived a bad life and now all his sins are catching up with him. The speaker can feel his body falling apart around him and he needs God to fix him as soon as possible. If he cannot get back some control over himself he knows that he will walk straight to death, and perhaps enter into Hell.
The poem concludes with the speaker comparing his own “iron heart” to God’s strong, metal-like presence in his life. God acts as a magnet, drawing the speaker in closer and closer and winging him away from his sins and the Devil.
Analysis of Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
It is clear from the first line of this piece that Donne’s speaker is addressing God. He is asks his creator if it is his will that his creation “shall…decay.” Donne’s speaker, who is generally considered to the be poet himself, is worried about his own life. Something is happening to him that makes him feel like his life is falling apart. Just the fact that he’s questioning God shows that there is really something wrong.
The next line depicts a bit of the frustration this speaker feels. He tells God that now he must “Repair” him and return him to the state he was in before things started to go bad. He knows God must have this ability. His impatience comes from the fact that his “end doth haste.” The speaker does not want to spend any more time on the earth in this incarnation of himself. In fact, he wills death to come for him.
Donne’s speaker states that he is running towards death, and it is coming “fast” to “meet” him. It is a very simple thing for the speaker to toss his life away at this point. All the pleasures he used to have “yesterday” have shown themselves to be sins. Their return is something he greatly fears. Instead, he is looking for something new to live for.
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feebled flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it towards hell doth weigh.
In the second quatrain of the sonnet the speaker expresses his everyday fear. He does not want to “move” his eyes from where they rest because there are only reminders of the past around him. He knows he’s going to see “Such terror.” It will remind him of all the mistakes he’s made.
These lines also clear up a bit about the speaker’s own situation. He has lived a life that he is ashamed of. Now his choices are taking their toll on his “feebled flesh.” The speaker is wasting away, all because of how he chose to live. He sinned, and now those sins are sending him down to hell.
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour I can myself sustain;
The next four lines are somewhat more hopeful. It turns out the speaker does have one source of happiness in his life, God. When he looks towards “thee” in the sky, he feels as if he is rising again. The hope that is intrinsic to his understanding of God improves him.
While God’s light might shine on, and sustain him for a time, he is soon tempted back down to earth. His has an “old subtle foe” which is always there, luring him back to sin. This “foe” is the embodiment of his sin, which is likely the taking of too much pleasure. This would relate directly to Donne’s own life. He turned from his own patterns of pleasure to one in the church, dedicated to God.
Thy grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like adamant draw mine iron heart.
The speaker re-emphasizes the fact that only God is able to keep him away from the devil. Satan is always calling to him, through his own desire to please himself once more. The speaker tells God that he is his only hope. He believes in God’s ability to “wing” him away from his current life and keep his attention on goodness and faith.
God is the “adamant,” or metal, to the speaker’s “iron heart.” He is drawn, like a magnet up to God’s grace. This final line is a great example of the metaphysical conceits for which Donne is so well-known. This kind of clever comparison seeks to be original and relates two strangely opposite things in an interesting way.