John Donne’s Oh My Black Soule

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This is one of John Donne’s 19 Holy Sonnets.  I consider it the best poem on repentance I’ve ever read outside the Bible.  Donne was famous in his time for his sermons, which are highly literary and still available.  Neither his religious nor erotic poetry was published during his life.  He contrived complex extended metaphors for much of his poetry, showing a brilliance and charm, but here there is a fear and earnestness expressed in a few plain, though perfect, similes.

Holy Sonnet 4.

Oh my black Soule, now thou art summoned
By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion;
Thou’art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence hee’s fled,
Or like a thiefe, which till deaths doome be read,
Wisheth himselfe delivered from prison;
But damn’d and hal’d to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be’imprisoned;
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lacke;
But who shall give thee that grace to beginne?
Oh make thy selfe with holy mourning blacke,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sinne;
Or wash thee in Christs blood, which hath this might
That being red, it dyes red soules to white.

That last line is like a certain currency that can be converted into others.  “Dye” was another spelling for “die” and this unlocks a number of Christian paradoxes.  What is red with ruby love in Christ makes what is red with scarlet sin in us turn white.  He dyes us by His dying.

His death also slays us, making His death transitive to us.  For as Saint Paul said in one of his epistles, “the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.” That is, because God Himself died, we cannot but live to God now, or else we die to God.

There is also the suggestion that the black soul confronting the power behind the death of Christ, which is red blood shed, becomes white in terror or anxiety.  Such is the dread described in this poem because the speaker is like a prisoner facing execution.  Ah, but Christ also was in bonds and faced execution.  It is precisely this identification of God with man that is religious and also as deep a font of metaphor, (the making of one thing like another), as one could hope for.

Because Christ faced sin and death and mortal flesh and judgment, the poet in diving down into those waters, and seeing Christ, has a potential source of rescue.

This poem has given us three colors, red and white and black.  And it applies these colors without erring, but paints the nature of repentance very adeptly.  There are also a few characters who occupy this sonnet and make a cohesive scene.  There is sickness – the armed “champion” of death.  There is a religious pilgrim who turned fugitive and cannot go home.  And there is a prisoner longing to escape and avoid execution.  Then there is Christ, who the speaker does not know how to reach with useful blushing.  The speaker leaves us in his contemplation; he is at Christ’s door.

Donne has made a gesture from a few strokes.  Because these are all in harmony, putting the colors right, we do not need more concrete description but the sonnet feels very evocative and personal.  All the colors are in their right places, and grace is simply for the asking if the speaker would find life.

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