'Let Them Sleepe': Donne's Personal Allusion in 'Holy Sonnet IV.' (John Donne)

By Hester, M. Thomas | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

'Let Them Sleepe': Donne's Personal Allusion in 'Holy Sonnet IV.' (John Donne)


Hester, M. Thomas, Papers on Language & Literature


Editors and commentators have remarked on the biblical authority for the curious, "vivid" composition of place which opens John Donne's fourth Holy Sonnet (fourth in the 1633 first printed edition and in the early Westmoreland manuscript).(1) The poetic mediator's figuration of Judgment Day--

At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow Your trumpets, Angells ... (1-2)

-- Recalls the precise details of the prophetic vision of the Apocalypse in Revelations:

And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds ... (7:1)

rendered in more poetic terms in The Vulgate,

Post haec vidi quatuor angelos stantes super quatuor angulos terrae, tenentes quatuor ventos terrae....

It has not been pointed out, however, that the crucial turn of the sonnet which initiates the surprising sestet also recalls the precise details of St. John's vision--details that would have struck a sensitive personal note for the author by recalling general as well as personal conditions of his situation. Attention to the significance of this biblical allusion in the poem helps to explain the chord of frustration with which this poetic meditation concludes.

As Louis Martz pointed out in his seminal study of the meditative character of Donne's Holy Sonnets, the opening composition of Judgment in this poem (ll. 1-4) leads to an analysis of "the causes of death throughout human history: a summary of sin and a reminder of its consequences" (51):

All whom the flood did, and the fire shall o'erthrow, All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies, Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes, Shall behold death, and never tast deaths woe. (5-8)

Typical of Donne's verbal dramatizations of his ideas, here the causes of death "flood" the lines, the waves of Justice carrying the sentence of the poem relentlessly forward to the finality of "death woe." But the next movement of this visionary meditation, which supplies (Martz explains) that "part of a traditional colloquy with God after a visualization of the Day of Doom," when the rational soul of the poetic meditator "prays for Grace" (52), and "the scene shifts from the general to the specific, the objective to the personal, the exterior to the interior" (Low 63), Donne's speaker, in a turn that might well recall the damned Dr. Faustus's eleventh-hour plea that time, motion, and Justice cease, begs for a "space" outside the scheme of Justice:

But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space, For, if above all these, my sinnes abound, 'Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace, When we are there; here on this lowly ground, Teach mee how to repent for that's as good As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood. (9-14)

The "lowly ground," as Martz suggests, may bear "theological overtones relating to the Catholic sacrament of Penance" (52)--most significantly the sole Catholic sacrament not retained by the Protestant Church as either a sacrament, rite, or ordinance. From this perspective it might be argued that the fear and frustration with which this meditative exercise concludes reflect the situation of Donne as the heir of a long-suffering Catholic family which traced its confessional sacrifice from the death of his younger brother for harboring a priest back to the execution of his great-grand-uncle, Sir Thomas More. As Donne wrote in the "Preface" to his first published work, Pseudo-Martyr (London, 1610),

I have been ever kept awake in a meditation of martyrdom, by being derived from such a stock and race as, I believe, no family (which is not of far larger extent and greater branches) hath endured and suffered more in their persons and fortunes, for obeying the teachers of Roman doctrine, than it hath done. (sig. B; italics added)

What has not been pointed out by editors and commentators about the poem is the biblical allusion which leads to the meditator's recollection of the absent Penance and to the fervency of his concluding plea in the poem. …

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