A reading of a classic Donne poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Oh my black soul’ is one of John Donne’s finest sacred poems. It is also, perhaps, one of the finest and most powerful deathbed poems in all of English literature. But why does it carry such power? A few words of analysis concerning this classic sonnet are included below.
Oh my black Soul! Now thou art summoned
By sickness, death’s herald, and champion;
Thou art like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he is fled,
Or like a thief, which till deaths doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver’d 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 lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
Oh make thy self with holy mourning black;
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.
‘Oh my black soul’ is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, and is rhymed abbaabbacdcdee. The poem sees Donne addressing his own blackened and degraded soul near the time of his death. Before we proceed to analyse the poem, a short paraphrase of the sonnet might be useful as a sort of summary:
Oh my black soul! You are now summoned by sickness – which, like a knight championing a monarch, is death’s champion because it brings people to death, and is also the herald of death, since it precedes it. You (soul) are like a religious traveller, who, while abroad, did treason, and as a result doesn’t dare to return to the place from which he fled. You’re also like a thief, who, until the day comes when he is executed for his crimes, longs to be released from prison; but when he is dragged from his cell to be executed, longs to be back in prison. Yet for all this, if you repent, you can’t fail to earn a bit of grace. But who will give you that grace, in the first place? Dress yourself in black clothes, as though you’re in mourning, and in red, to reflect the red nature of your sins; or wash yourself in Christ’s blood, which, although red, turns red sins white because it has the holy ‘might’ or power of God.
The poem’s use of colour-imagery is noteworthy, especially in that final couplet about Christ’s blood, which uses paradox – as does the concluding couplet of another of Donne’s holy sonnets, ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’ – to depict the ‘might’ of God (although in that other sonnet, Donne’s after a good ravishing from God, in order to make him chaste – well, we did say it was a paradox). To get rid of his soul’s red sins, Donne should splash himself with Christ’s blood (a nod to the Eucharist, where the red wine symbolises Christ’s blood – or, according to the Catholic belief in which Donne was raised, actually becomes Christ’s blood), and, miraculously, two reds equal a white, for Christ’s blood will purify Donne, and wash away his sins.
Note the clever use of rhyme: ‘imprisoned’ confirms the lock or enclosure which the abba rhyme enacts (where the fourth line seals the quatrain into a little self-contained, or self-imprisoned, unit, returning us as it does to the first line), but the middle rhyme reinforces this sense of enclosure, since ‘imprisoned’ must pick up not just on ‘read’ (which it rhymes with) but ‘prison’ (rhymed with ‘execution’) in that middle couplet. Perhaps not until T. S. Eliot rhymed ‘prison’ with ‘prison’ in The Waste Land would we see such inventive prison-rhymes in English verse again.
‘Oh my black soul’, like many of Donne’s best poems, is direct, uses vivid imagery, and engages us as readers in Donne’s state of mind in an immediate, almost visceral way. As with all of his finest poetry, it repays close analysis for this reason.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.