A reading of a classic Donne poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ In other words, what if the world ended tonight – what, then, would be the fate of my immortal soul? This is the matter that John Donne considers in this, one of his holy sonnets. As ever with Donne, his language and imagery require a bit of careful unpacking and close analysis, but the meaning of his poem can be ascertained by going through this powerful sonnet.
What if this present were the world’s last night?
Mark in my heart, O soul, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether that countenance can thee affright,
Tears in his eyes quench the amazing light,
Blood fills his frowns, which from his pierced head fell.
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which prayed forgiveness for his foes’ fierce spite?
No, no; but as in my idolatry
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pity, foulness only is
A sign of rigour: so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assigned,
This beauteous form assures a piteous mind.
‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ is a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet rhymed abbaabbacddcee. The poem sees Donne addressing his soul and asking: what if the world ended tonight and the Day of Judgement came? Are you afraid to come face to face with Christ, and would he have justification for sending you to hell? Remember that Christ prayed for forgiveness for those who crucified him (‘Forgive them, oh Father, for they know not what they do’). Donne decides the answer to these two questions is ‘no’ and ‘no’. As he used to tell his mistresses when he enjoyed a life of sexual leisure (remember he’s addressing his soul now, so the contrast is notable): ‘Beauty is a sign of pity or compassion, and ugliness is a sign of severity and a lack of compassion.’ In other words, beautiful people have beautiful, kind, forgiving souls, while hideous-looking people have stern, unforgiving ones.
So, Donne reassures his soul, wicked spirits give away their wickedness by being horrid and ugly, but a beautiful appearance guarantees (‘assures’) a compassionate mind. Given that the image of Christ crucified is both horrific and beautiful to a Christian (horrific for obvious reasons, beautiful because of the salvation and sacrifice it represents), Donne appears to come to the conclusion that Christ’s compassion is guaranteed by his ‘beauteous form’. The same may go for the speaker and his soul: Donne (who was, as contemporary portraits show, clearly a handsome man who was attractive to the opposite sex) need have little reason to fear the fate of his soul, since a beautiful appearance equals a beautiful soul.
The problem is that, in the sestet, or concluding six-line section, Donne’s syntax becomes a little compact and ambiguous, and requires careful analysis:
Beauty, of pity, foulness only is
A sign of rigour
Might be paraphrased as: ‘Beauty is a sign of pity or mercy; pure foulness is a sign of rigour or harshness.’ In summary, then, Donne is saying that horrible-looking things that have no redeeming beauty are most likely to be evil, and should be given a wide berth.
‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ is not Donne’s most famous poem, nor even one of the more famous holy sonnets; but its central idea of reconciling inward qualities with outward appearance make it worthy of consideration and close analysis.
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.