Trumpet Vibrations: Theological Reflections on Donne's Doomsday Sonnet
G. Richmond Bridge
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Bridge, G. Richmond. "Trumpet Vibrations: Theological Reflections on Donne's Doomsday Sonnet." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 7 (May, 2001): 12.1-43 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/si-07/bridge.htm>.

  1. John Donne's Doomsday sonnet, "At the round earths imagin'd corners,"[1] may have particular interest in a new millennium. For the octave of this apocalyptic sonnet is a graphic portrayal of the Last Day, which is the substance of much millenarian thought and preaching:

    At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow
    Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
    From death, you numberlesse infinities
    Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
    All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
    All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
    Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
    Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.

    As both Helen Gardner and Louis Martz have demonstrated,[2] this octave is a classic example of compositio loci in the Ignatian method of meditation, which Donne would have encountered in his early education as a Roman Catholic. Employing this spiritual tradition, the poet imagines himself present on the Day of Judgement, in situ, as a first-hand observer.

  2. This accounts for the dramatic immediacy of the octave. Neither Ignatian methodology nor rich poetic conventions should cloud the fact that Judgement Day was an objective reality for Donne, what he calls in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624), "the critical, the decretory day" (XIV. Expostulation).[3] In an Easter Sermon (1619), he admonishes: "Take then that which is certaine; It is certain, a judgement thou must passe. . . ." According to the preacher, all earthly judgements are in a sense temporary, "interlocutory," in light of "a finall judgement." Then, says Donne, "All judgement is given to the Son of man, and upon all the sons of men must his judgement passe" (II: 205-6)."[4] This Scriptural and credal truth is the basis for Donne's Doomsday sonnet, which Gardner convincingly argues was written in 1609-10, several years prior to the poet's ordination in 1614/15. The fact that the poem predates Donne's ordained ministry does not in itself mean that its theology is undeveloped or unreliable. We know that Donne was an ardent student of theology long before he took Orders, as testified by his third Satyre (1594-97) and his early prose works: Biathanatos (c. 1607-8), Pseudo-Martyr (1610), and Ignatius his Conclave (1611).

  3. The ministry of angels, with which the sonnet begins, cannot be minimized or simply attributed to poetic imagery. Angels were for Donne, as for Milton, theological profundities. In his Devotions, Donne speaks eloquently about the ministry of angels to God's servants, "from the first to their last." And on the Day of Judgement, he says that angels "are to carry our souls whither they carried Lazarus" (VII. Expostulation). Angels are, as the Greek word literally translates, "messengers"; they announce and bear eloquent witness to God's truth. 

  4. The angels of Donne's sonnet proclaim abiding truths of the Scriptures and the Creeds: the Last Judgement, the Resurrection of the body, and the Life everlasting. It is quite natural that Donne's imagination should be fueled by the language and imagery of Holy Scripture, especially Revelation, a book for which Donne, according to Evelyn Simpson, "had a special affection."[5] Several commentators have pointed out Donne's conflation of Revelation 7:1 ("four angels standing at the four corners of the earth") and Revelation 8:2 ("seven angels" to whom "were given seven trumpets"). Donne could also be thinking about 1 Corinthians 15:52: "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed." This passage of Scripture was appointed to be read at Burials in the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer (1559), from which Donne would have officiated. Equally important, I think, is the apocalyptic vision of Matthew 24:31, which Donne cites in a sermon (VI: 276).

  5. In this "little apocalypse," we have angels, trumpets, and the four winds; in a parallel passage, St. Mark omits the trumpets (Mk. 13:27). The phrase "four winds" also appears in Revelation 7:2, where the four angels at the four corners are "holding the four winds of the earth." "Four winds," which presumably originates in Ezekiel's valley of the dry bones, is, like "four corners," meant to be a comprehensive, all-encompassing image. All of creation is caught up in the angelic harvesting which both Scripture and Donne envision.

  6. Fed not only by Scripture but by the latest scientific theories of the Renaissance, Donne's imagination cannot conceive a square planet; hence, the four corners of Revelation become the four "imagin'd corners." Another personal interest of this highly individualistic and idiosyncratic poet appears in his catalogue of the various causes of human death throughout history, a list, which, according to Louis Martz, is "a summary of sin and reminder of its consequences."[6] "Despair," which is listed along with agues and wars, presumably refers to death by suicide. Not only had Donne in his melancholic Mitcham years (1606-11) contemplated his own suicide, but he had written an early, casuistical tract on the subject, Biathanatos, which argues that suicide can sometimes be justified, "not so naturally Sin that it may never be otherwise."[7]

  7. By whatever means death has come, all the departed -- "the numberlesse infinities of souls" -- will rise up on the day of Judgement and be reunited with their "scattered" bodies. The reintegrated person -- body and soul -- will then face judgement. In an Easter homily (1624), Donne taught that "Death is the Divorce of body and soul; Resurrection is the Re-union of body and soule" (VI: 71). In the Devotions, he speaks of the general resurrection in terms of the "re-collecting and re-uniting of this dust again" (II. Expostulation). As Helen Gardner has pointed out, the implied doctrine of this poem concerning the state of the soul after its dissolution from the body may be inconsistent with Donne's later preaching that at death the soul goes immediately to heaven;[8] however, Donne's varying opinions about the exact whereabouts of the soul in the interregnum does not diminish his belief in the ultimate reintegration of the two, which is completely consistent with the scriptural and credal affirmation of the "The Resurrection of the body, And the Life everlasting."

  8. In his Doomsday meditation (Holy Sonnet 4), Donne enumerates not only those slain by various causes but those who are still alive, breathing and kicking, on the Last Day: "you whose eyes, / Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe" (7-8). Their inclusion is of some interest to Donne, who addresses the matter in an early sermon (1619) on Psalm 89:48 ("What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death?"). The preacher prompts: 

    Aske me this question of those men, which shall be alive upon earth at the last day, when Christ comes to judgement, Quis homo, and I can make a probable answer: fortè moriemur, perchance they shall die; It is a problematicall matter, and we say nothing too peremptorily." (II: 198)

    This kind of "problematic" detail is always fascinating to Donne, although he goes on in this homily to explain that it is not a critical matter of theology but belongs to those things "indifferent," what Melancthon called adiaphora. Donne admits two possibilities for those whom Christ finds alive on Judgement Day: either they "shall dye then" or "shall but be changed, and not dye" (II: 204).

  9. Donne returns to this matter in another sermon, to which Helen Gardner refers us. This later homily (1622) on 1 Thesalonians 4:17 ("Then we which are alive, and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds. . .") also draws heavily on 1 Corinthians 15:51 ("We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed"). After examining patristic interpretations, Donne argues that those who are alive on Judgement Day shall still undergo "a present dissolution of body and soul" (a death, however brief) and "a present reintegration of the same body and the same soul" (a resurrection) when "we shall be re-compact." The difference between those still alive at the Last Day and those in the grave is that the former still have flesh, and those in the grave are "no longer flesh, but dust." As fascinating as this matter is to Donne, he still insists, in company here with both St. Jerome and St. Augustine, that this is "a thing indifferent" (IV: 74-76). Scripture does not provide a Baedeker or detailed travelogue for Judgement Day. What is clear to Donne is the Pauline notion that all will be changed: that on that awe-filled day those still alive will be part of the angelic ingathering, and not the forgotten business of an altogether busy day.

  10. For Donne, the Last Day is anything but a calm and tranquil affair, though little was low-keyed for the poet, who, says Izaak Walton, was "by nature highly passionate."[9] The passion of Judgement Day as described by Donne is faithful to the testimony of Scripture. For example, St. Luke's apocalypse, which is the Prayer Book's Gospel lection for the Second Sunday in Advent, speaks of signs in the sun and moon, distress of nations, roaring of the sea, and shaking of the heavens as preludes to the Second Coming: "And then they shall see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Lk. 21:25-26; see also Mt. 24:29-30 and Mk. 13:24-26).  We surely sense this power in the octave, which is a stirring tour de force. Donne's command verbs -- blow, arise, and goe -- which Roger Rollin calls "rapid-fire imperatives,"[10] help to create this sense of power and urgency, what Louis Martz refers to as "the compacted strength" of this poem.[11]

  11. The sheer power of the lines seems to underscore the theological certainty, the boldness of the angels as they perform their apocalyptic duties. Their trumpets, to borrow a Pauline metaphor, do not "give an uncertain sound" (1 Cor. 14:8). Donne once preached (1621) that to explain the credal truth of "the Resurrection of the Body" would require that "the lips of an Angell would be uncircumcised lips"; and that in unfolding the mystery, even "the tongue of an Archangel would stammer" (IV: 62). Yet there are no stammering angels in this poem.

  12. The octave contains more than brute force and unleashed dynamism; there is also the apocalyptic glory of which the Evangelists speak (Mt. 24:30; Mk. 13:26; Lk. 21:27). In his 1622 Easter homily, Donne says that not even the glorious Transfiguration on a high mountain was "so eminent a manifestation of the glory of Christ, as this his comming in the ayre to Judgement shall be" (IV: 84). The Doomsday sonnet certainly anticipates the glory and majesty of that final day, and provides a striking example of what Louis Martz applauds as "those grand and passionate openings of Donne's Holy Sonnets."[12] Helen White, who is equally aware of Donne's "flashes of splendor," specifically comments on the "potency" and "the magic of the words" here and says that they are a "trumpet call to the mystical poets of his tradition."[13] The rapturous, Miltonic quality of these lines was noted by early critics of Donne. Gosse writes that this sonnet "breaks forth into a burst of almost Miltonic magnificence";[14] and Grierson concurs, citing this sonnet as an example of Donne's "occasional Miltonic splendour of phrase."[15]

  13. The majestic, organ-like sounds of the Miltonic octave help capture the bombastic, penetrating sounds of Doomsday. J. B. Leishman has said of this poem: "There is something of the vast and terrible drama of the Dies Irae about it all."[16] Wilbur Sanders likewise calls this sonnet "a very fine Dies Irae"; he refers to its "spine-tingling blaze of brass orchestration" and likens it to Verdi's Requiem, where bright brass instruments dominate.[17] However, Donne's sonnet predates the development of the modern trumpet in the late seventeenth century; his concept of the trumpet would not have been that of classical, Romantic, or even baroque orchestration. He would have thought of trumpets not so much as joyful or triumphant instruments but as primarily loud heraldic horns associated with military or ceremonial functions, descendants of the Hebrew shofar or ram's-horn trumpet. Sheer volume supersedes timbre or quality of sound. Donne's use of the plural (trumpets) underscores the loudness, pageantry and inclusiveness of this final day. No one can miss this bombastic, fortissimo summons. Indeed blow, an explosive word accentuated at the end of the first line, suggests the intensity of the clamorous trumpets.

  14. Donne's trumpets are sufficient to wake the dead. In a sermon, he mentions the importance of the dead hearing: "Though they be dead, and senselesse as the dust, (for they are dust it selfe) though they bring no concurrence, no cooperation, They shall heare, that is, They shall not chuse but heare" (VI: 276). The unmistakableness of the Doomsday voice is stressed in another sermon (1622): "Since that voyce at the Creation, Fiat, Let there be a world, was never heard such a voyce as this, Surgite mortui, Arise ye dead" (IV: 69). The auditory implications of Surgite mortui also appear in the Devotions, where Donne anticipates his own hearing on Doomsday: "Then I shall hear his angels proclaim the Surgite mortui, Rise, ye dead. Though I be dead, I shall hear the voice; the sounding of the voice and the working of the voice shall be all one. . ." (II. Expostulation). The actual sounds of the last day cannot be separated from the events themselves.

  15. The imperative blow also reminds us that the trumpet is a wind instrument, a point well made in one of Donne's epitaphs, "Omnibus," which says that our worm-eaten bodies will be "enabled here to scale / Heaven, when the Trumpets ayre shall them exhale" (13-14). The angelic trumpeters, strategically placed at the four corners, control the four winds, a supply of air powerful enough to revivify Ezekiel's dry bones. The forceful gust of enlivening air is suggested by the sprightly, breathless, and breathtaking quality of the octave, which constitutes one complete sentence, a single vibrating moment. The quick tempo of these lines is enforced by the puffing, staccato-like words blow and goe. This is in keeping with St. Paul's teaching that the trumpets shall sound "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye" (1 Cor. 15:52). Likewise, in his Devotions, Donne underscores the speed at which Resurrection will occur: "all shall rise there in a less minute than any one dies here" (II. Expostulation).

  16. We sense not only an accelerated, vigorous pace in the initial lines but a rising, ascending movement as well, what M. M. Mahood identifies as a "crescendo."[18] The word arise (surgite), which Donne believed would be spoken at the end of time, itself causes the voice to rise; and its repetition makes for a soaring, upward motion. Like the high-pitched, ascending notes of a trumpet fanfare, the poem also ascends, as will bodies arise on Judgement Day. The reader is drawn heavenward, to God Himself.

  17. Although God is not mentioned until the final line of the octave, it is clear that He is the controlling force of the poem. He is more infinite than the infinities of souls; and unlike the earth, one cannot begin to imagine His corners. In fact, "cornerlesse and infinite" are attributes of the Eternal God which Donne mentions in his poem, "Upon the translation of the Psalmes by Sir Philip Sydney and the Countesse of Pembroke" (4). The angelic trumpeters are not free agents but God's servants. As Scripture teaches, God alone, and not the angels, know the day and hour of the Last Judgement (Mt. 24:36; Mk. 13:32). The aforementioned imperatives of the sonnet -- blow, arise, goe -- are God's commands to the angels; the power of these words is ultimately His. In a sermon (1629), Donne declared that "all the Angels. . . have not in them all, the power of one finger of Gods hand. . ." (IX: 136). 

  18. The thrilling trumpets which the angels sound, like the angels themselves, are God's own; His is the controlling and final voice. "All resurrections from the dead," preached Dr. Donne on Easter Day, 1622, "must be from the voice of God, and from his loud voice." The Dean explains that the divine voice "is exalted to the highest in the last word," what he identifies as the "Tuba Dei" or "The Trumpet of God," which "is the loudest voice that we can conceive God to speake in" (IV: 70).

  19. The voice of God, which the Doomsday trumpeters sound, resonates deeply within Donne himself. Indeed there is a sense in which Donne not only hears the angels and their trumpets but, as a meditative, religious poet, becomes one of them. In his poem, "To Mr. Tilman after he had taken orders," Donne compares the voice of preachers to that of angels: "for they doe / As Angels out of clouds, from Pulpits speake" (42-43). Likewise, Izaak Walton describes Donne the preacher as "an Angel from a cloud" (49). One also recalls the closing words of The Second Anniversary: "and I am / The Trumpet, at whose voyce the people came" (528). In discussing the importance of voice in Donne's sermons, Paul Stanwood and Heather Asals point out that "God's trumpet really becomes man himself"; and they assert that "the preacher-poet is the one who hears and plays the celestial harmonies, who is wrought upon."[19]

  20. The voice of the trumpet is muted in the sestet. Here there is a decrescendo; the pageantry subsides, the pace slows, the tone changes. Although less rhapsodic, the verse is no less passionate or intense. We simply find ourselves in a different mood, a mourning or bereavement:

    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 wee 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.

    Just as blow stood out at the end of the octave's first line, so now space. Though monosyllabic, space is very unlike the quick, explosive imperatives of the octave. It slows us down and makes us conscious of a linear perspective, a space quite different from the cosmic magnitude of the octave. The slowing down, of course, begins with the first word of the sestet, But, which has almost a deadening effect. The apostrophe, Lord, decelerates us even more; and then finally after there comes a full stop. The Miltonic music has died away; we are left with what Helen White called "this truncation of splendor, this sudden thwarting of starbound beauty."[20]

  21. I would argue that the trumpets of the octave still sound in the sestet, though they are muffled, sounding in the depths of Donne's own soul. Conversely, it would be wrong to intimate that the octave is devoid of personal feelings and somehow not fired by Donne's unique imagination. Poetry is, after all, personal. But the octave has a more public and much louder voice; we can almost sense Donne as Dean of St. Paul's and preacher at Paul's Cross, creating the sights and sounds of Doomsday for his hearers. The sestet, on the other hand, is remarkably personal: we are with Donne himself in private prayer. In six lines, the personal pronoun "mee" is employed three times, and the possessive "my" occurs twice.

  22. The personal, self-conscious quality of the sestet is characteristic of much of Donne's religious verse. Evelyn Simpson remarks that Donne's divine poems are "intensely personal, the record of Donne's inner strife."[21] Helen White says of these poems: "It is not the priest who speaks here but the individual soul."[22] Grierson writes that in the Holy Sonnets we find Donne "alone with his own soul in the prospect of death and the Judgement."[23] Douglas Bush finds the "explosive personal feeling" and "the immediacy of experience" in Donne's religious verse "in extremis," offering little common ground to his readers. Bush argues that in these poems "the rest of life and the world is blacked out," and the religious experience is "narrowly and concretely fundamentalist."[24] Roger Rollin, who stresses the public over the private religious nature of the sonnets, nonetheless discerns the same "in extremis" quality.  Rollin examines the Holy Sonnets in the context of seventeenth-century "religious melancholy." He sees the "hysterical outbursts" and "mood swings" of several of the sonnets as melancholic tendencies. The "sudden shift of mood" from what he calls the octave's "manic quality" he finds "almost histrionic." "Grandiosity," says Rollin, "gives way to guilt."[25] Mahood contrasts the "crescendo" of the octave with the "hushed doubt" of the sestet.[26]  

  23. Gardner and Martz, who stress the Ignatian tradition of meditation in the sonnets, see the sestet as petition or colloquy, that which naturally follows the compositio loci of the octave. Having imagined the final day, Donne then addresses God. Here, says Martz, "the will expresses its 'affection' and 'petitions' in colloquy with God."[27] Gardner observes that Donne now petitions "the Lord to delay the summons and teach a present repentance."[28] With this prayer for God's help, Donne does not despair but, to the contrary, places himself in God's hands.

  24. From an Ignatian perspective, Donne's meditative process has worked most effectively. His imaginative composition of the Day of Judgement has awakened in his own self great shortcomings and a sense of unpreparedness. As Gosse puts it: "But he has no sooner summoned this cloud of witnesses than he considers again how unready he is, with no day's work done, to join the cohorts."[29] George Williamson echoes this, saying that Donne's "desire for that time and place is dramatically checked by his sense of unworthiness."[30]

  25. The visualization of Doomsday has made Donne afraid for his own soul and prodded him "to work out" his "own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). Richard Hooker, who understood the positive nature of fear, specifically advocates meditating upon the Last Things for "opening and illuminating the eye of faith." He writes that "the resurrection of the dead, the Judgement of the World to come, and the endles miserie of sinners being apprehended, this worketh feare. . . ." Fear, says Hooker, can contribute to the soul's health; it makes men "desirous to prevent if possibly they may, whatsoever evill they dread."[31] In one of the Holy Sonnets, "This is my play's last scene," Donne admits that the fear of Christ "already shakes my every joint" (8). He ends another of the sonnets, "Oh, to vex me," with this poignant statement of self-awareness: "Those are my best dayes, when I shake with fear" (14).

  26. Fear is certainly a part of the Gospel's apocalyptic vision; Jesus Himself prophesies that "men's hearts shall fail them for fear" (Lk. 21:26). Yet in the same apocalyptic passage, Christ urges his disciples to be confident: "then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh" (verse 28). Although some fear is healthy, too much can be self-defeating, demoralizing, and even paralyzing. In "A Hymnne to God the Father," Donne speaks of his own "sinne of feare" about death (13), but the radiance of Christ ultimately outshines all his limitations, and the poet can confidently say, "I feare no more" (18).

  27. Within a few lines, we see two ends of the spiritual spectrum: compulsive, sinful anxiety about one's end and the blissful confidence of Dame Julian of Norwich that "all shall be well." This is not manic-depressive behaviour but is in keeping with the realism of the Gospel. Donne's self-understanding, study of theology, and later experience as a pastor, would all have made him sensitive to the spiritual dangers of extremes: on the one hand, of scrupulously worrying about one's soul or, on the other hand, of being pridefully confident about one's salvation. In The Litanie, Donne prays for deliverance from both: "From being anxious, or secure, . . .Good Lord, deliver us" (XV: 127, 135). Donne's life and verse would suggest that he personally had to struggle more with anxiety than with complacency or false security. Indeed Donne's biographer, R. C. Bald, sees Donne's uncertainty about his own salvation as "the essential cause" of his not following the persuasion of the King and Thomas Morton to enter the ministry. Furthermore, Bald boldly asserts: "He was in doubt of his salvation, and therefore terrified at the thought of death."[32] Similarly, Douglas Peterson has spoken of Donne's "inordinate desire for assurance."[33]

  28. Concern for one's own salvation, or anxiety about one's Doomsday sentence, was a particular theological emphasis of Donne's age, as both Helen White and Evelyn Simpson have argued.[34] Donne, who could write about the "imagin'd corners" of the earth, was very much a man of his time; and so he too could worry that God, in the words of one of his Holy Sonnets, "wilt'not chuse me" ("As due by many titles," 13). Yet Donne carefully avoided the extremes of Calvinistic or Puritan theology, and the emphasis it placed on predestination and damnation. By nature, Donne was not passive but a seeker. His Renaissance spirit of exploration is not godless humanism, but is compatible with the optimistic thrust of his religion, which caused him to trust in the loving providence of God. In one of the Holy Sonnets, "Wilt thou love God," Donne reassures the reader that God "Hath deign'd to chuse thee by adoption, / Coheire to'his glory,' and Sabbaths endlesse rest" (7-8). In his Essays in Divinity, written at an early date (c. 1614/15), Donne does not write about a delaying but rather a hurrying of Doomsday. He says the prayers of the faithful on earth "may much advantage and benefit" everyone, and by them "God may be moved to hasten that judgement which shall set open Heavens greater gates. . ." (II: 2).[35]

  29. Donne's lively hope and assurance find expression in many of his theological writings. In an early sermon (1618), Donne says that the objective word of the Gospel provides "the assurance of the peace of Conscience" (I: 294); in another early sermon (1619), Donne says that divine grace "shall create in thee a modest and sober, but yet an infallible assurance, that thy salvation shall never depart from thee" (II: 262). On Christmas Day, 1622, Donne says that he has searched the Scriptures to find the "marks" of the redeemed, and he then professes: "I grow to a religious, and modest assurance, that those marks are upon me." He continues: "I finde reasons to prove to me, that God does love my soule. . ." (IV: 284). 

  30. With the passage of time, Donne's assurance loses all modesty, and the darkness of the middle years fully dissipates. In his 1628 Easter sermon, Donne says that faith requires "the application of the Gospell to our selves; not an assent that Christ dyed, but an assurance that Christ dyed for all" (VIII: 229). In a sermon on the penitential psalms, Donne speaks at length about the serenity and security of conscience; he says that the consoling work of the Holy Spirit -- "to blow away all scrupples, all diffidences, and to establish an assurance in the Conscience" -- has indeed delivered him personally "from all scruples, and all timorousness" that his sins are not forgiven (IX: 263). In a striking passage, Donne confidently asserts that the angels' trumpets will sound for him. God, he guarantees: 

    will never Impute mine Iniquity, never suffer it to terrifie my Conscience; Not now, when his Judgements, denounced by his Minister, call me to him here; Nor hereafter, when the last bell shall call me to him, into the grave; Nor at last, when the Angels Trumpets shall call me to him, from the dust, in the Resurrection. (IX: 264)

    Donne's first biographer, Isaac Walton, speaks of Donne's "Assurance of God's favour" when he composed "An Hymn to God the Father" (61). Furthermore, Walton tells us about Donne's design of a personal emblem: the body of Christ Crucified affixed "not to a Cross but to an Anchor (the Emblem of hope)" (63). Walton also explains that for his sculptured monument, Donne had his face "purposely turned toward the East, from whence he expected the second coming. . ." (78). In the Devotions, Donne prays that when he has deposited his sins in the wounds of Christ, he will "rest in that assurance, that my conscience is discharged from further anxiety, and my soul from further danger. . ." (III. Prayer). In his death-bed "An Hymne to God, my God, in my sickness" (March 23, 1630), Donne does not begin with if but since: "Since I am coming to that Holy roome" (1).

  31. Whatever anxiousness the younger Donne had about his own salvation sprung in large part from the painful awareness of his own past and his need for repentance. He knew that it would be too late to repent on Judgement Day and that he must do so "here on this lowly ground" (12). The burning question, which a guilt-ridden Donne asks in an early poem, Satyre I (1593-95) -- "But how shall I be pardon'd my offence / That thus have sinn'd against my conscience?" (65-66) -- is asked four times in the course of a late poem, "A Hymne to God the Father" (1623): "Wilt thou forgive that sinne. . .?" (1, 3, 7, 9).

  32. Douglas Peterson has argued that "the controlling principle in all nineteen of the Holy Sonnets is the Anglican doctrine of contrition," or sorrow for sin.[36] Long before this article, Grierson had mentioned Donne's "passionate penitence."[37] Helen Gardner speaks of Donne's "personal unworthiness that is very near to despair"; and comparing Donne to Dr. Johnson, she says that "he remained burdened by the consciousness of his sins."[38] Terry Sherwood notes the "penitential thrust, which any interpretation of Donne's sonnets must take into account"; and, in the context of his treatment of the Petrarchan love conflict in the sonnets, he argues that "the shape of old loves unsettles the assurance that would fulfill his [Donne's] experience of that [divine] love."[39]

  33. Many Donne scholars have pointed out that most of Donne's religious verse belongs to his melancholic Mitcham years, during which time he was struggling with his own vocation to the priesthood. Whether we accept Bald's assertion that Donne refused orders because he distrusted his salvation, there can be little doubt that Donne felt unworthy of orders. Walton cites a letter to the Dean of Gloucester, Dr. Thomas Morton, in which Donne says that "some irregularities of my life have been so visible to some men" (34). Yet, as Edmund Gosse has argued, it may be "absurd" to think that contrition alone could bewilder Donne, a man of strong intellect and "stalwart will," and "could unhinge such a perspicuous conscience as his."[40] In a similar vein, Leishman argues that the "dramatization" and "exaggeration" of the Doomsday sonnet should not be mistaken for Donne's "habitual attitude or mood." He explains Donne's tendency of

    deliberately raising to the highest pitch of drama (sometimes, one might almost be tempted to say, of melodrama) what theology tells him is the reality of his situation, in order, as it were, to convince himself, or re-convince himself, of that reality, in order to achieve the completest possible imaginative realization of it. He has to stimulate his awareness of God by dwelling on the awfulness of God, has to exaggerate the sins of his youth in order to bring home to himself the need for repentance, has to underline the urgency for repentance by dwelling on the terrors of death and the possibility of perishing, as he later expressed it, on the shore.[41]

    The relationship of Donne's vocational crisis to this Doomsday sonnet takes on new significance with Martz's assertion that the Jesuits recommended Judgement Day as an appropriate meditation for someone wrestling with his calling.[42] This vocational emphasis does not render the sestet any less personal, but perhaps it helps us to view these lines not so much within the context of excessive guilt or melancholia but more within the realm of conventional spirituality. It is both usual and desirable that any aspirant to the priesthood feel extremely unworthy of Holy Orders. Walton places Donne in exalted company, commenting that the poet, "considering his own demerits, did humbly ask God with St. Paul, Lord, who is sufficient for these things?" (Life 46). The Anglican Ordinal, as used in Donne's day, reminds candidates "of what dignity, and of how great importance this office is" and "to how chargeable an office" they are called; but it also acknowledges that only by God's "strength and power," and not by human will alone, can the priesthood be exercised.[43]

  34. So it is possible to see Donne's sense of unworthiness not as an obsessive, rigorous trait or as a character flaw but as a Christian virtue, a growth in humility. Evelyn Simpson more than hints at this: "As he grew in holiness, sin became more distasteful to him, and the blackness of his own heart appalled him, so that there were times when he doubted of his share in the mercy of God."[44] Helen White echoes this when she says that Donne's apparent preoccupation with damnation and salvation, "what to the modern mind seems one of the grimmest things in Donne," was actually "one of the sanest."[45] He approached religious ideas not with the usual fanaticism of his age, but with intellect, self-confidence and common sense.

  35. Within this framework of thoughtfulness, of humility and holiness, one must see Donne's claim to be the worst of sinners, his sins abounding above and beyond those of the "numberlesse infinities / Of soules." At first, this may seem a good example of what Helen Gardner calls "a note of exaggeration" in the sonnets;[46] it may even appear egotistical or audacious. Wilbur Sanders, who finds the sestet artificial, unconvincing and "complacently pious," asks whether we are really "expected to believe that 'above all these, my sinnes abound'?"[47] However, it must be emphasized that with this claim Donne echoes the spirituality of St. Paul, who described himself as the "chiefest" of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).  In 1618, about three years after his ordination, Donne preached two sermons on this Pauline text. In arguing that the fruit of the Gospel is humility, Donne declares: "it brings them that embrace it, to acknowledge themselves to be the greatest sinners" (I: 286). In the second homily, Donne argues that it does not matter whether St. Paul actually, "materially," was preeminent among sinners, but it is enough that it was "formally" true, "that it appeared to him to be true" (316). The preacher insists that the end of Christ's miracles and the Church's preaching is "to make men capable of salvation by acknowledging themselves to be sinners" (314). Donne's theology, says Simpson, "encouraged him to see in himself a sinner indeed, perhaps the chief of sinners, but still a sinner saved by the mercy of Christ."[48] Walton reports that Donne, on his death-bed, said:

    I cannot plead innocency of life, especially of my youth; But I am to be judged by a merciful God, who is not willing to see what I have done amiss. And, though of my self I have nothing to present to him but sins and misery: yet, I know he looks not upon me now as I am of my self, but as I am in my Saviour. . . . (76-77)

  36. Donne's preoccupation with self never stood in the way of his orthodox perception of God's mercy, the root cause of man's justification and salvation. Thus, Itrat Husain speaks of Donne's "exalted conception of Divine Mercy and his intense and living faith in the redemptive mission of Christ."[49] A significant part of his Essays in Divinity, written before Donne took orders, addresses God's mercy, which, confesses the author, "is infinite in Extent" and "infinite in Duration" (II.2, 63). Later he writes that God's mercy is "abundantly enough for all the world" (73). In The Lamentations of Jeremy (c. 1620-22), Donne says that Christ "doth take / Compassion, as his mercy's infinite" (III: 224-25). In an Easter sermon (1622), he speaks of the "overflowing, and inexhaustible mercy of God" (IV: 79). In his Christmas Sermon of 1624, Donne says that God's mercy, which is "elder then our beginning, and shall over-live our end," has "no relation to time, no limitation in time" (VI: 170). He likens God's mercy to a never-ending circle, "alwayes in motion, and alwayes moving towards All" (175). In his Devotions, Donne says of God: "for as thy majesty, so is thy mercy, both infinite" (XXIII. Expostulation). There can be no question but that Donne's Christology and soteriology are intact.

  37. Regardless of his tendency to self-absorption, Donne is not prideful or boastful about his being saved. There is nothing Pelagian, self-made, or excessively individualistic in his understanding of his salvation in Christ. The plural pronoun "wee" of line 12 of the sonnet makes it abundantly clear that Donne anticipates reaching Judgement Day and the benefits of heaven in the company of the whole Church Catholic, the Communion of Saints. Donne can indeed picture himself among the "numberlesse infinities of souls," among those who have been redeemed and forgiven. In one of the concluding prayers of his Essays in Divinity, Donne even acknowledges the evangelical witness which his presence, in spite of himself and his own efforts, will make. He prays: "But let me, in despite of Me, be of so much use to thy glory, that by thy mercy to my sin, other sinners may see how much sin thou canst pardon" (97).

  38. The word pardon, which occurs frequently in Donne's essays and sermons, and which is the last word of his Devotions (XXIII. Prayer: "pardoned"), may have had special appeal to Donne, given his legal training at both Thavies Inn (1591) and Lincoln's Inn (1592-94).[50] Undeniably, there is a strong juridical strain in the Doctrine of the Atonement. Whatever particular emphasis one takes in Atonement theology, the chief point must be that general pardon comes through the cross of Jesus, by His death and passion. Such pardon is exceedingly costly and is a complete contrast to the secular notion of pardons, which "are in this market cheaply sold" ("A letter to the Lady Carey," 9). In another of the Holy Sonnets, "Spit in my face," Donne places Christ's pardon, "his strange love," on a plane much higher than that of any earthly ruler: "Kings pardon, but he bore our punishment" (9-10).

  39. Donne's use of "pardon" in the last line of the Doomsday Sonnet is problematic in that it appears in a clause beginning with "as if." Rollins calls the conditional mood here "shocking if not heretical."[51] It does not surprise me that Donne, "the monarch of wit" and master of paradox, walks close to the edge and intentionally shocks us; but I cannot accept that as a conscientious student of theology he would knowingly commit such heresy. In one of his sermons on the penitential psalms, Donne says that when pardon is truly passed, only an evil spirit could convince us otherwise: "Guile and deceit in that spirit, nay it is the spirit of falshood and deceit it selfe, that will not suffer us to enjoy that pardon, which God hath sealed to us, but still maintaine jealousies, and suspition, between God and us" (IX: 272). He goes on to admonish: "But rejoyce in Gods generall forgiving of Transgressions, That Christ hath dyed for all, multiply thy joy in the covering of thy sin, That Christ hath instituted a Church, in which that generall pardon is made thine in particular. . ." (273).

  40. The benefits of Christ's death and passion have no bounds, and even the black soul of John Donne is included. In a Whitsunday sermon (1622), Donne says that God, who "would have all men saved," cannot be restrained: "God does meane, simply All, so as that no man can say to another, God meanes not thee, no man can say to himselfe, God meanes not me" (V: 53). In the Devotions, Donne prays: "O Lord, pardon me, me, all those sins which thy Son Christ Jesus suffered for, who suffered for all the sins of all the world. . ." (X. Prayer). In an All Saints' Day sermon (1623), Donne says that when the spotless Lamb was slain, "all the debts not only of our fore-fathers, and ours, but of the last man, that shall be found alive at the last day, were then payed, so long beforehand" (X: 48). Donne knew that the cross of Christ stands between each soul and the dreadful Day of Judgement. He realized that the cross reaches out in all directions: to the four winds of heaven and to the four corners of the earth.

  41. This sealing of pardon comes through Christ's blood, which, significantly is the word with which this sonnet ends. It also is the last word of Donne's final sermon (February 25, 1630), in which he assures the congregation of their resurrection and ascension into God's kingdom, which Christ had bought for them with "the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood" (X: 248). Bush, who considers Donne's religious poetry fundamentalistic, disparagingly remarks that "all questions are dissolved in Christ's blood."[52] But, theologically speaking, there can be no other resolution. The Doctrine of the Atonement is at the heart of the Christian Faith: Christ's blood atones for our sins and reconciles us to the Father; it reconciles earth and heaven, men and angels. Evelyn Simpson writes that Donne was "sufficiently convinced of the truth of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement" to realize that his repentance for his past sins "had been accepted in virtue of his faith in the blood of Christ."[53]

  42. In the Ascension sonnet of the La Corona sequence, Donne speaks of the propitiatory character of Christ's sacrificial death, addressing God in these terms: "Oh, with thy owne blood quench thy owne just wrath" (12). Likewise, in one of the Holy Sonnets, "As due by many titles," Donne says: ". . .when I was decay'd / Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine" (3-4). In The Second Anniversary, he admonishes: ". . .trust th'immaculate blood to wash thy score" (106). In yet another of the Holy Sonnets, "Oh my blacke Soule," Donne affirms that the blood of Christ "dyes red soules to white" (line14). Likewise, Donne preaches that Christ has washed the Church "in his own blood, which washes white, and wiped her with the garments of his own righteousnesse" (VI: 65).

  43. Not surprisingly, many of Donne's sermons bear eloquent testimony to the power of Christ's blood. In a Christening homily, which reveals the preacher's penchant for legal imagery, Donne likens Christ's sacrificial death to his "Deed of gift" and "a seale in his blood" (V: 122). Preaching about the satisfaction made by the death of Christ, Donne says that "there is enough given, and accepted in the treasure of his blood, for the Remission of all Transgressions" (IX: 259). Preaching against "an over-tender conscience," Donne says that forgiven sins have been "buried in the Sea of the blood of Christ Jesus" (IX: 306 ) and that "God keeps nothing in his minde against the last day" (313). In his 1622 Christmas sermon, Donne speaks at length about the Pauline phrase "peace through the Blood of His Cross" (Colossians 1:19-20). Meditating on the generous amounts of Christ's blood shed in His circumcision, passion, and the piercing of His side, Donne confesses: "Though then one drop of his bloud had beene enough to have redeemed infinite worlds" (IV: 296). If one drop of Christ's blood can redeem the "numberlesse infinities of soules" who will be aroused by Doomsday trumpeters, one drop could surely seal John Donne's pardon.


1. Sonnet VII in The Poems of John Donne (1: 325); Sonnet 4 in The Divine Poems of John Donne (8). 

2. See Gardner, The Divine Poems (l-liv); Martz (27-32).

3. All quotations of Donne's Devotions are from the Ann Arbor edition.

4. The Sermons of John Donne. All quotations of the sermons are from this edition (volume, page number).  

5. See Simpson (212). 

6. See Martz (51). 

7. From the subtitle of Donne's Biathanatos (1).

8. See Gardner (xliv-xlv, and Appendix A, 114-17).

9. See Walton (84). All quotations of The Life are from this edition. 

10. See Rollin (138).

11. See Martz (111).

12. Ibid. (31).

13. See White (92, 142-43).

14. See Gosse (2.108).

15. See Grierson (2.lii-liii).

16. See Leishman (265).

17. See Sanders (131).

18. See Mahood (123).

19. See Stanwood and Asals (127).

20. See White (93).

21. See Simpson (211).

22. See White (120).

23. See Grierson (2.lii).

24. See Bush (137, 140).

25. See Rollin  (136-37, 138). Helen Gardner also refers to "the almost histrionic note" of these sonnets (xxi).

26. See Mahood (123).

27. See Martz (51).

28. See Gardner (lii).

29. See Gosse (2.108).

30. See Williamson (85).

31. See Hooker 7.3.2. Quotations are from the Folger edition (3.8).

32. See Bald (232, 234). Bald quotes a passage from a sermon in which Donne talks of "the distrust of thy salvation" (3.302-3).

33. See Peterson (322).

34. See White (110-111 and 121-122). See also Simpson (87-88).

35. See Donne (Essays in Divinity 76). All quotations of Donne's Essays are from this edition.

36. See Peterson  (314).

37. See Grierson (2.liii).

38. See Gardner (xxxi, xxxvi). Likewise, Bald says that Donne was "haunted by recollections of sin" (234). LeComte says that in some of the sonnets, including "At the round earths imagin'd corners," Donne "frenetically endeavours to hope but is never far from despair" (153). I think that despair is too strong a word for Gardner and LeComte to attach to Donne's anxiety and penitence. Donne once said: "I am the man that cannot despair, since Christ is the remedy" (cited in Mahood 89).

39. See Sherwood (147, 157).

40. See Gosse  (1.161).

41. See Leishman (264-65).

42. See Martz  (219-220).

43. See Liturgical Services . . . in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth (288, 291). These words also appear in the ordination rites of both 1549 and 1552.

44. See Simpson  (9).

45. See White (111).

46. See Gardner (xxx). As indicated earlier, Leishman also speaks of this feature of "exaggeration" in the Divine Poems (see above, note 41).

47. See Sanders (132).

48. See Simpson (87). She continues: "He was conscious of his own repentance, and distrust of salvation seemed to him a lack of faith." 

49. See Husain (105), who argues that such faith led Donne "to reject the doctrine of Predestination" and to believe that "God's promise of salvation extended to all those who believed in Christ" (105-6).

50. Donne's legal interest continued throughout his life. He was later Divinity Reader at Lincoln's Inn (1616-22), Justice of the Peace for Kent and Bedford (1622), Prolocutor of Convocation (1626), and served as a member of both the Court of Delegates (1622-31) and the Court of High Commission. 

51. See Rollin (138).

52. See Bush (141).

53. See Simpson (86).

Works Cited

    © 2001-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
    (RGS, LJ, WSH, 10 May, 2001 )