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In "Holy Sonnet VI," as in other sonnets by Donne (see especially "Holy Sonnet X" -- "Death be not proud..."), the poet presents a life/death paradox. Donne views death as merely a temporary rest on the way to everlasting life. In "Holy Sonnet VI," this idea is seen most clearly in lines 4-8 when he writes, "My span's last inch, my minute's latest point ; / And gluttonous Death will instantly unjoint/ My body and soul, and I shall sleep a space ; /But my ever-waking part shall see that face,/Whose fear already shakes my every joint." Here, Donne speaks of finishing the race, which symbolically represents his life, and then "sleep[ing] a space," which is the temporary rest provided by death. Although his body has died, his soul, his "ever-waking part"will not perish. Paradoxically, though, the body must die in order for the soul to earn its eternal life.
This theme is continued in the next several lines, as well, when Donne writes, "Then, as my soul to heaven her first seat takes flight, / And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell, / So fall my sins, that all may have their right, / To where they're bred and would press me to hell" (9-12). Again, Donne emphasizes the separation of the body and soul and the necessity of bodily death to achieve eternal life of the soul. His body remains "in the earth" (in the grave), while his soul flies "to heaven," leaving the sins of mortal life behind forever. For Donne, this is a joyous occasion. While on earth, sin threatens to damn him, so sloughing off that sin as his soul ascends makes Donne feel free. It may be natural to fear death, but Donne's religious beliefs instead cause him to embrace death, as it is necessary in order for his soul to dwell in eternal peace.
The paradox of the poem -- the idea that the body must endure death in order for the soul to celebrate eternal life -- effectively solidifies Donne's theme. This paradox is developed over the course of the sonnet but is succinct enough to work within the strict confines of the sonnet form.
John Donne (1572-1631) although a contemporary of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) did not adhere to Elizabethan conventions of smooth metre and classical allusions. Rather, he introduced contrasts and paradoxes and extended metaphors in his writing that drove his points home. This new form became known as "metaphysical" poetry. In Holy Sonnet VI, he discusses impending death, using verbiage associated with time and distance. "my race, idly yet quickly run" introduces the paradox of an idle yet quick race, the resulting paradox it implies suggests an idle life, yet a life that went quickly by. Another is his use of "mile" and "inch", large and small distance measures. "Span" could also apply to the distance of his running stride; His "...span's last inch" could mean the last little bit of his running stride; additionally it could mean his lifespan, or time on Earth, nearly used up.
Donne's sonnet paints the scene of death and the separation of body and soul. The central paradox in the poem occurs at the turn of the sonnet:
"Then, as my soul, to'heaven her first seat, takes flight,
And earth-born body, in the earth shall dwell,
So, fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they'are bred, and would press me, to hell."
The soul ascends towards bliss and the body remains behind in the earth -- that much is clear.
The contrast exists between the soul purified and the soul besmirched in sin. The paradox lies in how the soul becomes purified. A correct reading of the quoted line is imperative to an accurate understanding of the poem.
A good paraphrase goes thus: my soul makes her way to heaven, leaving the body in the tomb, and as it does so, my sins fall off from her, and this falling off happens so that they (the sins) may inherit that from which they came (hell), which is place where they would take me if they could.
The paradox, then, is how the soul is really deserving of heaven. Wherefore comes the rightousness? It comes not through any deserving action of the soul, since death has separated the soul from the part through which it can act.
The paradox is not untangled by the language of the sonnet. Instead, it is through the paradox that the poem acquires its emotional power. Consider this last image:
"But my ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose fear already shakes my every joint."
The soul, rising to its eternal home, is purified by gazing upon the "face" of (presumably) God. Thus, two actions create a powerful contrast: looking and movement. The soul fixes its gaze on an object that engenders fear, meanwhile it moves in a metaphorical "space" towards its object while negative qualities (sin) fall, or "move", in the opposite direction on account of the object upon which sight is fixed. The poem effectively communicates the sensation of separation between body and soul through contrasting imagery, while leveraging the paradox of undeserved justification to give the poem its emotional resonance.
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