John Donne's Holy Sonnets by John Donne

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In John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 6," how do Donne's paradoxical statements depend on a contrast. Are they effective?

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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...

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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.