Title: DONNE'S HOLY SONNET 18 ,  By: Rovang, Paul R., Explicator, 00144940, Fall98, Vol. 57, Issue 1

Donne's HOLY SONNET 18

Show me, dear Christ, thy spouse so bright and clear.
What! is it she which on the other shore
Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore,
Laments and mourns in Germany and here?
Sleeps she a thousand, then peeps up one year?
Is she self-truth, and errs? now new, now outwore?
Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore
On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?
Dwells she with us, or like adventuring knights
First travel we to seek, and then make love?
Betray, kind husband, they spouse to our sights,
And let mine amorous soul court thy mild dove,
Who is most true and pleasing to thee then
When she is embraced and open to most men.

                                   --John Donne

Donne's Holy Sonnets are well described as "a personal record of a brilliant mind struggling towards God" (Grandsen 132). Sonnet 18 reveals the speaker's anguish over the fragmentation of the Church visible and his perplexity over the identity of the true Church. Lines 7-8 ask, "Doth she, and did she, and shall she evermore / On one, on seven, or on no hill appear?" (Abrams 1117-18). At which place, the speaker inquires, dwells Christ's true "spouse"? The seven hills clearly allude to the Church of Rome, and "no hill" is generally understood as a reference to the Church of England with its see at Canterbury. Donne's mention of "one . . . hill," however, is problematic. Critics are divided over whether it alludes to Geneva, the center of Calvinism, with its old city positioned on a hill, or Mount Moriah, the traditional site of Solomon's Temple, in the Holy Land. Grandsen (137), Louthian (127), and Warnke (110), for example, all hold the former opinion, while Carey (254), Gardner (80), and Shawcross (350) contend the latter. The editors of The Norton Anthology of English Literature perhaps put the problem best: "It is a crux, not easy of solution" (1118 n3).(n1)

The poem's final image of the Church as a promiscuous wife "embraced and open to most men" (14), as well as the puzzling mention of one hill, finds antecedents in Christ's conversation with the Samaritan woman in John's Gospel. Recognizing the intertextuality of this New Testament passage with the poem not only resolves the "crux" mentioned by the Norton editors, but unlocks a significant reading of the poem.

In John, chapter 4 (King James Version), the woman of Samaria contends with Jesus, as a Jew, over the true place of worship: "Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship" (v. 20, emphasis added). Jesus' response revolutionizes the question: "Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father" (v. 21, emphasis added). The mountain to which both Jesus and the woman refer is Gerizim, sacred to the Samaritans, who had diverged from orthodox Judaism during the Babylonian exile. Insisting on their exclusively proper places of worship, Jews and Samaritans anathematized one another, Moriah in Jerusalem being Judaism's holy mount. Predicting the approach of an age when the seat of worship will be located only in the human heart, Jesus explains, "the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him" (v. 23).

With reference to our poem it is essential to recognize that St. John's image is of Christ in propria persona courting his true bride. The key features of this episode follow those of the Old Testament betrothal type-scene, which, as Robert Alter outlines

must take place with the future bridegroom, or his surrogate, having journeyed to a foreign land. There he encounters a girl . . . or girls at a well. Someone, either the man or the girl, then draws water from the well; afterward, the girl or girls rush to bring home the news of the stranger's arrival (the verbs "hurry" and "run" are given recurrent emphasis at this junction of the type-scene); finally, a betrothal is concluded between the stranger and the girl. . . . (52)

The two most famous Old Testament versions of the betrothal type-scene are those of Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 24.10-61) and Jacob and Rachel (Gen. 29.1-20). Donne would likely have noted in them typological foreshadowings of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman, particularly since the well in John is "Jacob's well" (4.6) and the Samaritan woman pointedly challenges Jesus, "Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself . . . ?" (v. 12).

When Jesus discerns that the woman, in contrast to her typological predecessors Rachel and Rebekah, has "had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband," she, flustered, initiates debate on the true place of worship. Following the exchange already outlined, the woman departs, astonished, to tell her countrymen, many of whom also "believed on him [Jesus] for the saying of that woman" (v. 39). The entire episode therefore presents the spiritual acceptance of an outcast nation into true worship through the agency of Christ. The heavenly bridegroom courts his promiscuous bride, who urgently goes out and embraces other men: "The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men, Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?" (vv. 28-29).

The Samaritans learn that with the advent of Messiah, true worship is no longer tied to a geographical location, but rather to a disposition of the heart. By thinking in terms of geography and tradition rather than spiritual attitude, the poem's speaker errs comparably to the Samaritan woman protesting that Mount Gerizim is the true place of worship. Is the true Church, he asks, "she which on the other shore / Goes richly painted? or which, robbed and tore, / Laments and mourns in Germany and here?" (lines 2-4). The source of his perplexity is that he wishes to see that which is invisible, invisible because no longer localized, though the traditions of Christendom erroneously attempt to make it so. Christ's true spouse, comprehending all traditions of the visible church without being bound to any, is therefore "open to most men" (14).

An undated letter to his friend Sir Henry Goodyer provides probably the best insight into Donne's ecclesiastical catholicity: "I never fettered nor imprisoned the word religion, not straightening it friarly `ad Religiones factitias' (as the Romans call well their orders of religion) nor immuring it in a Rome, a Wittenburg or a Geneva" (Gosse 226). "Christianity," he adds, "which being too spiritual to be seen by us, doth take an apparent body of good life and works." True worship, to Donne, as established in Jesus' words to the Samaritan woman, is an invisible act of the spirit that can only tenuously be recognized in its external manifestations. The true "spouse so bright and clear," paradoxically, can only be seen by those mortals to whom the "kind husband" will "betray" the sight of her. When envisioned thus, she may appear on Gerizim, on Moriah, on the hill of old Geneva, and wherever true worship occurs.


(n1.) The editors of Norton count Geneva, along with Canterbury, as a candidate for "no hill."


Abrams, M. H., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1993.

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Carey, John, ed. John Donne: Selected Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1996.

Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Divine Poems. 1952. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1978.

Gosse, Edmund. The Life and Letters of John Donne. Vol. 1. 1899. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1959.

Grandsen, K. W. John Donne. 1954. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1969.

Louthian, Doniphan. The Poetry of John Donne: A Study in Explication. New York: Bookman, 1951.

Shawcross, John T, ed. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1967.

Warnke, Frank J. John Donne. Twayne's English Authors Series 444. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.


By PAUL R. ROVANG, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania