'Let them sleepe': Donne's personal allusion in 'Holy Sonnet IV.'
Hester, M. Thomas. Papers on Language & Literature v.29 no3. p346-351. 22.06.1993.

Editors and commentators have remarked on the biblical authority for the curious, "vivid" composition of place which opens John Donne's fourth Holy Sonnet (fourth in the 1633 first printed edition and in the early Westmoreland manuscript).(1) The poetic mediator's figuration of Judgment Day—
At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow Your trumpets, Angells ... (1-2)
—Recalls the precise details of the prophetic vision of the Apocalypse in Revelations:
And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds ... (7:1)
rendered in more poetic terms in The Vulgate,
Post haec vidi quatuor angelos stantes super quatuor angulos terrae, tenentes quatuor ventos terrae....
It has not been pointed out, however, that the crucial turn of the sonnet which initiates the surprising sestet also recalls the precise details of St. John's vision--details that would have struck a sensitive personal note for the author by recalling general as well as personal conditions of his situation. Attention to the significance of this biblical allusion in the poem helps to explain the chord of frustration with which this poetic meditation concludes.

As Louis Martz pointed out in his seminal study of the meditative character of Donne's Holy Sonnets, the opening composition of Judgment in this poem (ll. 1-4) leads to an analysis of "the causes of death throughout human history: a summary of sin and a reminder of its consequences" (51):

All whom the flood did, and the fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold death, and never tast deaths woe. (5-8)

Typical of Donne's verbal dramatizations of his ideas, here the causes of death "flood" the lines, the waves of Justice carrying the sentence of the poem relentlessly forward to the finality of "death woe." But the next movement of this visionary meditation, which supplies (Martz explains) that "part of a traditional colloquy with God after a visualization of the Day of Doom," when the rational soul of the poetic meditator "prays for Grace" (52), and "the scene shifts from the general to the specific, the objective to the personal, the exterior to the interior" (Low 63), Donne's speaker, in a turn that might well recall the damned Dr. Faustus's eleventh-hour plea that time, motion, and Justice cease, begs for a "space" outside the scheme of Justice:
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 we 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. (9-14)

The "lowly ground," as Martz suggests, may bear "theological overtones relating to the Catholic sacrament of Penance" (52)--most significantly the sole Catholic sacrament not retained by the Protestant Church as either a sacrament, rite, or ordinance. From this perspective it might be argued that the fear and frustration with which this meditative exercise concludes reflect the situation of Donne as the heir of a long-suffering Catholic family which traced its confessional sacrifice from the death of his younger brother for harboring a priest back to the execution of his great-grand-uncle, Sir Thomas More. As Donne wrote in the "Preface" to his first published work, Pseudo-Martyr (London, 1610),
I have been ever kept awake in a meditation of martyrdom, by being derived from such a stock and race as, I believe, no family (which is not of far larger extent and greater branches) hath endured and suffered more in their persons and fortunes, for obeying the teachers of Roman doctrine, than it hath done. (sig. B; italics added)
What has not been pointed out by editors and commentators about the poem is the biblical allusion which leads to the meditator's recollection of the absent Penance and to the fervency of his concluding plea in the poem. Recognition of the biblical text which initiates these supplications helps to show why Donne might well have feared himself to be outside the "seal" of selection which the poem contemplates. The vision of his own place in the divine scheme derives from the juxtaposition of those who "sleepe" to his own desire for the additional "space" to "mourne." This structural bridge from the meditative, general composition of Doomsday in the octet to the analysis of his own situation in the first tercet of the sestet, it has not been pointed out, also recalls St. John's vision:
And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar, the souls of them that were killed for the word of God, ... and it was said unto them that they should rest for a little season until the number of their fellows, and brethren, and of them that should be killed as they were, were fulfilled. (Rev. 6:9-11)
The Vulgate version:
Et cum aperuisset sigillum quintum, vidi subtus altare animas interfectorum propter verbum Dei, et propter testimonium quod habebant; Et clamabant voce magna dicentes; Usquequo, Domine (sanctus et verus), non iudicas, et non vindicas sanguinem nostrum de iis qui habitant in terra? Et datae sunt illis singulae stolae albae: et dictum est illis ut requiescerent adhuc tempus modicum, donec compleantur conserve eorum, et fratres eorum qui interficiendi sunt sicut et illi.
Recognition of the precise biblical text which Donne's poem recalls in its meditation of the poet's "space" or absence from the "pardon" of Christ's sacrifice goes a long way towards explaining the apparent confusion, fear, and shame with which the poem concludes. Recollection of this passage from Revelations might well inhibit the descendant of St. Thomas More and the frater of Henry Donne from being able to figure himself within the circle of "them that were killed for the word of God." It is an inhibition that seems to animate and underlie the tensions not only of the Holy Sonnets but many of Donne's works; the uncertainty as to whether he should "mourne" his not having "suffered [the fate of] more"/More remains central to all he "hath done."(2)

In his helpful corrective to "Protestant" readings of Donne's Holy Sonnets, Claude Summers point out that Donne's most famous poetic meditation on the character of English denominational controversy, "Show me dear Christ," refuses to endorse "any quest for true religion that identifies Christ's spouse with a temporal institution. The courtship of the 'amorous soul' and the 'mild Dove' can take place only in some future time and place" (81). In a similar vein, R. V. Young points out that Donne's meditations in his Essays in Divinity are "Thomistic, his view of the human will far more Tridentine than Calvinist" and that his Holy Sonnets disclose a Donne who "has abandoned Catholic sources of consolation without yet discovering or devising acceptable alternatives" (31). Holy Sonnet IV, I would suggest, would confirm these readings, although without necessarily affirming the "scepticism" or "moderation" towards which they would incline the poet, for this poem is representative of the Holy Sonnets as the site for Donne's meditative attempts to appraise the moral virtues of the rivals in the Counter-Reformation debate, a site where Donne is "trying out different versions of grace" (Young 23) from the perspective of his personal place in the divine economy. The Holy Sonnets, that is, might just be the fullest and most intense record of the "space" in which Donne the heir of Catholic martyrs struggled to become "the Arminian John Donne" (Tyacke 174n) without betraying his family tradition.

(1) All citations of Donne's poems are to the edition of John T. Shawcross, The Complete Poetry of John Donne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967).

(2) See Dennis Flynn's account of Donne's suffering the guilt of the survivor, "Donne the Survivor," in The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne, ed. Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986), 15-24; M. Thomas Hester, Kinde Pitty and Brave Scorn: Donne's Satyres (Durham: Duke UP, 1982), esp. Chps. 2 and 4; and John Carey, John Donne: Life, Mind, Art (Oxford UP, 1981), Chp. 1.


Carey, John. John Donne: Life, Mind, Art. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981.

Davies, Horton. Worship and Theology in England: From Cranmer to Hooker 1534-1603. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1970.

Donne, John. Pseudo Martyr. London, 1610.

Flynn, Dennis. "Donne the Survivor." In The Eagle and the Dove: Reassessing John Donne. Eds. Claude Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986. 15-24.

Hester, M. Thomas. Kinde Pitty and Brave Scorn: Donne's Satyres. Durham: Duke UP, 1982.

--. "The troubled wit of Donne's 'blacke Soule.'" Cithara 31 (1991): 16-27.

Low, Anthony. Love's Architecture: Devotional Modes in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry. New York: New York UP, 1978.

Martz, Louis. The Poetry of Meditation. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1954.

Shawcross, John T., ed. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967. Summers, Claude J. "The Bride of the Apocalypse and the Quest for True Religion: Donne, Herbert and Spenser." In Bright Shootes of Everlastingnesse: The Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Eds. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987. 72-95.

Tyacke, Nicholas. Anti-Calvinists: The Rise of English Arminianism c. 1590-1640. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.

Young, R. V. "Donne's Holy Sonnets and the Theology of Grace." In Bright Shootes of Everlastingnesse: The Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. Eds. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1987. 20-39.

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