Donne: His Sonnet IX • Forgive & Forget

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This post is a request, of sorts.

John Donne believed in God. But when you read John Donne, what editor do you believe in?

When I first began writing these posts, I would copy and paste poems straight from other web sites. I’m afraid to look Complete English Poemsback at those posts. In particular, I copied and pasted Robert Frost’s Birches, only to discover that the copy was missing several lines of the poem. I almost missed it.

Nowadays, I type in everything by hand. My source for Donne’s poetry is the Oxford edition, Donne’s Poetical Works, edited by H.J.C. Grierson. (The link is to a later edition of the book.) My own book is actually two books. The first is Donne’s poetry and the second is an Introduction and Commentary. Both books are hard bound and oxford blue. They date from 1963. I don’t know if the later edition (linked above) is of the same quality but, if so, then I strongly recommend it. If you can find the two volume edition, and if you really want a good copy of Donne’s poetry, this is the edition I would recommend. It represents the closest thing to an unfiltered copy of Donne’s works. All editorial alterations are explained and accounted for. Spelling and contractions aren’t modernized, which in Donne’s case, can be essential. For more discussion as to why, see my post: John Donne & Batter my Heart: Editing Iambic Pentameter Then & Now.

Second best, for a complete edition, would be C.A. Partrides Everyman’s Library edition. The Songs and Sonnets of John DonnePartride is faithful to Donne’s spelling and punctuation. I do not like the Norton Critical Editions issue of Donne’s Poetry. For a book that touts itself as a “critical edition”, the spelling and punctuation of Donne’s poems are frequently altered without explanation or even indication that they have done so. The way Norton prints the poems is out and out misleading.

Another book, which has recently been reissued, is Theodore Redpath’s The Songs and Sonnets of John Donne. This is a really, really good book. It’s not complete. It doesn’t have Donne’s Holy Sonnets, but the footnotes to all the poems are fascinating, enjoyable and thorough.

Anyway, as I look more deeply into these older poems (when the authority of a given text was anything but authoritative) the decisions editors make in how they punctuate poems (and sometimes alter words) has become increasingly interesting to me. I’ll talk about some of that and why I find it so compelling. Here’s the sonnet, straight from Grierson’s edition. The only thing I’ve changed is the (f) to an s. WordPress doesn’t offer a true Elizabethan S.

Divine Poems: Sonnet IX

If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d; Alas, why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, borne in me,
Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?
And mercy being easie, and glorious
To God; in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?
But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God? Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie;
That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

And now to the scansion:

First, let me say that the sixth line really stumped me. How does one scan:

Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?

Here is how, I think, most modern readers would scan it:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall, in mee |more heinous?

This makes the line Iambic Tetrameter, sort of. There would be two variant feet. The third foot would be an anapest and the final foot would be a femine ending. This is bad. Remember, the rest of the sonnet is Iambic Pentameter, (as were most sonnets during the Elizabethan era). An Iambic Tetrameter line would have been considered amateurish for a poet of Donne’s genius and would have been unprecedented (even by his standards). What was worse, though, is that this scansion would mean that Donne’s rhyme was a false rhyme (or a wrenched rhyme). Such a rhyme would not have been considered innovative but incompetent. Messy meter along with a false rhyme just seemed too hard to swallow, even for Donne.

The rhymes of envious and glorious hinted that heinous should be treated as a trisyllabic word, rather than disyllabic. I started looking through concordances, seeing how other Elizabethan poets treated the word. Shakespeare, among others, treats heinous as a disyllabic word throughout his plays. Then I found the following from An Etymological Dictionary of the English Langauge:

An Etymological DictionaryHEINOUS, hateful, atrocious, (F. — O. L.G.) Properly trisyllabic. M.E. heinous, hainous; Chaucer, Troilus, ii. 1617. — O.F. haïnos, odious; formed with suffix –os (=Lat. osus, mod. F. –eux) from the sb. haïne, hate. — O.F. haïr, to hate. From an O. Low G. form, well exemplified in Goth. hatyan or hatjan (=hatian), to hate; not from teh cognate O.H.G. hazzon. See Hate. Der. heinous-ly, heinous-ness.

So, apparently, the pronunciation of the word heinous was still in flux during Elizabethan times. Chaucer, as the dictionary notes, treated the word trisyllabically:

So he|ynous, | that men | mighte on | it spete ~ [Troilus, ii. 1617]

In Elizabethan times, one still apparently heard heinous as hay-e-nous . Originally, when I published this post, I thought that the alternate pronunciation might be hay-ne-ous, like the -ion sound in the word onion. I thought this because I reasoned that Donne was trying to rhyme with envious and glorious, but based on the Etymological Dictionary’s pronunciation key, I’ve changed my mind. Also, my original thought ignores the rhyme immortal us – with which he-i-nous would rhyme. As it stands, heinous was apparently treated as a disyllabic or trisyllabic word depending on the needs of the poet. Shakespeare seems to have pronounced it as we do, and so treated it as a disyllabic word. Such a difference from Donne might reflect a difference in dialects?

The bottom line is that treating heinous as a trisyllabic word makes metrical sense:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall, in mee |more he|inous?

This makes the line Iambic Pentameter with a variant third foot – an anapest. Anapests, in the space of a sonnet, were rare. It’s more likely (and there is ample precedent among Donne’s other sonnets) that he expected readers to use synaloepha to elide the third foot. It would read as follows:

Make sinnes, |else e|quall’n mee |more he|inous?

This makes the line fully Iambic Pentameter. None of this is to say that Elizabethan readers might not have scratched their heads when reading this line, but probably would not have done so for as long as a modern reader (like me). At any rate, this is how I scanned it.

Sonnet IX Scansion with Color & Rhyme Scheme (Final)

The Annotations

If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortall us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damn’d; Alas, why should I be?

In this sonnet, more than the others, Donne’s disputatious relationship with God come to the fore. Donne gives a list of maleficent items and ingredients worthy to be damned. PInterior of an Apothecary's Shopoisons were frequently associated with serpents, though in this case Donne first jumps to minerals. (Through the process of association, however, the serpent shows up in line three – the poet’s mind at work.) Similar image clusters occur in Shakespeare’s works.

In the case of poisonous minerals, Donne might have been referring to the many “medicines” that were prevalent during the Elizabethan era, medicines which were poisons in their own right (the reasoning being that one poison would drive out another – namely the disease. The theme of drugs being worse than the disease they cured is a frequent one in Shakespeare.

Sonnet 118

The ills that were not, grew to faults assured
And brought to medicine a healthful state
Which, rank of goodness, would by ill be cured:
But thence I learn, and find the lesson true,
Drugs poison him that so fell sick of you.

Romeo & Juliet

Take thou some new infection to thy eye,
And the rank poison of the old will die. [Act I.ii 319]

All Elizabethans at one time or another, must have had first hand experience with the cures that “cured by killing”. According to the Shakespeare Lexicon mineral had the meaning: a fossil body used as a poisonous ingredient. And so we find in Othello [Act I.ii 282]:

That thou hast practised on her with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals
That weaken motion

At his website, the sometime poet Dr. Roger K.A. Allen drives home the association between medicine and poison, revealing what all Elizabethans (having studied Latin and Greek from childhood) must have known:

Classical cognoscenti know that the Greek word for drug, pharmakon, means both ‘medicine’ and ‘poison’, and that iatros means ‘doctor’. As they had no Pensioner Benefit Scheme or Adverse Drug Advisory Committee, the Greeks knew that all drugs could be potentially lethal as Socrates no doubt could attest from the Underworld.

And notice how drugs are associated with minerals in Shakespeare’s mind. I suspect the same was true for Donne.Their attitude toward drugs (medicines) were probably summed up by the expression: With friends like Cranach's Adam & Evethose, who needs enemies? Is there a touch of humor in Donne’s damnation of poysonous mineralls? Possibly. And I prefer to think so. To my reading, a dry wit runs through all of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. (The Elizabethans were always quick to skewer pomposity, especially in themselves. )

“That tree whose fruits drew death” is, of course, the tree in the garden of eden. Donne fairly asks, you threw us out of the garden, so why not the damned tree?

Goats were associated with lechery and having already mentioned poison (poison being associated with serpents), the associative leap to  “serpent envious” was already in place. These abstract personifications may be inspired by the medieval morality plays that, even in Donne’s day, were still being staged (though quickly fading). Certainly, in any morality play featuring the garden of eden, the audience could expect to see the “lecherous goat” and the “envious serpent” personified.

But the most interesting, to me, aspect of the first quatrain, comes in Donne’s questoin: Alas, why should I be? As I’ve written elsewhere,  a good metrical poem has two stories to tell, one in its words, the other in its meter. The modern reader will surely be tempted to read the question as follows:

Alas,minstrels why should I be?

But reading it this way is to read it in opposition to the iambic pentameter meter. If we read the question with the meter, then it should be stressed as follows:

Alas, why should I be?

At first, this may seem completely counterintuitive and against the grain of common English (let alone modern English), but look at the next line of the second quatrain:

Why should intent or reason, borne in me,
Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?
And mercy being easie, and glorious
To God; in his sterne wrath, why threatens hee?

Donne has asked the same question again, as if to emphasize, and the word should is once again in the stress position. This is no mistake and asking the question again seems to emphasize the word should. If you’re still having trouble with this, imagine the following:

Mother: Eat your vegetables!
Child: Why should I?

Now use that same inflection when rereading Donne’s question: Why should I be?

The effect is almost one of petualance.

Why should I be? / Why should intent or reason, borne in me, / Make sinnes, else equall, in mee more heinous?

The meter tells us that Donne’s question isn’t a whiney sort of  – Why me? Why should I be?  – but is more argumentative and disputatious. Why should I? If we don’t read it with the meter, then not only do we miss the tone and inflection of Donne’s poem, but we also ruin the rhyme scheme. The word be would be unstressed. This would make it a wenched rhyme (a false rhyme). All the other –e rhymes  – tree, me, hee, thee and momorie – are stressed.

Donne is disputatious. If mercy is so easy and glorious to God, why am I being damned? Why is he threatening me? Britannica, in their entry on Donne, nicely describes this quality in his poetry:

Donne’s poetry is marked by strikingly original departures from the conventions of 16th-century English verse, particularly that of Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser.(…) Donne replaced their mellifluous lines with a speaking voice whose vocabulary and syntax reflect the emotional intensity of a confrontation and whose metrics and verbal music conform to the needs of a particular dramatic situation. One consequence of this is a directness of language that electrifies his mature poetry. “For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love,” begins his love poem “The Canonization,” plunging the reader into the midst of an encounter between the speaker and an unidentified listener. Holy Sonnet XI opens with an imaginative confrontation wherein Donne, not Jesus, suffers indignities on the cross: “Spit in my face yee Jewes, and pierce my side…”

And if you’re still not sure of Donne’s argumentative tone, he himself makes this clear:

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God? Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie;

Who am I, he asks, that dare dispute?

And since I don’t think the horse is dead, I’m going to keep beating it. This is yet another example of what free verse just can not do. This isn’t to denigrate free verse, but traditional poetry and free verse are, in some ways, very different art forms. Men and women are different. Traditional Poetry and Free Verse are different. Something was lost when free verse became the dominant verse form of the last century and (apparently) the first decade of this one. Free verse didn’t just adapt traditional poetry and reshape it, it entirely replaced it. I’m not arguing that free verse posts should get back to writing traditional poetry, but only for an acknowledgment of what has been lost.

And now we get into the niceties of modern day editing. Here is Sonnet IX as it first appeared (to the left) and how (in Donne’s lifetimes) it later appeared in the Westmorland Edition (from the Variorum  Edition of John Donne’s Poetry):

Original & Westmorland

Notice the differences between the two and specifically, the difference in the 10th line:

  • O God, o of thy only worthy bloud
  • O God? O of thine only worthy blood

Which version is the correct version? Which do you believe? Here’s what Grierson writes:

I have followed here the punctuation of IV, which takes ‘O God’ in close connexion with the preceding line; the vocative case seems to be needed since God has not been directly addressed until l. 9. The punctuation of D, H49, which has often determined that of 1633, is not really different from that of W:

But who am I that dare dispute with thee?
O God, Oh! &c.

(which modern editors have followed), make ‘O God, Oh!’ a hurried series of exclamations introducing the prayer which follows. This suits the style of these abrupt, passionate poems. But it leaves the question without an address to point it; and to my own mind the hurried, feverous effect of ‘O God, Oh!’ is more than compensated for by the weight which is thrown, by the punctuation adopted , upon the second ‘Oh’, — a sigh drawn from the very depths of the heart,

so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being.

The job of editing Elizabethan poets, when spelling wasn’t standardized and printing was idiosyncratic, is to objectively and subjectively present to the modern reader what might come closest to the poet’s intentions. It’s what I try to do when analyzing these poems.

I agree with Grierson. I think the exclamation, Oh God, finishes the prior line. The line, in effect, signals the volta, or the turn of the sonnet, wherein Donne moves from disputation to prayer:

Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drowne in it my sinnes blacke memorie

He asks that Christ’s blood, which onely (or alone) is worthy, be mixed with his tears. The River Lethe, one of the rivers of Hades, was said to erase the memory of souls before they reincarnated. Mixing Christian and Greek mythology, Donne is asking that the black sins of his past be forgotten and erased. Let both the forgiveness of Christ’s blood erase his sins, and the waters of the River Lethe further drive them from memory.


The River Lethe and Elysion by John Stanhope

That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

The final lines are pregnant with emotion. Is it anger? resignation? weariness? maybe a little humor? a return to disputation? I’m not sure. I think a good reader or a fine actor could find all those senses in the final couplet.

The Form of the Sonnet

The structure of the sonnet combines elements of the Petrarchan and Shakespearean (English) Sonnet sensibility. It’s closest antecedent may be Sidney’s Sonnets, whose sonnets Donne was probably familiar – (as were most Elizabethan poets). While the octave (the first eight lines) are typical of the Petrarchan Sonnet, the brilliant argumentative style favored by the Elizabethans asserts itself in the final sestet. The sestet is divided into a third quatrain and a final couplet, much like Shakespeare’s sonnets. Though the sonnet lacks the brilliant rhetorical drive toward a closing epigrammatic sting (typical of Shakespeare’s sonnets) the elements of that same Elizabethan love of dispute, debate  and resolution remain. Donne has a point to make and he drives it home in the  final couplet.

That thou remember them, some claime as debt,
I thinke it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

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