Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Sun Dec 20 15:34:25 UTC 2009

On their final exam, my student were required to discuss this poem by John Donne:

Oh my black soul! now thou art summoned
By sickness, death's herald, and champion;
Thou art like a pilgrim which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he is fled,
Or like a thief, which till death's doom be read,
Wisheth himself delivered from prison;
But damned and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
Oh make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ's blood, which hath this might
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.

Several of the students commented that the sonnet is anomalous in that the first 8 lines are unrhymed--failing to take account of the syllabic "-ed" endings (given something like tertiary stress) that facilitate the ostensible "summoned/fled/read/imprisoned" rhyme, or the disyllabic "-tion" (again with some stress on the last syllable) necessary to rhyme "champion/done/prison/execution."

Surely those were not intended as exact rhymes or even approximate rhymes, although they may be "allowable" by the conventions of early-17th-century verse. The very tenuousness of the rhymes contributes to the dramatic impression of distracted anguish of the part of the persona; he is too desperate (and sinful) even to rhyme right! But the workings of grace enable "perfect" rhymes in the sestet.


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