If Poisonous Minerals: by John Donne - Summary & Analysis

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If Poisonous Minerals

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be dammed; alas, why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?
And mercy being easy, and glorious
To God, in his stern wrath, why threatens he?

But who am I, that dare dispute with thee
O God ? oh! of thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin's black memory;
That thou remember them, some claim as debt,
I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.


      Line. 1-8: If poisonous minerals and the apple tree whose fruit caused the fall of Adam and brought death to man-who otherwise would have been immortal-if lustful goats and cunning serpents cannot be punished why should I, who have not sinned more than them, be damned? Why should I, gifted with will power and reason be given greater punishment for sins which are equal in magnitude to those of other creatures? Why should God threaten me with great anger when He is glorious and merciful, and can grant pardon for my sins?

      Line. 9-14: (The poet realizes his own insignificance before God and wants to be excused for questioning the wisdom and justice of God.) Who am I to bandy words with God and question His power? Oh God, pardon me for the great sacrifice of Christ who shed his blood for man's redemption. His blood and my copious tears would make a heavenly river like Lethe in the under - world which would make God forget my sins (Just as the water of the river Lethe makes the souls forget worldly events, in the same way God while passing through the river of Christ's blood and poet's tears would forget the poet's sins.) Some people think that man is like a debt or who has to pay back his debts to God. (Man's sins are like a debt for which he has to suffer. The poet differs from this view.) I think God is merciful and will forgive my sins, for God is great.

Development of Thought:

      Donne asks God why should man suffer damnation, if poisonous minerals, the forbidden tree whose fruit caused the fall of Adam, lecherous goats and jealous serpents are not damned? Why should the poet be singled out for punishment? Why should will or reason which are the characteristics of a human being make his sins appear more atrocious and reprehensible than that of other creatures? After all, the same yardstick should be applied by God for the judgment of the actions of both sentient and non-sentient creatures. However, the mercy of God - which is His great glory extends to all. The poet asks again why should God in His anger threaten him with punishment for his sins?

Critical Analysis

      This is Sonnet IX published under the title of Holy Sonnets. These sonnets express the poet's meditations on sin, fear of death, Day of Judgement, penitence and mercy of God. They also contain the usual metaphysical conceits and wit. In fact, the method followed in these poems is not different from that of the love poems. As usual, the poet argues with God about his sins and feels that if plants, stones and animals are not punished for their wickedness and the harm they cause to others, why should he be punished. Undoubtedly, man is gifted with reason and will power but that is no reason for regarding his crimes more heinous or serious than those of others who lack reason and intention. There is a snag in the argument. Man's reason distinguishes him from other creatures and makes him the architect of his own career.

River of Tears and Blood:

      The poet realizes his error in questioning God's wisdom or will. It is not for man to question the ways of God to man. The poet prays to God for His mercy. His tears of repentance and the blood which Christ shed for the redemption of man would combine to make a great river in which God should drown the memory of the poet's sins. There is a reference to the river Lethe in the underworld and as the souls of the dead pass through the water of this river, they forget the memories of earthly life. The poet sincerely repents for His forgiveness. He does not feel that God is like a credit or keen on collecting his debts. Man is not a debtor and the sins are not debts. God is kind and merciful and He will forgive him for his sins. The poem ends on a note of hope and faith in God's grace,

Critical Remarks:

      The poem, If Poisonous Minerals, begins on a note doubt and questioning and ends on a pleasant feeling of relief and satisfaction. Donne's rhetorical manner is evident in the octet. There is a flaw in his argument. Chemicals and trees and snakes are not punished for their misdeeds and sins because they have no reason and act passively or by force of habit. Man cannot be compared to such things. The poet evidently realizes his mistake and at the end shows his repentance in a stream of tears. According to Helen Gardner, there is a 'strained note' and 'emotional poverty' in this poem. The comparison of the stream of the poet's tears and Christ's blood to the river of Lethe shows the poet's scholarship. The poet's acceptance of the Will and Justice of God gives a happy ending to the poem.

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