Oh My Black Soul : by John Donne || Analysis

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Oh My Black Soul

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.

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;
Oh My Black Soul

Critical Analysis

      Oh My Black Soul is one of the sonnets included in the collection entitled Holy Sonnets: Divine Meditations. The poet is haunted by the idea of death and how he can be saved through repentance. There is a sincere appeal to Christ to extend his mercy to him in his hour of trial. The sonnet reveals the conflict in the soul of the poet and the need to banish fear and doubt through God's mercy. The fact that Donne had led a life of sin and shame in youth is perhaps the only hurdle which Donne fears may prevent the divine grace coming through. The poet feels his unworthiness for God's generosity.

Development of Thought:

      The poet laments that his soul has tuned black through sin. He has now fallen sick and may be his sickness may lead to death. Sickness brings to death the human body which belongs to death. He is not ready for death; in fact he is afraid of it. The poet clarifies his fear through two similes. Just as a traveller who commits crimes like spying and treachery while in a foreign country against his own country and therefore is afraid of returning to his native land for fear of punishment; in the same way, his soul which comes from heaven into this world has committed sins against God and is therefore afraid of facing Him after death. Just as a thief who is undertrial wants to run away from the prison, but as soon as he hears the sentence of death passed against him he likes to stay in prison for ever; in the same way, the soul wants to leave this prison of the body and returm to God but when it faces death, it wishes to stay inside the prison due to fear of divine wrath for its sins. The soul is much afraid of the punishment which is due to it for its sins.

Holy Mourning:

      How to get over the feelings of fear and agony on death-bed ? There is only one way-that of repentance and prayer to God for His forgiveness. The poet's sin would then be forgiven. Sincere repentance can be done through mourning for sins which will transform the blackness of sin into the blackness of mourning. The soul is red with sin but this redness of sin should be changed into redness of sincere regret and penance. The soul should wash its redness with the blood of Christ which has the miraculous power of changing red into white, i.e. the redness of sin is bleached to purity. The poet therefore expresses his willingness to repent and mourn for his sins so that his soul may be purified and he may enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Critical Remarks:

      Like other divine poems, the poet has not made a discovery but portrayed "a struggle to appropriate a truth which has been revealed, that truth does not defeat all poetry but gives us a poetry whose intensity is a moral intensity." This intensity is achieved through images - as that of a traveller and of a thief followed by the prison and execution. The colour- symbolism - blackness of sin, blackness of mourning, redness of sin, redness of repentance, redness of Christ s blood, the whiteness of the soul after redemption. White is the symbol of purity which comes through washing sin with Christ's blood which implies sacrifice and suffering. There is no doubt about the sincerity of the poet's feelings - his agony and sense of guilt along with his willingness to pay for the debt of sins through repentance and suffering.

Paraphrase:

      Line. 1-8 : Oh, my soul which is blackened by sin, has fallen sick. Sickness is the messenger of death, it is the champion of death winning for it the soul that he claims: (My soul is afraid of death.) My soul is like a traveller who has gone to a foreign country and done some crime against his own country. He wants to return to his country but cannot do so for the punishment that is waiting for him. (The poet's soul wishes to turn to God but he is afraid of punishment for his sins committed in the world). My soul is like a thief who wishes to escape from the prison, but when he hears the sentence of death passed against him, he wishes to remain in prison for ever. (The poet's soul wants to leave the body which is like a prison, but when it is faced with death, it is afraid of meeting God and wishes to stay longer in the body).

      Line. 9-14 : If, however, you repent for your sins, God will extend His grace to you. The soul should mourn for its sins in the first instance. You should turn the blackness of sin into the blackness of mourning. You should turn the redness of your sins into the redness of sincere sorrow, remorse and repentance. You should wash yourself in the blood of Christ which has the power of changing the redness of sin into the whiteness of purity and holiness. (The poet wishes to purify his sinful soul through penitence and remorse).

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