Oh my blacke Soule!

Deathbed drama

This sonnet is a deathbed drama like ‘This is my playes last scene'. Here, however, Donne is not just meditating on death but is lying seriously ill, with every possibility that he might die. It anticipates several poems he wrote in similar circumstances in later life, such as A Hymn to God the Father. As in most of the sonnets, Donne is talking, or arguing with someone. Here it is himself, under the guise of his soul.

Black, red, white

The colour symbolism of the sonnet is obviously important. The opening image of sickness being death's ‘herald', who announces his coming (as well as his champion, who fights on his behalf) should remind us that in heraldry colours play a symbolic function, as they do here. Black represents the sinfulness which mars the poet's soul, red the blood of Christ which can bring forgiveness, and white the innocence for which he longs.

Investigating Oh my blacke Soule
  • In Oh my blacke Soule, look at the three colours mentioned
    • Several of them have more than one meaning. What do they symbolise?
  • What is the difference between a herald and a champion?

Images of wrongdoing

  • The pilgrim who has committed treason and dares not return home. This is not so far-fetched, given the times. There was an active Catholic resistance abroad, and a Catholic pilgrim could potentially find himself in some nefarious plot. The metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw came near to this in real life.
  • The condemned thief on the verge of execution who wishes himself back in prison

Act of grace

In this sonnet there is a bridge passage between the octave and the concluding part. ll.9-10 start as a statement of some assurance, but then turn into an agonised question. Faith does not come easily for Donne.

More on grace: Grace (through which humans are believed to receive undeserved forgiveness and gifts from God) is a central concept in Christian thinking (John 1:17). Because human beings are seen as predisposed to disobey God, they are unable to enter a relationship with him without his forgiveness and ongoing help. As Donne suggests here, this help includes both assistance in turning to turn to God in the first place (‘the grace to begin') and willingness to repent Ephesians 2:4-5). It is also believed to include the presence of the Holy Spirit with the individual to bring about a new way of living. Such help is an undeserved gift from God and relies upon him taking the initiative.

The last four lines try to answer the question about grace. The poet seems to offer alternative answers, saying ‘really repent and blush red for shame' or ‘wash thee in Christ's blood', which, too, is red. In fact, in Christian teaching, the two are not alternatives but part of the same process. To repent is to be washed of those sins, as 1 John 1:9 makes clear.

More on ‘wash thee in Christ's blood': the phrase is taken from older translations of Revelation 1:5, with which Donne would have been familiar. It also occurs in the Anglican Prayer Book (the Book of Common Prayer) in the liturgy for communion. The prayer of humble access,beginning ‘We do not presume to come' contains the phrase ‘our souls washed through his most precious blood'. The idea of blood taking away the guilt of sin comes from the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, when animals were sacrificed to atone for human sin. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is described as having made a ‘once for all' sacrifice to atone for sin Hebrews 10:11-14, with the shedding of his blood making forgiveness possible.

Investigating Oh my blacke soule
  • Examine the play on the word ‘dyes' in the final couplet of Oh my blacke Soule

Verse form

The sonnet is basically Petrarchan in its octave-sestet division, but as in ‘This is my playes last scene', the sestet divides into a cdcd rhyme and a final couplet, so that there is the clinching effect. Thus the ‘bridge' passage gets absorbed into the cdcd rhyme, while the last two lines stand apart in rhyme, though not in sense – an interesting interlocking.

Investigatng Oh my blacke soule
  • How are fear and hope blended in Donne's religious experience?
  • Do we still see Donne's concerns reflected today?

(See Themes and significant ideas > Personal Sinfulness and Unworthiness.)

Resources: The sonnet has been set to music by Benjamin Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35

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