What if this present

Contemplating the end of the world

The sonnet is one inspired by the Ignatian method of contemplation or meditation. In this contemplative method, one of the things people are asked to do is visualise the ‘Last Things', and enter imaginatively into the visualisation, seeing Christ as central if possible. Donne's imagination is nothing if not dramatic, and imagining the world's last day and, in Christian belief, the coming of Christ as judge, would be dramatic, too, we might think.

More on Ignatian meditation?

What is surprising is that we get such a quiet, assured poem. In similar poems, he is either weighed down by his sins (as in At the Round Earth's Imagin'd Corners), or fear (as in This is my playes last scene). But here he is certain that Christ is merciful and will receive him. He bases this on the image that has come to him in his meditation, with its ‘teares in his eyes' and ‘Blood fills his frownes'. He concludes ‘This beauteous forme assures a pitious minde'.

Former idolatry

On the way to this conclusion, he interestingly refers to his former life and his love poems, a topic not usually touched on, certainly not positively. Even though this former loving is seen as ‘idolatrie', nevertheless he applies exactly the same principle to Christ as to a beautiful woman. Beauty is a sign of pity, he used to say to his lady friends. Only ‘To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign'd'. The paradox is that the picture he is getting is hardly beautiful: ‘frownes ... pierc'd head'. The biblical passage (Isaiah 53:2-5) usually interpreted as foretelling the sufferings of Jesus Christ certainly does not offer a pretty image.

Inspired imagination

So Donne may seem a little naïve. A dying man is not beautiful. Some beautiful women are certainly not sympathetic. Perhaps in his love poetry, he argued like this as a joke. But now he takes it seriously. It shows an interesting trust in the imagination, inspired by faith, to convey theological truth.

The sonnet form is typical of The Holy Sonnets. The octave is clearly marked, as in a Petrarchan sonnet, both by its separate rhyme scheme (abba abba), but also by the full stop at the end, and a turning to something else in the ninth line. The ‘No, no' not only marks a break, but also reminds us of Donne's speaking voice as he talks to himself aka his soul. As in the other sonnets, Donne fashions the last two lines as a couplet, as in a Shakespearean sonnet, and so concludes firmly.

Investigating What if this present
  • Read through Donne's What if this present
    • What does he actually picture in thinking of the ‘last night'?
      • Is it what you would expect?
    • In what sense is it a beautiful picture?
    • How is the tone of calm conveyed in the words and the rhythm of the sonnet?
  • Compare this to Batter my heart
    • What are the most significant differences?

(see Summary of Themes: Death as friend or foe).

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

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.