Poem of the week: Holy Sonnet XIX by John Donne

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

Sonnet XIX

Oh, to vex me, contraryes meet in one:
Inconstancy unnaturally hath begott
A constant habit; that when I would not
I change in vowes, and in devotione.
As humorous is my contritione
As my prophane Love, and as soon forgott:
As riddlingly distemper’d, cold and hott
As praying, as mute; as infinite, as none.
I durst not view heaven yesterday; and to day
In prayers, and flatt’ring speeches I court God:
To morrow I quake with true feare of his rod.
So my devout fitts come and go away
Like a fantastique Ague: save that here
Those are my best dayes, when I shake with feare.

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote 19 Holy Sonnets, which make up the majority of his poems addressing sacred themes.

They were written at different periods, beginning as early as 1609, and the order in which they were printed in the posthumous early editions of Donne’s work is not thought to have been an arrangement planned by the poet. This week’s poem, Sonnet XIX, is the last-numbered of the group but it contains no summing-up or “last word”. An interesting, “riddlingly distemper’d” piece of writing, it reports on a conflict it can’t fully resolve.

The first line self-mockingly suggests the ideal portrayal of resolved “contraryes” – the Holy Trinity. Donne’s psyche is more cunningly made than that little theological world. If “inconstancy” – the euphemistic reference to his conversion from Catholicism to the Anglican Church – has become a constant habit, it seems he’s expressing more than his guilt concerning an expedient change of faith. Perhaps he’s noticing uneasily in himself a particular temperament, and blaming the effect as the cause. After all, his whole inventive poetic technique depends on receptivity, a ready response to a variety of sensory and intellectual influences. Perhaps he’s unsuited to any consistent form of the devotional life.

There are two “secular” selves on whom the characterisation of the flawed religious self depends: the lover and the disease-sufferer. The second quatrain of the sonnet’s octet sets it out compellingly, closing on a richly metaphysical last line: ‘As humorous is my contritione / As my prophane Love, and as soon forgott: / As riddlingly distemper’d, cold and hott / As praying, as mute; as infinite, as none.”

His contrition, which should be a steady state of penitence, is as subject to the vagaries of the four humours as his “prophane love”. The Petrarchan figure of fire and ice is reduced to the sick man’s fluctuating temperature. Dissolution becomes existential and compromises the radically important concepts of prayer and infinity: “As praying, as mute; as infinite, as none.”

Lover and invalid also dominate the sestet. There’s a time-frame now for the reprobate, who yesterday was afraid to “view Heaven” and now profanely courts God, through “prayers, and flatt’ring speeches”. He denigrates his “devotion” as “devout fitts”, erratic as the shivering fits caused by a “fantastique Ague”. Shivering is the important element common to love, sickness and divine worship. So Donne reaches his final paradox: the days of his worst fear are, theologically, his best.

Donne admits no voice of consolation into this sonnet. He hears, I think, only his own undisguised anxiety and a self-doubt that seems on the edge of self-contempt. Happily for poetry, his experiences of earthly love were not “soon forgott” – or not so soon they went unrecorded. To many readers, profane or otherwise, Donne’s love poems are probably the most convincing representation of his “best dayes”.