English Poet John Donne first entered my life as an awkward student of English Language at High School. Donne’s poetry was a real stretch to comprehend. Yet, amongst the poetry selected by the class teacher were some pieces that were intimate enough to stir testosterone-charged teenage boys. Take for example one of his most famous poems that opens with a chastisement to the sun. Donne’s chastisement is in response to the sun’s disturbance of him and his lover:
The Sun Rising
In the first stanza, Donne recognises that as a member of the human race he is seen by God as under original sin – the sin of Adam and Eve. It is Donne’s sin even “though it were done before”. Donne begs that God will forgive him that sin. The first stanza then draws attention to how Donne continues to sin in his own right. The first stanza then concludes that there is even more sin.
Things look grim at this point. Donne is acknowledging his stain of both original sin and ongoing sin. Yet, he still begs God to hear him more for other sin.
In the second stanza, Donne acknowledges that he has caused others to stumble and has admitted unconfessed or unacknowledged sin (sin in which he wallows). Incredibly, that stanza also ends with recognition that Donne has even more sin! It was Donne’s acknowledgement of the sin that caused others to stumble that most drew me to the poem. I had cause recently to examine Matthew 18:6 in this linked post. As a Priest it was likely that Donne was astutely aware of his role of laying a straight path for all his flock. How easy is it for a Priest through laziness or omission to cause upset or disorder? In respect wallowing in sin, I suspect that Donne recognised that like all people he had a tendency to self-justify some of his behaviour. I’ve examined that nature in this linked post.
In the third stanza, Donne displays a sin of doubt. In his old age he recognises it wrong to have had a life in Christ and yet still doubt he’s own eternity in Christ. He recognises that his boast is in God’s Son who shines now and forever more. This is Donne’s unmistakeable answer to his sin – God’s abundant grace.
The poem reminds me of King David’s confession of sin in Psalm 51. It is similar in that David and Donne both are acknowledging that sin is always before them Psalm 51:3. The first stanza’s acknowledgement of original sin is equivalent to David’s cry in Psalm 51:5:
“Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
Psalm 51:5 NIV
There is much to gain from aged Christian literature. It can aid our understanding of both sin and grace.
Note 1: Donne's poem and a summary of his life is included in Philip Yancey’s novel Soul Survivor. That novel has provided me much comfort and other recent blog posts have sprung from it. Yancey points to Donne's word play in the poem. There is a neat collision of the use of "done" and the poet's surname; Donne.
Note 2: all links good as at 29 June 2017.