Probably John Donne's most tender sonnet, "Since she whome I loved, hath paid her last debt" marks his loss of his wife. Ann Donne died on August 16, 1617, at age 33 one week after the stillbirth of their 12th child. As do all of his Holy Sonnets, this sonnet focuses on Donne's relationship with God. He often used death as a vehicle for investigation.
In this poem he considers whether God might have used his wife to test him. Donne marks his tone with resignation rather than anger or great grief, a sign, according to the scholar Helen Gardner, that he probably had not written it immediately after his wife's death. His attempt to see his life's burdens as God's love in action by characterizing them as a lover's strategy resembles the approach he took in "A Hymn to Christ." Gardner sees the sonnet to Donne's wife as an initial attempt at the method that appears more sophisticated in the later hymn; therefore, she feels the sonnet should be dated prior to Donne's journey to the Continent in 1619. He had expressed the sentiment in a letter three years earlier to his mother after "the death of her Daughter," writing that God seemed to "repent" of having afforded her joy on earth, "that he might keep your Soul in continuall exercise, and longing, and assurance, of coming immediately to him." The purpose, according to Donne, of God's strategy was to remove from the hearts of the faithful affection for the world, better allowing them to depart their material life.
The speaker begins,
Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt
To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead
And her soul early into heaven ravished,
Gardner notes a traditional format for Donne exhibited in the opening lines "Since she whom I loved, hath paid her last debt / To Nature, and to hers, and my good is dead," allowing "speech stress and metrical stress [to] pull against each other." In the second line his reference to "my good" as "dead" either provokes the thought that death precludes the possibility of acting "good" any longer or may suggest that her death has yielded "good" to both her and Donne, through her entrance into heaven and the happiness God's presence will afford. While he misses her, his understanding that she has been received blameless by God
"SINCE THERE'S NO HELP, COME LET US KISS AND PART" 361
comforts him. She died young, "early," but that allows the speaker to focus now only on his religious life. However, he has not had much success in that focus. He adopts the metaphysical CoNCEIT of thirst to explain his longing for his wife, a thirst that study of his faith does not relieve:
Here the admiring her my mind did whet To seek thee, God; so streams do show the head; But though I have found thee, and thou my thirst hast fed, A holy thirsty dropsy melts me yet.
Because the speaker at first believed his love for "she" would have moved him even closer to God, the fact that he remains thirsty causes him to wonder whether she did not prove a hindrance.
As the speaker continues, he asks, "But why should I beg more love, whenas thou / Dost woo my soul, for hers offering all thine." The simple lines express a simple sentiment, that because God has claimed, first "wooing" his soul, the speaker need not ask for another love. The spiritual love proves superior to physical love. Typically of Donne, he uses mostly single-syllable words to great effect. Donne uses the Petrarchan style in his sonnet, with the first eight lines outlining the subject or question and the final six lines responding. By beginning the ninth line with the word But, both a conjunction that joins the preceding ideas to the following and a signal that a contradiction will follow, Donne helps readers make the turn into the second part of the sonnet.
The final four lines provide a gentle picture of the speaker's fear, that God may be jealous of his lingering love for his wife. He suggests that he perhaps gave in to temptation by enjoying a worldly relationship of the flesh, one that would preempt God's position in his life:
And dost not only fear lest I allow My love to saints and angels, things divine, But in thy tender jealousy dost doubt Lest the world, flesh, yea, devil put thee out.
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