Poets who get friendly with the gods.

What makes them great.
Dec. 14 2010 7:06 AM

Nearer, My God, to Thee

When poets get intimate with a higher power.

John Donne.
John Donne

Complaining or even disputing with the gods, or with a particular god, in an intimate manner is ancient. The custom feels long-established even in the Homeric epics. Odysseus "spoke his mind to Calypso" in E.V. Rieu's prose translation of the Odyssey. "Goddess," he says to her, "you can take it from me that I shall not entrust myself to a boat, unless I can count on your goodwill. Could you bring yourself, goddess, to give me your solemn oath that you will not plot somehow mischief against me?"

This resembles domestic sparring: In a tactful, testing way, he is conveying that he doesn't quite trust her. What is the goddess up to? Of course, he and she have been sleeping together for some time, and that must be taken into account. Comparable encounters in the Bible include Jonah's reluctance to be a prophet and Jacob wrestling with an angel: narratives of conflict that in a quite different way suggest a countervailing intimacy along with awe.

Intimacy tempers awe in a sonnet by John Donne (1572-1631), too. In an apparently logical, somewhat lawyerly opening argument, with its energetic triple ifs, Donne puts aside his sense of awe, allowing it to reappear only in his ninth line ("But who am I, that dare dispute with thee/ O God?"), a little bit as though he has only just recalled it, interrupting his own eloquent, logic-chopping arguments and rhetorical questions:

If poisonous minerals, and if that tree,
Whose fruit threw death on else immortal us,
If lecherous goats, if serpents envious
Cannot be damned, alas, why should I be?
Why should intent or reason, born in me,
Make sins, else equal, in me more heinous?
And mercy being easy, and glorious
To God; in his stern wrath why threatens he?
But who am I, that dare dispute with thee,
O God? Oh! of thine only worthy blood,
And my tears, make a heavenly Lethean flood,
And drown in it my sin's black memory.
That thou remember them, some claim as debt;
I think it mercy, if thou wilt forget.

….….….….................….….—John Donne

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read John Donne's sonnet. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.


Donne is quoting Jeremiah 12 ("Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I complain to thee,/ Yet I would plead my case before thee"). Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) uses the same biblical passage as the epigraph for a sonnet he wrote more than two centuries later. Hopkins begins in a place similar to Donne's ninth line. Donne resolves his poem with a brilliant, clinching apothegm of his couplet—a rhetorical and intellectual flourish characteristic of someone who also wrote great love poems and great sermons. In contrast, Hopkins, a Catholic convert and Jesuit, resolves his poem with something like the opposite: an ecstatic, attentive sensory engagement with the natural world—and a wounded, pleading recognition of his own personal difference from that world, a feeling of deprivation sharpened by sensory abundance.

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum: verumtamen justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must 
Disappointment all I endeavour end?       
....Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost    
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust      
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes 
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,      
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.   
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

….….…................….….….—Gerard Manley Hopkins

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read Gerard Manley Hopkins' sonnet. You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

The action of Donne's poem is to meditate his way toward self-recognition: energetic logical argument leading, finally, beyond itself. Hopkins' poem similarly works toward his own nature and circumstances but comes to a quite different realization of those qualities: an attention to nature so acute that it hurts.

That formulation may be too pat or too neatly dual. I'll add a third poem, in part as a complicating or transforming element: "Yet Do I Marvel," by the American poet Countee Cullen (1903-46). Cullen's variation on Jeremiah's theme makes the self-recognition social and historical as well as personal, a reflection on race and racism in American culture. The poem—newly posted—appears along with a video and commentary on the Favorite Poem Project page, alphabetically listed in "The Videos." 

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in discussion of these sonnets by John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins this week. Post your questions and comments on the work, and he'll respond and participate. You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

For Slate's poetry submission guidelines, click here. Click here to visit Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project site.

Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.


The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.