John Donne: Expostulation X. Lente et serpenti

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


John Donne

MY God, my God, I have been told, and told by relation, by her own brother that did it, by thy servant Nazianzen, that his sister in the vehemency of her prayer, did use to threaten thee with a holy importunity, with a pious impudency. I dare not do so, O God; but as thy servant Augustine wished that Adam had not sinned, therefore that Christ might not have died, may I not to this one purpose wish that if the serpent, before the temptation of Eve, did go upright and speak,[2] that he did so still, because I should the sooner hear him if he spoke, the sooner see him if he went upright?

In his curse I am cursed too; his creeping undoes me; for howsoever he begin at the heel, and do but bruise that, yet he, and “death” in him, “is come into our windows”; [Jer. 9:21] into our eyes and ears, the entrances and inlets of our soul. He works upon us in secret and we do not discern him; and one great work of his upon us is to make us so like himself as to sin in secret, that others may not see us; but his masterpiece is to make us sin in secret, so as that we may not see ourselves sin. For the first, the hiding of our sins from other men, he hath induced that which was his offspring from the beginning, a lie; [John 8:44] for man is, in nature, yet in possession of some such sparks of ingenuity and nobleness, as that, but to disguise evil, he would not lie.

The body, the sin, is the serpent's; and the garment that covers it, the lie, is his too. These are his, but the hiding of sin from ourselves is he himself: when we have the sting of the serpent in us, and do not sting ourselves, the venom of sin, and no remorse for sin, then, as thy blessed Son said of Judas, “He is a devil”; [John 6:70] not that he had one, but was one; so we are become devils to ourselves, and we have not only a serpent in our bosom, but we ourselves are to ourselves that serpent.

How far did thy servant David press upon thy pardon in that petition, “Cleanse thou me from secret sins”? [Ps. 19:12] Can any sin be secret? for a great part of our sins, though, says thy prophet, we conceive them in the dark, upon our bed, yet, says he, we do them in the light; there are many sins which we glory in doing, and would not do if nobody should know them. Thy blessed servant Augustine confesses that he was ashamed of his shamefacedness and tenderness of conscience, and that he often belied himself with sins which he never did, lest he should be unacceptable to his sinful companions.

But if we would conceal them (thy prophet found such a desire, and such a practice in some, when he said, “Thou hast trusted in thy wickedness, and thou hast said, None shall see me” [Is. 47:10]), yet can we conceal them? Thou, O God, canst hear of them by others: the voice of Abel's blood will tell thee of Cain's murder; [Gen. 4:10] the heavens themselves will tell thee. Heaven shall reveal his iniquity; a small creature alone shall do it, “A bird of the air shall carry the voice, and tell the matter”; [Eccles. 10:20] thou wilt trouble no informer, thou thyself revealedst Adam's sin to thyself; [Gen. 3:8] and the manifestation of sin is so full to thee, as that thou shalt reveal all to all; “Thou shalt bring every work to judgment, with every secret thing”; [Eccles. 12:14] “and there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed.” [Matt. 10:26]

But, O my God, there is another way of knowing my sins, which thou lovest better than any of these; to know them by my confession. As physic works, so it draws the peccant humour to itself, that, when it is gathered together, the weight of itself may carry that humour away; so thy Spirit returns to my memory my former sins, that, being so recollected, they may pour out themselves by confession. “When I kept silence,” says thy servant David, “day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; but when I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin.” [Ps. 32:3-5]

Thou interpretest the very purpose of confession so well, as that thou scarce leavest any new mercy for the action itself. This mercy thou leavest, that thou armest us thereupon against relapses into the sins which we have confessed. And that mercy which thy servant Augustine apprehends when he says to thee, "Thou hast forgiven me those sins which I have done, and those sins which only by thy grace I have not done": they were done in our inclination to them, and even that inclination needs thy mercy, and that mercy he calls a pardon. And these are most truly secret sins, because they were never done, and because no other man, nor I myself, but only thou knowest, how many and how great sins I have escaped by thy grace, which, without that, I should have multiplied against thee.

[2] Josephus.

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