O might those sighs and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourned in vain.
In mine idolatry what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste! what griefs my heart did rent!
That sufferance was my sin, now I repent;
'Cause I did suffer, I must suffer pain.
Th' hydroptic drunkard, and night-scouting thief,
The itchy lecher, and self-tickling proud
Have the remembrance of past joys, for relief
Of coming ills. To poor me is allowed
No ease; for long, yet vehement grief hath been
The effect and cause, the punishment and sin.
This is one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets (number III). I often turn to John Donne in Lent, and this poem especially touched me today. It's partly because the first few lines remind me of a dreadful story I read as a child, which I have never been able to forget: it was in an annual from the 1950s, if I remember rightly, and the premise was that the little protagonist, a boy prone to unnecessary tears, is shown by magic that there's a place where all children's tears are stored and measured; you only get a certain number of tears in your lifetime, he's told, so you shouldn't waste them on frivolous things. I'm sure the moralising author who wrote this story was very well-meaning, but when I was seven years old it horrified me - how could you know what was a frivolous thing to cry for? What if you wasted all your tears on something which seemed important at the time, and then later, when you really needed tears, there were none left? (I think this was the dilemma faced by the poor little boy in the story - he couldn't cry when his brother went missing, or something like that). I've since learned that tears are a bottomless well, and there's really not much danger of any of us running out; I hadn't wasted my lifetime's supply by the age of seven. Presumably John Donne knew this too, which makes the first few lines of this poem slightly odd, but the conceit fits the rueful tone of the poem, part self-mocking, part heartfelt grief. It's difficult to judge how serious it is - 'the itchy lecher' and 'self-tickling proud' are wonderfully piquant descriptors, almost a little too clever for someone engaged in pious self-reproach! But witty and sincere are not mutually exclusive for Donne, of course.
I find it particularly interesting that Donne considers his own past sin to have been not lechery but idolatry - a word which comes up elsewhere in his religious poems, referring to his early loves (here's one example). But these are not just lovers - the 'profane mistresses' of that poem are the 'Fame, Wit, Hopes (false mistresses)' of this one, from which he asks to be divorced. 'All things that are loved here and pass away', from which Lent tries to free us. Even with John Donne as company, Lent is not my favourite season. I know it's not supposed to be pleasant - but if only there were some way to profit from its holy discontent without adding grief on top of grief! For one reason or another I've spent quite a few tears over the past year or so, and the thought of all that fruitless weeping, instead of the kind of Lenten repentance which might actually be profitable, is indeed somewhat frightening to contemplate; like Donne (at least as I understand the poem), my repentant sorrow this Lent is mostly for all the sorrow I've wasted on unworthy things. But then it's just sorrow whichever way you look, and back to George Herbert: 'Alas, my King; can both the way and end be tears?'
When I googled this poem and read a few interpretations of it, I found a number of people said it reminded them of Hopkins' 'I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day'. I couldn't see the connection at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I could see it:
I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
'Vehement grief hath been / The effect and cause, the punishment and sin.' The worst misery is in having to live with your own worst self.