John Donne is widely known to incorporate or allude to various religious symbols and concepts throughout his poems. His poem “Holy Sonnet XII: Why Are We” questions the concept of creation, humankind and all elements, exploring the ideas of the original sin and God’s relationship with man and nature. The poem also explored the concepts of human supremacy over nature. Through several language devices such as metaphors, rhyme and rhythm, repetition and tone, Donne attempts to understand the Creator’s motives for creating humans and the various elements present in the world. Donne also employed rhetoric to convince and demonstrate to readers mankind’s dominance over nature and natural elements.
Donne employed an inquiring even a perplexed-sounding tone to his poem to imply a sense of injustice within the Creator. This sense of injustice revolved around subjecting animals, who are “simple, and further from corruption” and more powerful, for the convenience of man, who is corrupt and is “worse than” the animals: “Why are wee by all creatures waited on? … Why brook’st thou, ignorant horse, subjection” With the inquiring tone, Donne attempted to reveal the Creator to be someone prejudiced, where he is previously believed to be all just and fair. Donne implied an idea of favouritism in the last few lines of the stanza: “You have not sinn’d, nor need to be timorous … For us, his Creatures, and his foes, hath dyed.” In these lines, Donne alluded to the dying of Jesus on the Cross, suggesting that the Creator died only for humans and not for the other animals.
Donne perceived this act to be unfair as humans have sinned greatly, whereas animals are more pure and have not sinned. He also alludes to the fact that the Creator had created animals and other elements of nature solely for human’s use: “Why doe the prodigal elements supply…”. This action of alluding to the Creator in a rather indignant manner, questioning the Creator’s motives, is recurring through many of Donne’s poems, such as in The Flea. Throughout the poem, Donne continually diminishes the human race to be corrupt and sinful, comparing this nature with the pure, uncorrupted and simple nature of the animals and other elements of creation. By incorporating the questioning tone, readers may be more convinced of the “prejudiced” motives of the Creator, that He may not appear as just as he is said to be.
The poem also explored the relationship of the Creator, sin and all the other creations through the rhyming scheme of the poem. Contrary to popular belief, Donne presented the Creator to have no correlations with sin and creations, implying that the Creator is simply a distant being. This idea was revealed in the rhyming couplet at the end of the poem: “But their Creator, whom sin, nor nature tyed, / For us, his Creatures, and his foes, hath dyed.” The rhyming couplet portrayed the Creator to have no ties with sin or nature, thus why He died for humankind. The final couplet also answers several questions and result in more ideas regarding creation and human’s relationship with the Creator: these questions include the reasoning to human dominancy and the concept of original sin, and again, favouritism.
As the final couplet suggests that the Creator is distant to all other elements and creations but humankind, it also suggests that God is closer to humankind, having died to save them from their sins, thus why they appear as dominant. It also suggests that animals and other elements were created for the benefit and convenience of the human race. The concept of original sin is proposed throughout the poem at the moments Donne implied the corruption and sinning of humankind: “…being more pure than I, / Simple and further from corruption … weaker I am, woe is mee, and worse than you / You have not sinn’d”.
The concept is also implied through the querying tone and repetitive use of “why”, as Donne questioned why the Creator died for humankind, who have greatly sinned since the beginning, but subjugated animals, who are pure and not corrupt, and other resources to man’s convenience. Favouritism is also implied in the final lines as it appears that the Creator had only died for one of his Creations and not all: “For us, his Creatures, and his foes, hath dyed”. This final lines, particularly in the use of the collective word “us”, the human supremacy and separation of humans from animals become evident. As Donne used the word “us” to refer solely to humankind, it creates a sense of distance from the animals, as if the other elements were not a part of God’s creations and that humans were the Creator’s only “creatures”.
The central idea of the poem, animal subjection to humans, was explored through the questioning tone but also the metaphors employed throughout the poem. In the opening line of the poem, Donne clearly presented the idea of human supremacy, stating that it is humans who are “waited on” by all other creatures, through his question. This idea of supremacy is further emphasised in the next question, “Why doe the prodigal elements supply / Life and food to mee, being more pure than I, / Simply and further from corruption?”. In this questions, it is implied that creatures seemed to have been created to prodigally supply humankind with life and food, despite humankind being closer to corruption than the animals. Through this next question, Donne creates the idea of animal constraint and the animal’s inferior nature.
In the next lines, Donne implies of the stealth and strength of the animals compared to the humans, “Why brook’st thou, ignorant horse, subjection? / Why dost thou bull, and bore so seelily / Dissemble weaknesse, and by one mans stroke die, whose whole kinde you might swallow and feed upon?” The particular use of “ignorant horse” presents two meanings: the first is the literal meaning, a description of a horse as being ignorant, oblivious of man’s power over them, while the second meaning may be metaphorical. The word “horse” may refer to human race and the ignorance may be stemmed from the fact that humans believe themselves to be superior over all other creations, where in truth, they are actually weaker.
In the questions presented in the poem up to this point, despite their subjects being human supremacy and animal inferiority, Donne throughout implied the better power and nature of the animals: he portrayed the strength of the animals but also presented their sinless and pure nature. By portraying animals in this light, Donne attempts for his readers to view animals as not a race inferior to humans but as a race mightier and stronger than humans.
This implication may stem from Donne’s belief that it is more correct for the animals to dominate humans as humans have sinn’d and are corrupted, and therefore are not deserving of all the “prodigal elements” supplied by the other creations. By presenting the human race to be unjustly dominant, and as the animals and other elements enslaved to humans, Donne attempted to evoke a piteous feeling towards the animals from readers. Through the questioning tone and metaphors employed throughout the poem, Donne revealed that man is not as superior as first deemed and that animals are actually more stronger than what is perceived, therefore man should not be subjecting the animals and other creations for their benefit and use.
Donne employed a combination of language devices such as conceit, tone, rhyme scheme and metaphors throughout the poem to explore the concept of creation and human supremacy over animals as well as the original sin and the Creator’s relationship with sin, nature and humankind. Through the inquiring tone of the poem, Donne attempted to understand the motives of the Creator, but also convince the readers of the unjust nature of the Creator.