Mark Jarman, Unholy Sonnet 4[1][2]

Text: Jarman, Mark. Unholy Sonnets. Story Line Press, 2000.

Reprinted by permission of the author.


I think of Gosse,[3] watching his father paint

Anemones from tidal pools in Devon

(Long plundered by the time Gosse called them back).

All the boy knew of art[4] were these water colors

With Latin names for captions, an extravagance

Indulged for science, checked by a firm faith.

And there was also the book his father wrote[5]

To reconcile the Bible and Charles Darwin--

Greeted with scorn. I think of Gosse writing

About the days alone with his mother's illness

And afterwards with his father's loneliness.

He saw and heard the marine biologist pray

As if he could, by word and gesture only,

Pry open the mute heavens like a bivalve.

[1] Mark Jarman published various sequences of earlier "unholy sonnets" in different magazines before finishing this book. Jarman has stated that his "unholy sonnets" are a response to John Donne's famous "Holy Sonnets" and Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Terrible Sonnets" (Richardson); both authors are quoted in this text's epigraph. According to the back cover of Unholy Sonnets, the reason why Jarman's poems are titled "unholy" are because they are "devotional poetry written . . . without assumptions about faith or shared belief," and despite the poems' exploration of prayer, grace, and God, they "aim to avoid piety."

[2] In light of Donne's influence on Jarman's collection of unholy sonnets, it may be helpful to refer to Donne's Holy Sonnet 16 (Norton Critical Edition). Like Jarman's Unholy Sonnet 4, Donne's Sonnet 16 refers to the human relationship between a literal father and son, rather than a spiritual father-son dynamic.

[3] Edmund Gosse was a 19th-20th century poet and critic who wrote a greatly influential biography about Donne, The Life and Letters of John Donne, Dean of St Paul's. Although the extent and nature of this influence is still debated (see, for example, Raoul Granqvist's article), the depth of Gosse's interest in Donne is not. The anecdotal material about Gosse and his father is from Gosse's autobiographical Father and Son, published in 1907.

[4] Edmund Gosse did, in fact, become an important critic of art as well, although his viewpoint often aligned itself toward newer forms, such as Vorticism, rather than more traditional forms that could be associated with his father's art.

[5] In his book Omphalos, Philip Henry Gosse argued that fossils and other geologic evidence of deep time were deliberately placed by God in the process of creation, rather than as a result of evolution. His book was viewed with discomfort by both geologists and preachers; the former, for the wild breadth of Gosse's speculations, and by the latter, for making God sound deceptive.