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My sin! My God, these cursed dregs

Green, yellow, blue streaked poison hellish, rank,

Bubs hatched in nature’s nest on serpent’s eggs,

Yelp, chirp, and cry; they set my soul a-cramp

I frown, chide, strike, and fight them, mourn and cry

To conquer them, but cannot them destroy.


The poem begins with a pair of contrasting exclamations:

“My sin!” Followed instantly by “May God”. And are the two poles upon which the poet hangs, harangued by sin, pleading to God for help.

The insistence of the language here overcharges the meter. For instance, nearly every syllable must be read as accented, spoiling the iambic form. It is as if man is being attacked from all sides by every sort of monster.

Sin is described in terms of an infestation of vermin:

The sins are “cursed dregs” (cursed is two syllables). The vermin are of every color: “Green, yellow, blue”. The vermin is “streaked poison,” and “hellish.” He cannot contain his disgust, they are “rank,” “bubs” (larvae?). “Nature” has not yet been overtaken by the Romantics sentimental view of the wilderness. This would be particularly for a family on the edge of an immense and often dangerous wilderness, where dangerous animals abound and infection means death. The disgust is so great that the description is not quite clear: the bubs are hatched on (not from) serpent’s eggs.

Serpent serves two purposes: first, a serpent would be dangerous. Second, the Devil is a serpent.  The Serpent in Paradise has now overrun the world and the poet’s soul.

When the pests break free, they “yelp, chirp, and cry”. They are of every sort whatsoever.

They injure his soul, “they set my soul a-cramp” (they give him cramps in his soul).

Nothing he does will destroy these sins:

I frown, chide, strike, and fight them, mourn and cry

To conquer them, but cannot them destroy.

In writing like this, he is the vein of John Owen writing in Mortification of Sin:

And, indeed, I might here bewail the endless, foolish labour of poor souls, who, being convinced of sin, and not able to stand against the power of their convictions, do set themselves, by innumerable perplexing ways and duties, to keep down sin, but, being strangers to the Spirit of God, all in vain. They combat without victory, have war without peace, and are in slavery all their days. They spend their strength for that which is not bread, and their labour for that which profiteth not.

This is the saddest warfare that any poor creature can be engaged in. A soul under the power of conviction from the law is pressed to fight against sin, but hath no strength for the combat. They cannot but fight, and they can never conquer; they are like men thrust on the sword of enemies on purpose to be slain. The law drives them on, and sin beats them back. Sometimes they think, indeed, that they have foiled sin, when they have only raised a dust that they see it not; that is, they distemper their natural affections of fear, sorrow, and anguish, which makes them believe that sin is conquered when it is not touched. By that time they are cold, they must to the battle again; and the lust which they thought to be slain appears to have had no wound.

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 20.

Second Stanza

I cannot kill nor coop them up: my curb

‘S less than a snaffle in their mouth, my reins

They as a twine third, snap: by hell, they’re spurred:

And load my soul with swagging loads of pains.

Black imps, young devils, snap, bite, drag to bring

And pick me headlong hell’s dread whirlpool in.


The second stanza continues his despair.

I cannot kill nor coop them up: my curb

‘S less than a snaffle

Note the alliteration: Cannot, Kill, coop, curb, which switches to S in the second line. ‘S, less, Snaffle.

He can neither kill, nor can he restrain (coop, as in cooped in or a chicken coop) sins.

When he tries curb them by means of a rein put in their mouth, they “snap” the reins. They are monsters, “spurred” on by “hell” itself.

The damage is upon his soul: “load my soul with swagging loads of pains”.

This is an excellent. First, there is the use of the word “load” as both verb (load my soul) and noun (loads of pain). There is the alliteration on l & s: Load my SouL with Swagging Loads of pain. There is the alliteration on the long O: load, soul, load. The image is marvelous: the load is great that he swaying, staggering, “swagging” under the burden (to move slowly with a great weight, swaying from side-to-side).

These monsters not merely sins, they are devils seeking to kill in him hell’s whirlpool:

Black imps, young devils, snap, bite, drag to bring

And pick me headlong hell’s dread whirlpool in.

The insistence of his enemies is shown by the three quick verbs: snap, bite, drag. The last verb opens an entire clause “young devils … drag to bring and pick me headlong”.

There is also the strange detail: these are “young devils”.  This seems to harken back to the image of the sins hatching on serpent eggs.

The language in these two stanzas reminds of phrases from The Tempest:

PROSPERO [to Caliban]

Hag-seed, hence!
Fetch us in fuel; and be quick, thou’rt best,
To answer other business. Shrug’st thou, malice?
If thou neglect’st or dost unwillingly
What I command, I’ll rack thee with old cramps,
Fill all thy bones with aches, make thee roar
That beasts shall tremble at thy din.


Fury, Fury! there, Tyrant, there! hark! hark!

CALIBAN, STEPHANO, and TRINCULO, are driven out

Go charge my goblins that they grind their joints

With dry convulsions, shorten up their sinews

With aged cramps, and more pinch-spotted make them

Than pard or cat o’ mountain.