At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners - John Donne
I. Context & Subject Matter
This is one of the Holy Sonnets. It shows us Donne in his mature years, no longer overtly concerned with the relationship between the sexes but with his relationship with God. The poem is not merely the outcome of a purely selfish preoccupation with the condition of his own soul, but, by putting in poetic form one of his own spiritual problems, the poet is preaching a sermon to all his readers. He is inviting them to look into their own souls and find something of the same problems. The effectiveness of such a device is obvious. People have been reading this poem for three hundred years and being exposed to its m whereas only a few literary specialists read Donne’s Sermons, even though they are some of the best ever written.
It is traditional Christian teaching that there will come a “Last Day” for the earth when God will call all the living and the dead to account. In his first letter to the Corinthians, at the end of Chapter 15, St. Paul writes:
“We shall not all die but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet call. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will rise immortal and we shall all be changed”.
This is very much in the poet’s mind as he opens his octave, but the old Donne, who was interested in the world and its geography and who loved a paradox, is not far below the surface. He loved to make dramatic and striking opening lines and this is one of his best.
You all know that, in the Middle Ages, it was orthodox belief that the earth was square and so had corners like a flat map. It was a belief that was tenaciously held on to by the Church long after astronomers and geographers were convinced that it was a sphere. The consequences of the proof that the earth was indeed spherical were still tremendously exciting in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and are reflected in this reference. So the angels are called on to blow their trumpets for the last day and call all the dead to rise. All the souls of those who have died since the beginning of time are waiting for this moment and there are, naturally, ‘numberlesse infinities’ of them. It was, and in many cases still is doctrine that, in some mysterious way, the “scattered” bodies of the dead that is, the dust into which the bodies have crumbled, will be reassembled and united with the soul in the presence of God. To emphasise the vast numbers of the dead who will be raised he proceeds to list them: those who have died from “dearth” (That is, want or famine), those who have died from old age, those who have died from diseases, (lumped under “agues”), those put to death by tyrants, those who have died from despair, those who have been ruined by the law and those who have died from chance or accidents. To these he adds:
“you whose eyes Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe”
will be taken up into God’s presence without having died. Note again the quotation from St Paul “We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet call.” To give his sermon its full impact the poet is assuming that it is today that the trumpet will sound.
The sestet makes a dramatic change in pace. He calls on God to hold back the trumpet call and let the dead sleep on for a while so that he can mourn and repent of his sins. If his sins, as he believes, are greater than those of all the dead, it is a little late to start repenting when he is standing in the presence of God. He therefore asks God to leave him here on earth “on this lowly ground” and to teach him how he can truly repent. If God will do that for him it will be as good as if He had procured a pardon for him with His own blood. This, of course, is precisely what God, in the person of Christ, has done through the Crucifixion. The doctrine is that by His death on the Cross, Christ won a pardon from sin for all who accept the sacrifice and truly repent.
II. Sound Effects
Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.
The tone is that of a humble suppliant who pleas with God to give him more time to repent for his enormous sins.
III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns
Donne again demonstrates his obsession with death, (“death’s woe” ) judgement day and the enormity of his guilt. Some call it his Salvation anxiety, others speculate on the effect of his Jesuit childhood and his apostasy to the Anglican Church to gain employment creating a neurotic guilt complex. Here again he asserts that that his sins are greater than all others. How could the Dean of St Pauls be the world’s greatest sinner?
The emphasis is on grace to want to repent:
Teach me how to repent, for that's as good
As if Thou hadst seal'd my pardon with Thy blood.
Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic. Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc
As it is a sonnet it has fourteen lines, divided into an octave of eight lines and a sestet of six lines. The octave is divided into two quatrains rhymed abba abba, while the last six lines is c d c d c d. It traditionally presents the argument or problem, while the sestet gives the resolution or conclusion.
Not only did he open the sonnet with a dramatic and arresting image, he ends it with an equally arresting and challenging statement.
Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.
The language is personal, dramatic and vigorous - “blow”. The repetition of “arise, arise” and “all whom”, all whom” (line 5 & 6) emphasises an urgency. The latter repetition also introduces a cumulative listing of the multiple contrasting causes of death;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dea[r]th, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain
The sestet begins with a negative conjunction “but” introducing a change to the more personal and a questionable confession that his sins are greater than all others. How could the Dean of St Pauls be the world’s greatest sinner?
This is a good sonnet. The thought moves easily within the strict limits of the verse form and the balance between octave and sestet is admirably kept. The religious doctrine is strictly orthodox; it is the language and imagery that are individual and exciting. The same cosmic impertinence that bade the sun go away and play demands that God hold up the Day of Judgement for his especial benefit.
Donne's "dialogue of one" - Paul Dean
Donne is presented as an apostate, neurotic and guilt-ridden, unable to detach himself emotionally from the Catholic faith but propelled into Anglicanism by a lust for power.
Donne became a priest reluctantly in 1615, realizing there was no other way out of his poverty and the need to provide for his family (his wife had twelve children, the birth of the last effectively killing her with exhaustion 1615).
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