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Discovering poetry: John Donne, from deviant to Dean of St. Paul’s

3 June 2013

12:43 PM

3 June 2013

12:43 PM

Holy Sonnet 7, John Donne

At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go –
All whom the flood did, and fire shall, overthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.
    But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space
For, if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace When we are there.
Here, on this lowly ground, Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou hadst sealed my pardon with thy blood.

When John Donne transformed himself from womanising gallant to celebrated preacher he was able to take the poetic talent with which he’d celebrated anal sex (amongst other things) and use it to capture the psychological drama of faith. In this sonnet he imagines the apocalypse before reminding himself that he needs to repent here and now if he wants to be united with God at the Last Judgement. The point of the poem isn’t to make an argument about God. Rather, it’s a picture of the awe, the fear, and the hope which alternately grip the imagination of an introspective believer.

Donne is famous for messing about with metre and he’s up to his usual tricks here. In the first line he shunts the caesura (the slight pause which normally falls in the middle of a line) as far to the end as possible, right before the last syllable. This places enormous emphasis on ‘blow’ which rings out like the trumpets of the four angels of the apocalypse. Donne also makes his sentences run over the ends of lines as if they weren’t there (like ‘blow your trumpets, angels’ which ignores the end of the first line). The impression is of hurry, excitement – ecstasy even. As a young man Donne used these techniques to write about erotic love. Now he turns them to religious fervour.

But whilst lines and metre are fluid, Donne makes the overall structure of the sonnet as clear as possible. So the first time the end of a sense unit coincides with the end of a line is at the close of the first quatrain. And the beginning of the third quatrain is a brand new sentence which begins with ‘But’, clearly signalling the ‘turn’ (a change in the direction of the argument) which is a convention of sonnet writing. The rhyme scheme (ABBAABBACDCDEE) also helps, dividing the poem into two parts at exactly the same place.

It’s important Donne provides this framework because lots of the poem is deliberately disorientating. It launches us straight into the unimaginable paradox of the ‘round earth’s imagined corners’, before introducing the equally unimaginable ‘numberless infinities’ of human souls. The effect Donne is aiming for is the sublime – a sort of playing with our ideas of time, space and number which leaves you with the nagging feeling that something incomprehensible (such as eternity) is, like an everyday word you’ve suddenly forgotten, or a sneeze that won’t come out, lurking tantalizingly close to the edge of your imagination.

Donne puts us in this frame of mind so that we’re ready to meet God. In the eighth line He’s the object of other souls’ gaze. But then suddenly, in the next line, the Lord is addressed directly. This is perhaps the sonnet’s most exciting swerve. The sublimity of the first eight lines gives way to introspection. Suddenly first person pronouns – completely absent until now – are everywhere: ‘me mourn…my sins…teach me…my pardon’.

It’s also only here that the sonnet decides who it’s talking to. Traditionally, sonnets are written from a lover to his mistress. A whole cycle of over a hundred might all be directed to the same woman. Donne’s, however, has four sets of addressees – the ‘angels’ whom are being spoken to in the first two lines, then the ‘numberless infinities of souls’ who have died, followed by ‘you whose eyes shall behold God’ without dying. And, finally, God.

The last six lines are a place of rest. If the roving perspectives of the first eight lines were a sort of searching, God is the answer. Final closure is provided by the ‘pardon’ which is ‘sealed’ with Christ’s blood. ‘Blood’ completes the sonnet’s concluding couplet, emphasising this sense of finality.

The drama Donne has described is an education in the form of Christianity he endorsed. A meditation on the awesome promises of Revelation has led back to the quintessentially protestant ideal of the single believer, conversing directly with God, and placing his hope on the saving grace of Christ’s crucifixion. A sermon in fourteen lines.

The poem plays on emotion and aesthetic sense rather than logic. It aims to shape the imaginations of those who read it. And this isn’t a bad way to bring people to your religious beliefs. A line of argument is always open to challenge. But the emotions we share are, in a deep sense, beyond question. Those who feel together, believe together.

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