At the round earth's imagined corners (Holy Sonnet 7) Introduction
In A Nutshell
John Donne's Holy Sonnet 7 is a gutsy performance. The speaker calls for the Christian Judgment Day to take place, and then realizes that he's still a sinner, and changes his mind. By the end of the poem, he's ready to stick the proverbial bun back in the oven for a few more years, or maybe a few thousand, until he has cleansed his soul.
Donne's "Holy Sonnets" are famous both for their perfection of the sonnet form and for the way they mix heartfelt religious feelings with mischievous wit. Donne was an Englishman who lived in the first part of the 17th century, around the same time as poets like George Herbert and Andrew Marvell. These guys are frequently identified the "Metaphysical Poets," that is, the poets who wrote about big topics like God, creation, and the afterlife. Of course, they didn't get this name until many decades after they had all died, so they never knew how they were viewed by posterity. Donne's Holy Sonnet 7 is a classic metaphysical poem. The speaker addresses himself to angels and to God.
The "Holy Sonnets" were published in 1633, two years after Donne's death, but they were probably written at least a decade before that. Donne and his metaphysical friends have always been a big deal in English poetry, but they got a big boost from the 20th-century poet T.S. Eliot. Eliot thought the "Holy Sonnets" were the bee's knees.
Why Should I Care?
Remember playing tag in school? There was always that kid who, right before you were about to tag him, would cry, "Time out!" and then would make up an excuse: "I have to tie my shoe!" It was a totally absurd excuse, and everyone knew it. For one thing, there are no "time outs" in tag. Professional basketball and football, yes; but tag, no. You either play or you don't play. But this kid made it sound so convincing that you ended up allowing him to take that one time out, on the condition that he wouldn't do it again.
John Donne was that kid. Except he never grew out of his mischievous, "time out"-calling ways. He just got smarter about it; to use the language of his times, he used his "wit" or intelligence.
Donne has graduated from tag to a game with much, much higher stakes: call it "Apocalypse" or "Judgment Day." The way you play this game is to pray for the heavenly powers to separate the sinners from the saved and you hope that your deeds earn you a place among the saved. In this sonnet, Donne starts to play this game but quickly realizes he's in over his head. If there were even the smallest chance of ending up among the damned, you'd want to call the whole thing off, which is exactly what the speaker does.
Donne sounds like the kid playing tag who makes excuses. He's says, "Time out! I forgot the part of the game where I'm supposed to repent my sins. Can you give me a refresher?" OK, just this once.