At the round earth's imagined corners (Holy Sonnet 7)
by John Donne
Section I (Lines 1-8) Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
At the round earth's imagined corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angels, and arise, arise
- The speaker orders the angels to blow their trumpets throughout all parts of the world.
- Obviously, this is a bold – some might say "arrogant" – move. You can't just go ordering angels around to do your bidding whenever you want. You'd better have a darned good reason. Our speaker must think he has some major clout in Heaven.
- The trumpets are supposed to wake up people – the speaker commands them to "arise, arise," but we don't know who these people are yet.
- The most curious phrase in this entire poem is in the first line: "the round earth's imagined corners." Let's unpack it.
- This isn't 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue and some people still thought the earth was flat.
- We're in the early 17th century, and everybody knows the earth is round. So where would you "imagine" a flat earth? How about on a map?
- To say that the earth has "corners" suggests that a person could theoretically reach the outermost part of the earth.
- Donne wants those angels to be in the corners because, otherwise, how will everyone hear the trumpets. If you treat the earth as flat, then what's a poet going to do: put a trumpeter in Madagascar, one in Brazil, one in England, and so on? No, no, it's got to be a flat world, and the trumpeters have to go in the corners.
- We have even more evidence for our map theory: some English maps from the Renaissance had illustrations of angels blowing trumpets in the four directions: North, South, East, and West.
- In Biblical tradition, these angels even have names: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel (source).
- The poem seems to be alluding to two sections of the Biblical Book of Revelation. Here is the first sentence of Revelation 7: "After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree." And here is the second sentence of Revelation 8: "And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets."
- Donne seems to be mixing these two passages together, and he gives the "four angels" the "trumpets of Doom" possessed by the "seven angels" (source).
- Lots of numbers, yes. In the Book of Revelation, when the angels blow those trumpets, lots of nasty stuff happens: trees burn up, the sea turns to blood, meteors fall to earth, etc. It's the end of the world.
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go,
- This poem is not a faithful description of the Biblical Last Judgment.
- Instead of having a bunch of terrible things happen when the angels blow their trumpets, the speaker takes it as a sign for all dead people to wake up and go find their bodies.
- In Donne's Christian theology, your soul and body are separated when you die, but you get reunited with your body on Judgment Day.
- Donne emphasizes that there are a lot of people who have died throughout history. So many, in fact, that he just lumps them all into some exaggerated, uncountable sum: "numberless infinities."
- To make things worse, all these souls have to travel to find their bodies where they died. The bodies are not all in one place – they are "scattered."
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
- The infinite number of dead souls includes all the sinful people in the world, the ones who were destroyed by the Biblical flood that only Noah and his family survived, and the ones who will be consumed in the "fires" that end the world.
- The angels aren't just waking some of these bad people, they are waking "All."
- So, this line deals only with sinners. The word "o'erthrow" (overthrow) means to defeat or cause the downfall of someone or something.
- If you've read the Book of Genesis in the Bible, you'll remember the part about how God drowned the world after deciding that humanity had forgotten about Him and His laws.
- Well, not quite everyone. The virtuous Noah was given an advanced warning and allowed to save himself by building an arc.
- After the flood, God struck a deal with Noah: no more floods. But sinful people still have to deal with the "fire" after Judgment Day.
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance, hath slain, […]
- Here the speaker takes another approach to defining "All" souls.
- He broadens the category to include every kind of death – all the people who were "slain" or killed by various culprits.
- Let's bring out those usual suspects and take 'em one by one: "war" refers to people who died in battle; "dearth" indicates people who died from hunger; "age" makes references to those who died from natural causes; "agues" refers to people who died from sickness; "tyrannies" indicates people who died at the hands of oppressive rulers; "despair" refers to those who killed themselves; "law" means people who were put to death lawfully, and then there's "chance," people who died some accidental death.
- This group would seem to include both good and bad people. For example, good people die from sickness just like the bad.
- (We encourage you to tuck "ague" into your memory storage attic: it's a cool-sounding word for "sickness." Next time you go to the doctor with a cold, tell her you have an ague.)
[…] and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never taste death's woe.
- There's one last category of people that Donne covers: the people who are still alive but will not be consumed in those end-of-the-world fires. These are the good people who are still living when Judgment Day arrives.
- The speaker certainly hopes he will be in this last group.
- These lucky few will never have to experience mortality or "taste death's woe." Their "eyes" will look on God in Heaven, as will the good people who had died in the past but have been resurrected.
- Now the speaker really has named everyone. Things could have gotten ugly if he had decided to keep naming more groups: "And you whose lips never tasted the foulness of prune juice."