The first line of the poem sounds like the start of a race: "Take your mark, get set, GO!" vs. "At the round earth's imagined corners, BLOW!" Clearly Donne could not have intended this parallel, but that verb hanging at the end of the first line does set off a frenzy of linguistic energy. The first line carries over into the second without a pause. The technical term for this is enjambment. Holy Sonnet 7 has a lot of enjambment, and if you heard it aloud, you wouldn't know where the lines start and end.
The speaker doesn't actually have the power to start Judgment Day, but he acts like a cheerleader at a race, urging the dead souls to "arise! arise!" and to "go!" to their scattered bodies.
Then the poem pivots on the word "but." At this point, the speaker starts making excuses, and the sound of the poem becomes more dense and legalistic. The whole sonnet is filled with commas and pauses, but after the word "space" in line 9, there is a larger pause, as if the speaker were doubled-over and winded. Having bought himself a moment or two, our speaker tries to justify calling off Judgment Day. At the end, the poem begins to sound more like an official plea to a powerful person, like the "pardon" it describes in the last line.
"At the round earth's imagined corners" doesn't have a regular title, because it wasn't customary for English poets to give titles to the individual works in a sonnet sequence. The poem is one of nineteen "Holy Sonnets." And, no, Donne is not an arrogant poet who thinks that his poems are sacred objects. The title just means that the poems are about religion. Readers, including us, commonly refer to the poem by its first phrase, or as Holy Sonnet 7, its number in the 1635 edition of Donne's poetry. In the 1633 edition, the sonnet was fourth in the sequence.
You can't fit a round peg into a square hole. Except in this poem, where you can fit a "round earth" in the "imagined corners." These corners are like those of a map or a giant room. From the corners of this kind-of-flat, kind-of-round, kind-of-square world, angels appear with long, bright trumpets, the kind you might use to introduce a king. These trumpets make a loud, terrible sound – loud of enough that even dead people can hear it.
All of a sudden, the souls of dead folks are going all over the globe, looking for their bodies. How should we imagine this scene? Are they digging through the earth to find their corpses? Or are the bodies laid out in some organized way? Based on this poem, it seems that the luckiest people are the ones who have not died yet but will still be saved.
By line 9 we realize that the speaker has been imagining the whole scene, and it hasn't happened yet. Just as the angels are about to put those trumpets to their lips, the speaker changes his mind about Judgment Day. He's suddenly standing before God, asking for more time. He practically begs God to teach him "how to repent." The speaker doesn't want Judgment Day to come until he has sufficiently repented his sins; he wants to be in that lucky group of souls who are saved. He wants God to seal an official pardon with His blood.
Sometimes in movies and cartoons, a character will have some kind of electronic gizmo or she'll be riding in a plane or car, and there will be a "little red button." You don't know what the little red button does, but you know it's going to be big, and probably loud. The character knows – don't push the red button – but, in the end, curiosity gets the best of her and she has to do it. Needless to say, she always regrets pushing that little red button.
The speaker of this poem feels he has the ultimate little red button at his disposal: angels who blow trumpets at the end of time, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation. He can initiate the Last Judgment. When he orders the angels, "Blow your trumpets!", he starts a process where all the dead rise up to find their bodies and go to be judged. But, as always, there's a complication he hasn't foreseen – his sins will be judged, too. Why, oh, why did he push that button!
The whole ordering-angels-to-start-the-Apocalypse idea is right there on the surface of the poem. But once we read to the end, we wonder if the speaker has been aware the whole time of his need to repent of his sins. Maybe the poem itself is an act of repentance, in which he displays his arrogance and presumptuous in the beginning and then asks for grace at the end.
In that case, "Teach me how to repent" could mean, "Teach me how to write this poem I'm writing." The speaker is humble before God, but he is also aware of his own cleverness and wants to make use of it as a man of faith. This speaker clings to his faith and maintains his own intelligence. Even when he feels burdened by his own sins, he never loses his cool or his impressive control of language.
In this poem, you have to look at the big picture. In the first eight lines of the poem, the speaker calls for the Last Judgment. In the last six lines, he changes his mind and decides to repent instead. The Biblical allusions and religious symbolism would have been easier for people in Donne's own time to understand, because he lived in a more exclusively Christian culture. When you zoom in to look at certain lines and phrases, however, the poem can get more complicated. We think the most difficult line is line 10: "For, if above all these, my sins abound." What does "these" refer to? Sins? Kinds of death? Kinds of dead people? In a Donne poem, untangling the meaning of his symbols and images is where the challenge and the real fun begins.
Poor Petrarch. The guy practically invented the sonnet form, and the first great sonnets were in Italian. Nowadays, school kids hear sonnet and think "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare."
Fortunately, Donne kept the flame going for the Italian sonnet form and its division into an eight-line octet and six-line sestet. There are plenty of other English poets who have used the Italian form, from Thomas Wyatt to John Milton. But Donne gets extra points because he wrote Petrarchan sonnets immediately in the wake of Shakespeare, who reinvented the sonnet form.
The Petrarchan or Italian sonnet is divided into two parts. The first part has eight lines and is called an octet. The second part has six lines and is called a sextet. The division between these two parts is called the turn, or volta, which sounds fancy until you realize that it's just the Italian word for "turn." This kind of sonnet is named after the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch, who made the form popular throughout Europe.
This poem's "turn" at line 9 is about as dramatic an example of change as you can find. The turn is marked in the poetic equivalent of a huge neon sign – the word "But." This little three-letter word brings the entire vision of Judgment Day to a screeching halt. The poem is hurtling along with this vision, and then "but" shows up like a turtle waddling across the road, forcing the poem to slam on the brakes. In the second part of the poem, the speaker completely changes his mind about the whole project.
"At the round earth's imagined corners" has a typical rhyme scheme for a Petrarchan sonnet: ABBA ABBA CDCD EE. Then again, not all the rhymes are perfect, a case in point being "arise" and "infinities" in lines 2 and 3. But you try to make a rhyme out of "infinities"!
The poem's meter is iambic pentameter: an unstressed beat followed by a stressed beat. "'Tis late to ask a-bun-dance of thy grace." But, the poem has exceptions. Many exceptions. One of the most obvious can be found at the beginning: "At the round earth's […]." The poem has two unstressed beats followed by two stressed beats. The complicated rhythm makes this poem fun to listen to and read aloud.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
No, we're not talking about Terminator 2. This is the Biblical Judgment Day, the Christian reckoning of the sins of all souls, both living and dead. This event is central to the vision of the end of the world, or Apocalypse, described in the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. Donne borrows images from Revelation but eventually decides, "You say I'm a sinner, I say I should be saved, let's call the whole thing off." Thus, Judgment Day is described in the first eight lines of the poem, before the speaker changes his mind in the last six.
Many poems try to describe what the end of life will be like, but this one goes even further – it describes what the end of death will be like. In Christian theology, death is the price of admission into the afterlife, which really begins after the world has ended. People who have died before the world ends (that is, most people) are compared to sleepers waiting for the "dawn" of Judgment Day. The poem begins with angels blowing their trumpets to bring the dead back to life, and to reunite their souls with their bodies. The end of the poem also alludes to death: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The speaker decides in the second half of the poem that maybe he was hasty in calling for Judgment Day before knowing if he has been forgiven for his sins. He wants God to teach him how to repent, but repentance is harder than it sounds. One of the central Christian paradoxes is that people have already been saved by the death of Jesus Christ, but they can't be saved unless they come to faith by recognizing this sacrifice. The poem's complicated final simile grapples with this paradox.
There's not any sex in Holy Sonnet 7. We have a list of different kinds of death, a pardon signed with blood, and a man trying to repent for his sins, but there is absolutely no mention of sex.