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.
- Line 1: Donne is most likely alluding to a passage from Revelation 7 in the Bible: "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." But he updates the passage to reflect the modern knowledge that the earth is round. Why would he do that?
- Line 2: When a poet talks to someone or something that can't respond, it's called apostrophe. Unless the speaker has a direct line to the Angelic community, that's what we've got here, as he orders the angels to blow their trumpets. Also, the image of angels with trumpets alludes to another Biblical passage, from Revelation 8: "And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets."
- Lines 3-4: The lines also allude to the theological belief that the bodies and souls of dead people are reunited at the end of time.
- Lines 5-6: More Biblical allusions. The "flood" is Noah's flood, or the flood in which Noah was spared. This story is told in the Book of Genesis. The "fire" refers to the fires that will consume those judged as wicked in the Apocalypse.
- Line 12: The word "there" refers to the place of the Last Judgment.
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.
- Lines 3-4: There must have been a lot of dead people throughout history, but certainly not "numberless infinities." That's an exaggeration, or hyperbole.
- Lines 5-6: The repetition of the same word at the beginning of lines is called anaphora.
- Lines 6-7: The speaker gives a catalogue, or list, of causes of death.
- Line 9: Donne uses a very common religious metaphor in comparing death as a "sleep" before the end of time, when both good and bad people will be "woken up" to meet their eternal fate. Also, in this line, the speaker shifts the object of his apostrophe: he's now talking to God.
Repentance and Pardon
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.
- Lines 13-14: The last two lines introduce an important simile. Learning how to repent is like having the pardon for your sins sealed in blood. Donne conceives the pardon as an official document, the kind that would normally have a wax seal that serves as a kind of signature. But the simile is more complex than that. The speaker is saying that God really did seal his (the speaker's) pardon with God's own blood when He sent Jesus to die for the sins of humanity. The blood on the pardon is a metaphor for Christ's blood.