Study Guide

At the round earth's imagined corners (Holy Sonnet 7) Quotes

By John Donne

  • Religion

    At the round earth's imagined corners (line 1)

    The speaker almost goes out of his way to refer to the modern scientific knowledge that the earth is round, in contradiction to the passage from Revelation 7: "After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth…"

    blow
    Your trumpets, Angels (lines 1-2)

    You've heard of a mash-up, right? You know, like when a DJ mixes The Beatles' White Album with Jay Z's Black Album to create a Grey Album? In the first two lines, Donne has created a miniature mash-up with two passages of the Book of Revelation. You have the four angels standing at the corners of the earth (Revelation 7), and then the seven angels who blow their trumpets to set off scenes of Apocalyptic violence (Revelation 8).

    All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow (line 5)

    The "flood" refers to the Biblical flood in the Book of Genesis, from which only Noah and his family were spared. Most scholars think that the "fire" alludes to the fires of the Apocalypse, which, according to the Book of Revelation, burn up a third of the earth, a third of the trees, and a third of the green grass (Revelation 8:7).

    For, if above all these, my sins abound,
    'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace, (lines 10-11)

    In Christian thought, God's grace is limitless. Because, grace refers to God's capacity to forgive people who are not worthy of forgiveness, anyone who has ever lived or who will ever live is included in this category, so God's capacity to forgive must be infinite.

    Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
    As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood. (lines 13-14)

    The speaker shows how well he has learned his Sunday school lessons, even as he asks for God to teach him. According to the New Testament, God did "pardon" humanity, in a way, when he sent his son Jesus to die for everyone's sins. Jesus' blood is also God's.

  • Justice and Judgment

    you numberless infinities
    Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go, (lines 3-4)

    At first, all of the dead souls are lumped together as one group. They have not been separated into the damned and the saved.

    All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow, (lines 5-6)

    The Biblical flood was almost like a mini-Apocalypse. God judged humanity and decided that only man (Noah) and his family were worth saving. Afterward, Noah asked God to be more lenient and not come close to wiping out mankind again. According to the Bible, people now have until the end of time to prove themselves. This line refers only to bad people – the ones who get "overthrown."

    All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
    Despair, law, chance, hath slain, (lines 6-7)

    These causes of death make no distinction between good and bad people. Good people are just as likely to die from sickness as bad people. The one interesting group is those killed by "despair" – does the speaker seem to take the stance that suicide leads to damnation?

    and you whose eyes,
    Shall behold God, and never taste death's woe. (lines 7-8)

    Donne could be talking about two groups here. He could be talking about all good people, who will never taste the sadness of eternal death, or about those good people who happen to be alive on the Day of Judgment, who will never taste earthly death.

    for that's as good
    As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon, (lines 13-14)

    Donne compares divine justice to an official document in the realm of justice on earth. These lines are like the old adage, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." If God teaches the speaker to repent, it will be like having a pardon for all his past and future sins.

  • Mortality

    and arise, arise
    From death, you numberless infinities
    Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go, (lines 2-4)

    The speaker sets up the "death-as-sleep" metaphor that will appear later. This is the big wake-up call, which means there will be a whole lot of groggy dead people.

    All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow, (line 5)

    "O'erthrow" probably means "bring about the death of" in this line. The Biblical "flood" killed everyone on earth except for Noah and his family, and the "fire" refers to the flames of the Apocalypse.

    All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
    Despair, law, chance, hath slain, (lines 6-7)

    The speaker lists all of the non-end-of-the-world-related deaths. These are all the ways that normal people can die. "Dearth" is starvation and "agues" means sickness.

    But let them sleep, Lord (line 9)

    According to this poem, death is just the "sleep" between the end of earthly life and the beginning of eternal life. It's funny how the speaker sounds like a nervous parent huddled over a crib: "They look so peaceful – let's let them sleep, huh?"

    with thy blood. (line 14)

    Jesus and God share the same bloodline as son and father of the Holy Trinity. God the Father wrote the pardon for humanity and sealed it with His son's blood.

  • Humility

    round earth's imagined corners (line 1)

    Right away the speaker demonstrates his appreciation for science and intelligence by contrasting the modern view that the earth is round with the view from the Book of Revelation that it is flat. You don't have to view this as an aggressive stance for him to take. The word "imagined" acknowledges that the idea of a world with corners has value as a poetic or creative truth.

    blow
    Your trumpets, Angels (lines 1-2)

    The speaker sounds like the conductor of a symphony. He places himself in the heart of the action.

    For, if above all these, my sins abound,
    'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace, (lines 10-11)

    All of a sudden, the speaker turns humble. His sins might be even worse than those of the all the souls that have died. His sins are everywhere – they "abound." Still, he does admit that he wants to God to give him grace, so he's still far from passive.

    here on this lowly ground, (line 12)

    The majesty of the Day of Judgment is placed beside the humbleness of human conditions. The last part of the poem pivots on the consecutive words "there" and "here." The speaker removes himself from the center of the action and places himself on the "ground."

    Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
    As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood. (lines 13-14)

    Well, the speaker is still asking for stuff, but at least he wants to know how to "repent," or ask forgiveness for his sins. Repentance is by nature a humble activity.