At the round earth's imagined corners (Holy Sonnet 7) Summary
Donne tells the heavenly angels to fire up Judgment Day. Like the conductor of a symphony, he commands them to blow their trumpets in all parts of the world. The trumpets will awaken the souls of all dead people. The souls will be reunited with their bodies, like it says in the Bible.
Naturally, the collection of all deceased people in the world is going to include both good and bad folks. According to the Christian tradition, on Judgment Day, the good will be separated from the bad, which explains why the speaker wants everyone to wake up.
Then he tells God, essentially, "Wait, I didn't mean I wanted Judgment Day now. We've got to let those dead people sleep for a bit." Also, the speaker wants time to mourn for the dead and for his own sins. He worries that if he hasn't repented enough for his sins, he had better do his repenting on earth, before it's too late.
He asks God to teach him how to repent so he can be in the good category on Judgment Day. If God would only teach him repentance, the effect would be the same as if God had signed a pardon with his own blood. But here's the twist: according to Christian beliefs, God already signed this pardon (metaphorically speaking) when he sent Jesus to earth to shed his blood for humanity's sins.
Section I (Lines 1-8)
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."
Section II (Lines 9-14)
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
- Ah, there's a "but" when it comes to the end of the world, isn't there? This is called the "turn" in the sonnet, when the poem shifts topics (see "Form and Meter" for more).
- We hear the speaker asking God not to have the angels wake up all these deceased people just yet.
- We want to say: but you're the one who ordered him to wake them up! This is like hitting the snooze button on the Apocalypse. Those poor dead people: they are very tired and need their rest. ("Sleep" here is a metaphor for the time between death and resurrection.)
- The real reason for this delay comes out in the second half of the line: it's all about "me."
- The speaker wants some unspecified period of time to mourn for all the dead people.
- Count us skeptical on that one. Do we really think he wants to mourn some long-dead people he has never met?
For, if above all these, my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace,
When we are there; […]
- The speaker worries that his own sins might be greater than those of all the "sleeping" people.
- If his sins are really that bad, it will be too late for him to be forgiven on Judgment Day. He needs to start working toward forgiveness now.
- His sins "abound" like sand abounds in a desert. "Abound" here means "to have a lot of" or "to be well-stocked with."
- It seems like the speaker has a lot of sins, above and beyond the rest of sleeping humanity.
- In a lot of older Christian poetry and literature, the way that you show humility is to say that you are the biggest sinner of them all; the worst of the worst. That's what the speaker is doing here.
- Judgment Day is described as a place, "there."
- The speaker is still talking to God at this point, and he is anticipating the time when he will have to stand before God and account for all his sins.
- If he has repented enough, God will show His "grace" through forgiveness. In Christian thinking, God's grace is "abundant" enough that anyone who asks earnestly for forgiveness will be granted it.
[…] here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood.
- In the middle of line 12, the poem shifts topics one more time. The shift is marked by the contrast between "there" and "here." The speaker leaves off with his grand imaginings of resurrection and returns to the present moment.
- The speaker asks God to teach him how to "repent" or ask for forgiveness (line 13). If God teaches him how to repent, the result would be the same as if God had sealed an official document of pardon with his own blood.
- (Back in the day, people used a wax "seal" to make documents official. It was kind of like a signature. The speaker suggests that God's blood is like his personal seal.)
- Remember when your mom told you there was a right way and a wrong way to say you're sorry? That seems to hold true in religious matters, as the speaker makes it sound like asking for forgiveness is a difficult task that requires a great teacher.
- Coming back to the present and the earth seems like "lowly ground" compared to the standing in front of God at the Apocalypse.
- But wait: like many of Donne's poems, this one has a twist at the end.
- The speaker compares learning to repent to having a pardon sealed in blood. The pardon would absolve him of his crimes.
- But the word blood might remind you of another story – the crucifixion of Jesus. According to Christian thought, Jesus died for the sins of mankind. We are meant to think of Jesus' blood as this seal of pardon.
- The speaker shows his reverence for God even as he asks for God's help, and the poem itself is an act of repentance.