Study Guide

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

By John Donne

  • Religion

    The "Holy Sonnets" are an example of what is called "devotional poetry," through which the poet tries to demonstrate his or her religious faith. Although the speaker asks to learn how to repent, the poem itself is an act of repentance. "At the round earth's imagined corners" could be compared to a mini-drama, in which the hero falls and begins the path to salvation. Donne draws on his deep knowledge of the Bible to integrate passages from the Book of Revelation and make reference to the Book of Genesis.

    Questions About Religion

    1. We know why the speaker wouldn't want the Day of Judgment to occur – but why did he ask for it in the first place?
    2. Why does Donne mention that the earth is actually round, in contradiction to the passage in the Book of Revelation that describes earth's "corners"?
    3. Is this poem a prayer? After all, the speaker does seem to be speaking to God and the angels. What would you define a prayer in the first place?
    4. How would you describe the imaginative space of the Apocalypse that the poem outlines?

    Chew on This

    The speaker has no reason to wish for the Last Judgment except to witness the pure spectacle of it all; he forgets, however, that he will not be a mere observer to this spectacle and that he too will be judged.

    The poem's conception of Christian repentance is deliberately self-contradictory.

  • Justice and Judgment

    "At the round earth's imagined corners" is a fantasy of the Last Judgment. In Christian theology, the world as we know it has a definite end point: the Apocalypse. All the people who have died throughout time must wait until the Apocalypse to receive their final judgment. It is at this point when the good are separated from the bad. Christianity teaches that a person can always ask God for forgiveness, but once the Last Judgment comes, the opportunity is lost. The speaker calls off his fantasy when he begins to worry that maybe he hasn't repented enough.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. How many different categories of people are listed in the poem? How are these groups to be judged?
    2. Do you think the system of judgment described in this poem is fair?
    3. How would you paraphrase line 10: "For, if above all these, my sins abound"?
    4. Explain how learning to repent is like having a pardon signed in your name.
    5. Why is it significant that the speaker's pardon is signed in blood?

    Chew on This

    Donne describes three classes of people in this poem: the obviously damned, the obviously saved, and people, like himself, who are need of repentance in order to be saved, but who do not fall into one of the obvious cases.

    The speaker's admission that his own sins might be the greatest of all takes advantage of a classic Christian trope in which one shows humility by pretending to be the lowest of the low.

  • Mortality

    Donne's religious poetry frequently turns into a one-on-one grudge match versus death. In Holy Sonnet 10, he declares, "Death, thou shalt die." Well, in this poem, death dies. Everyone who has ever lived is brought back to life, but not before Donne reminds us of death's power by listing all the different ways a person can die.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Explain the metaphor that death is a kind of sleep. Have you come across this metaphor before in literature?
    2. According to this poem, will there still be death after the Apocalypse? If so, who will die?
    3. Who or what does the speaker ask to "mourn" in line 9?
    4. In this poem, why is the death of Jesus Christ like a pardon?

    Chew on This

    The speaker does not ask for more time so that he may mourn those who have already died. He wants to mourn his own sins.

    In his statement that the fires of the Apocalypse will "o'erthrow" sinful people, Donne shows that there is a kind of death in the Christian afterlife.

  • Humility

    Humility? More like arrogance. Who does this speaker think he is, ordering the angels to blow their mighty trumpets, rearranging dead people, and even asking God to be his personal tutor? We still think that the speaker is aiming for humility, but a kind of humility that is different from the modern stereotype of religious humility as passive and guilt-ridden. Although his requests to God and the angels seem presumptuous, throughout the sonnet the speaker demonstrates his knowledge and adherence to scripture. Does Donne show that you can be humble without renouncing your pride in your own intelligence?

    Questions About Humility

    1. Do you see any sign that the speaker thinks it is wrong to be proud of his intelligence? Is he proud in this way?
    2. How would you define humility? Does this poem challenge your notion of humility or reinforce it?
    3. Why doesn't the speaker know if his "sins abound" or not?
    4. Why is repentance so difficult that it must be taught by God?

    Chew on This

    In order to show repentance, the speaker must acknowledge his sins by repeating them in verse at the beginning of the poem. Paradoxically, his arrogance in calling for the Last Judgment is a sign that he recognizes his arrogance.