‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow’ (Holly Sonnet VII) by John Donne is a twelve-line Petrarchan sonnet that is contained within one block of text. A Petrarchan sonnet is also often referred to as an Italian sonnet and can be divided into one set of eight lines, or octet, and one set of six, known as a sestet. As is traditional within sonnets, Donne’s ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow’ contains a turn or volta between these two sections. In the case of this piece, the turn is marked by the word “But.” It signals a return to the present and the speaker’s desire rest, repent, and seek God’s pardon.
Donne’s poem is also structured with a consistent rhyme scheme that is common within Petrarchan sonnets. It follows a pattern of ABBA ABBA CDCD EE. Additionally, the text is written in iambic pentameter. This means that almost every line contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. There are moments in which the pattern diverges though. Donne sometimes uses two stressed or unstressed beats in a row to vary the sounds and make them more interesting.
Summary of At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
The poem begins with the speaker directing angels at the corners of the earth to blow their trumpets and wake the dead. With this action, all those who have passed away, in all their “numberless infinites” will return to earth and seek out their bodies. From the first lines, it is clear this is a slightly altered description of the Christian apocalypse. The speaker describes how everyone will be able to take back their bodies.
By the time a reader gets to the second half of the poem, lines nine through 12, a turn has occurred. Although the speaker seemed prepared for the end of the world in the first section, he changes his mind. He realizes he hasn’t adequately repented for his own sins and begs God to teach him how to do it. The speaker states that if he were able to confess everything he has done to God, then it would be like receiving a blood pardon.
Analysis of Holy Sonnet VII: At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go;
In the first lines of this piece, the speaker directs his words to the angels. He tells them that they should “blow” their “trumpets” at the “round earth’s imagin’d corners.” Or more clearly, they should blow their horns and make sure the sounds ring out over great distances.
It is unclear who this person is, or why he is able to give this order. The context on the other hand is easier to understand.. He is referring to four angels stationed on the imagined corners of the world. This brings to mind images of antique maps, perhaps from Donne’s own time (the mid-1700s) that were drawn with angels at the corners. These figures were often playing trumpets, therefore completing Donne’s speaker’s order.
These lines also reference the Book of Revelation in the Bible. The connection to the Christian end-times becomes clearer as the poem progresses. At this point, a reader can refer to the line in Revelation 7 in which four angels are described at the corners of the earth. They hold back the “winds of earth.” There is even a later reference to angels playing trumpets in Revelation 8.
In the next two lines, the speaker describes how the trumpets are played in order to make the listeners “arise, and arise.” It is time for everyone who has died to return to the earth and find their bodies. It is Judgement Day and Donne’s speaker has crafted a slightly different version of events from the Biblical account.
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.
In the next four lines, the speaker goes on to describe what kind of people the angels wake up. There is no distinction between one person and another. Those who died in “the flood,” a reference to the Biblical flood, are included as well as those who died from every other cause. It doesn’t matter if you died from “Despair” or at the hand of the law, from old age or in war, everyone “Shall behold God.”
Donne chose to list out all these various possible deaths in order to include everyone. Those who have lived good and bad likes alike shall return to their bodies. In the last line the speaker references “you whose eyes, / Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.” These people are those who were too good to die at all. They never had to deal with the trauma of death but are still included in this return to their physical bodies.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; 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.
Between the first and second half of Holy Sonnet 7: At the round earth’s imagin’d corners there is a turn, or important change in the text. Often the turn represents a shift in topics, narrative perspectives, or tone. In this instance, the speaker turns his words to God. He speaks directly to the “Lord” and asks that the angels hold back from blowing their horns. He isn’t quite ready for everything he spoke on in the first stanza to happen.
The speaker tells God the reason for his change of mind is that he needs “space” to “mourn” everyone who has died. He goes on to makes clear that in reality, he is more worried about his own sins than the lives of the deceased. He isn’t ready for the end times yet because his “sins abound.” Perhaps, he is thinking, they are greater than any who have come before him.
The speaker recognizes the fact that it is “late” for him to ask for God’s forgiveness, or even for more time. He asks God to teach him “here on this lowly ground,” in the present, how to “repent.” The speaker’s sins are not explained, nor is the reason why exactly he sees himself as so much worse than any other person. These feelings of self-doubt are a perfect representation of the mindset needed to admit one’s sins. He is fearful and concerned that God will not have a place for him after Judgement Day.
To the speaker, a pardon from God would absolve him of everything he has done. If he can only receive God’s blessing then he will be able to confront the end of the world with a full heart and faith. The speaker will be good enough to stand amongst the other living dead.