‘I Am a Little World Made Cunningly’ by John Donne also known as Holy Sonnet V is a fourteen-line poem that is structured very consistently. It follows a rhyme scheme of ABBA CDDC EFEF GG. From this pattern, it is most important to note that Donne references two of the most popular sonnet forms, Shakespearean and Italian. As with all Shakespearean sonnets, Donne’s ‘I Am a Little World Made Cunningly’ ends with a couplet. Unlike Shakespearean sonnets though, the rhyme scheme alternates. One can recognize the pattern of the Italian sonnet form in the first quatrain with the rhyme scheme ABBA.
Making this piece even more unique, it does not have the characteristic “turn” or “volta” that marks a transition between the first two quatrains and the following sestet. There are a number of imagistic contrasts that act similarly though. Consistently, a reader is confronted with the difference between good and evil, and then at the end of the piece, by fire and water. The speaker’s inner natures, which are diametrically opposed to one another, usually manage to stay balanced. It is when his dark side grows in strength that he becomes distressed.
In regards to the meter, the majority of the lines follow a pattern iambic pentameter. This means that most lines contain five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed.
I Am a Little World Made Cunningly John DonneI am a little world made cunninglyOf elements and an angelic sprite,But black sin hath betray'd to endless nightMy world's both parts, and oh both parts must die.You which beyond that heaven which was most highHave found new spheres, and of new lands can write,Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I mightDrown my world with my weeping earnestly,Or wash it, if it must be drown'd no more.But oh it must be burnt; alas the fireOf lust and envy have burnt it heretofore,And made it fouler; let their flames retire,And burn me O Lord, with a fiery zealOf thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.
Summary of I Am a Little World Made Cunningly
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is made up of both good and evil. Normally the good control the bad, but at this point, the “black sin” within his heart has “betrayed” the rest of his soul. It has taken over more of his being than ever before. The speaker is desperate to do something about this and turns to God.
Donne’s speaker asks God to bring a flood over the world which will clean out everything bad and good within him, giving him a fresh start. This is not going to be possible though. Instead, God plans to bring fire and burn everything out of the speaker. He is excited by the possibility and more than ready to give himself over to God’s punishing, and saving, hands.
Analysis of I Am a Little World Made Cunningly
I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic spright,
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My worlds both parts, and oh! both parts must die.
This piece begins with the speaker referring to himself as a “little world.” His form is composed of “artful” elements and “cunning” ones. He has been crafted one particular way, but on the inside, he has developed differently. His spirit is “angelic” but there are also sights that lead one to the “black sin.”
The speaker is drawing attention to these parts of himself in order to address his own future. His place in Heaven is not guaranteed. In fact, he states that both sides of himself have been “betrayed to endless night.” Now, the good and bad within the speaker are condemned to die.
The speaker’s determination to kill off all parts of himself, in order to save his soul, speaks to the extent to which he worries about his sins. He is so afraid of not going to Heaven that he’d rather face a complete annihilation within a fiery blaze than risk simple repentance. Praying, he feels, will not do the trick.
You, which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres and of new lands can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
In the next four lines, the speaker turns to address God. He refers to God as “You… beyond that heaven which was most high.” The use of the word spheres is directly connected to the traditional image of heaven as having multiple layers, each more pure and important than the next. God exist in this realm and is important enough to be the one discovering the “new spheres” and “new lands.” The speaker is addressing God’s power over everything in existence as a means of respect before asking him for something.
The speaker hopes that God is able to “Pour new seas” into his eyes.” He is seeking a new start and a refreshed perspective on the world so that he might “Drown” out the negativity within himself. He will “weep… earnestly,” or with heart, and perhaps be able to change his life.
The flood imagery is a clear reference to the book of Genesis and the story of Noah. Unfortunately, God promised to never flood the world again. Donne’s speaker is ready for God to refuse his flood though and requests to just “wash” the world instead. This is the best he could do in the situation.
Or wash it, if it must be drowned no more:
But oh! it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
And made it fouler; Let their flames retire,
And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal
Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal.
It appears as if Donne’s speaker receives an answer from God. He’s told that there won’t be a flood but instead, there will be a fire. Everything “must be burnt,” cleansed, and made fresh. The speaker exclaims over the fact of the fire. He’s experiencing a mix of emotions that range from relief to fear.
In one way, the speaker is concerned that the fire is not going to do its job. This fear comes from the fact that his world has been bent by “lust and envy” before. They have changed his life as dramatically as he sees this new fire doing but in a much more negative way. In the wake of the lust/envy fire his world was made “fouler.”
The poem concludes with the speaker asking God to let the flames of sin “retire.” Instead, the new, clean fire should be directed at the speaker himself. This act will be one in which God’s “house” is purged of the black sin. It is a hopeful future that begins with the speaker’s body being eaten by flames. This shows both his desperation and trust that God is going to be able to fix all of his problems.