At the Round Earth's Imagin'd Corners

On the subject of death

This is one of the Holy Sonnets or Divine Poems dealing with the subject of death. It is most like Death be not Proud in that it is based on the same biblical passage (1 Corinthians 15:35-57), and in that some of the language is very similar. But it also relies on a tradition of apocalyptic language derived from the Bible.

More on apocalyptic language: Apocalypse is the Greek word for Revelation. The apocalyptic language of the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible (containing visions of the end of time) and of other Bible passages have always had a profound effect on the Christian imagination. Here, the trumpets and angels are based on a combination of 1 Corinthians 15:52-53 and Revelation 11:15. Both verses had entered Christian art and symbolism at an early stage so Donne is drawing on images very familiar to his readers. We still talk of the ‘four corners of the world' today, even though we know the earth is round. Revelation 7:1 shows how these images entered the ancient Christian imagination.

Unlike Death be not Proud, however, this is in Petrarchan form, having an octave and a sestet, with a marked change of tone between the two. The octave is dramatic, imagining the drama of Christ's Second Coming, when Christian teaching says that the dead will rise again (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

The day the dead are resurrected

Donne combines technical accuracy with his traditional imagery in ‘At the round earth's imagin'd corners'. This is reflected in his imagining what will happen on the day the dead are resurrected, just as the British artist Stanley Spencer did in the twentieth century. Donne speaks as if dead souls will somehow re-inhabit their old bodies. He therefore imagines where the old bodies lay in death, and also how they died, just as in Death be not Proud. Some, of course, will not have to die. They will still be alive when Christ returns (l.8).

A paradox?

The sestet returns to Donne himself. It will be too late to ask for forgiveness of sins on that day. The sonnet finishes with an apparent paradox. The poet asks ‘Teach me how to repent' - it doesn't come naturally to him. Then he goes on to say ‘for that's as good/ as if thou hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood'. In Christian teaching, as Donne was well aware, Christ has sealed the pardon of Christians with his blood (cf Hebrews 9:12-14) in the sense that he died on the cross to make forgiveness possible for humankind. There is no ‘as if' about it. So what do we make of the ‘as if' which Donne inserts? Perhaps Donne is saying that pardon is available to him but that he needs to repent of his sinfulness in order to receive it: ‘When I do repent, then the pardon already obtained for me, will actually be given to me'. He may also be voicing the conviction that repentance will indeed bring instant, certain pardon since he knows that Christ has made it possible. These lines are designed to make the reader stop short and think.

Investigating At the Round Earth's Imagin'd Corners
  • In At the round earth's imagined corners
    • What is the effect of the long lists in ll.7,8?
    • Where does it climax?
    • Compare the way Donne uses this list with those in other sonnets
    • What do you understand by the image of ‘seal'd our pardon'?
  • How could you bring out the contrasts in tone and viewpoint if reading the poem out loud?
  • Do you think the poem finishes on an open, unfinished note? Or is there a sense of confidence on Donne's part?
See Themes and significant ideas > Death as friend or foe


The sonnet has been set to music by Benjamin Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35

The art of Stanley Spencer is a modern depiction of the end of time and the resurrection of the dead.

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