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John Donne's untitled poem 'At the round earth's imagin'd corners' comes from a collection of his Holy Sonnets which were written between 1609 and 1610; this was a time in which Donne experienced both personal and religious anguish. Donne was originally a Roman Catholic but became a member of the Anglican Church in 1615 (Ruf, Frederick J, 1997). This is an important event to note however as the anxieties he experienced is portrayed in his poem 'At the round earth...' and adds a more personal and emotional level to it. The inner conflict is quite clear throughout the poem and through its many biblical and structural elements, as a result a primarily formalist approach will be adopted in this essay in order to analyse Donne's poem.
The significance of this is that the earth in the Bible is said to have 'four corners' and therefore flat whilst Donne has replaced this concept with the more modern theory of the earth on fact being 'round' with only 'imagin'd corners', therefore possibly a suggestion that the written word of the Bible may not always be correct; thought this could pose difficult limitations on the rest of the poems argument.
Further structural notes would include the fact that the poem is written in Petrarchan sonnet form, with an octave followed by a sextet; this is evident from the volta at the start of line nine 'But let them sleep'. The tone of the poem changes dramatically at this volta, from a prophetic vision of the Apocalypse to a realisation that it is too late for Donne to repent his sins and the inner turmoil this reveals in him. The uses of 'me' and 'my' makes this poem more personal to Donne which adds further desperation to the tone of the poem; he is not merely contemplating the apocalypse in an abstract sense but contemplating his own fate in the event thus making it all the more serious and desperate. The ending is also structurally significant, as part of the sonnet form it ends in a rhyming couplet, this gives it a sense of finality and combined with the image of the 'blood' adds a feeling of foreboding and makes it unsettling. It does not seem to end in a resolution, as indeed Beaston (1999) notes 'that the reader cannot expect to find a satisfying conclusion to any single sonnet; resolution is apparent only when one reads an entire sonnet sequence' he expands this by suggesting
'Most readers expect the poems of the Anglican priest, Dr. John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's, to progress toward spiritual health, faith, and a comforting sense of God's abiding presence, even though they frequently begin with a speaker in some spiritual distress. But such an outcome is achieved in few, if any, of these poems'.
Enjambment is also used, thus creating a notion of endlessness, and to an extent chaos, particularly in the octave, the rhyme pattern is also disrupted in lines two and three where it does not quite work 'arise' and 'infinites'. Furthermore hyperbole is found in 'numberless infinities' as this is obviously an exaggeration, along with repetition 'arises, arise' creates a chaotic mood in the first section of 'At the round earth's imagin'd corners...'. Other techniques such as anaphora used in lines five and six with the word 'all' and the listing of words in line six 'war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies' add to this sense that is captured within the initial octave.
There are also a plethora of biblical images in the poem, as of course it deals with a religious concept; the 'flood' is probably a reference to the flood in Noah's Ark, whilst the 'fire' is symbolic of hell fire. The juxtaposition of the two however is quite interesting as the image of water typically represents cleansing and purity whereas fire is a figure of evil and destruction. Therefore within one line Donne talks of both new beginnings and the end of the world which again furthers the confusion and turmoil in the poem. There is also the list of heavenly signs that were said to prophesise the coming of judgement day 'war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies/ Despair', the scansion of this highlights the prevalent theme of sin in this line, there are plenty of substitutions on the feet; for example 'did and fire shall' are both trochaic substitution whilst 'war, dearth' is spondaic substitution. There is also an instance of enjambment between 'tyrannies' and 'Despair', this continuous list suggests the endless torment the souls will encounter as punishment for their sins.