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At the round earth’s imagined corners
John Donne
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;
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.
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.

This week, we’re reading a poem about the end of the world – John Donne’s “At the round earth’s imagined corners.”
We’ve met John Donne before in this series. Donne was a remarkable figure. He started out as a Catholic and ended up an Anglican; he went from ambitious man of the world to priest. This poem, one of Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” is a really spectacular example of Donne’s metaphysical poetry. “Metaphysical” refers something beyond the natural world. In terms of poetry, we use the word to describe poets like Donne, where the physical and the spiritual are never far apart, and where there is a penchant for intricate and sometimes downright strange imagery. In one of his most famous poems, Donne uses the image of a flea to talk about love! Whenever we encounter a poem by Donne, we know we’re going to get some pretty amazing imagery.
This sonnet begins with a bang. “At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow / Your trumpets, angels.” Donne draws on the Scriptures here: in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes about what the end of the world will be like: “the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (I Thess 4:16).
The angels blow their trumpets, and the dead are raised. Donne describes this raising of the dead in a truly epic way. The souls of the dead fly back to their earthly dwelling places: “arise, arise / From death, you numberless infinities / Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go.” These are dead of all times, all places, and all causes. They died in “the flood,” in the time of Noah. They died from natural causes – “age” and “agues” and “dearth,” or famine. And many died unnatural deaths: killed in wars, by tyrants, lost to suicide, the death penalty, and accidents. And Donne does not forget those who will still be alive at the time of the Last Judgment—“you whose eyes / Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe.” The vision is vast, wide-ranging, all-inclusive.
In the sestet, the last six lines of the poem, all this drama and action and movement ceases suddenly and dramatically. “But let them wait, Lord.” The speaker asks God to hold off on the end of time, for a moment. Why? Because he has sins to repent of. “'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace / When we are there,” he says. This is the time of repentance, and this is the place of repentance.
In the passage from I Thessalonians that inspired Donne’s poem, St. Paul describes how “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together … in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17). Earth will be left behind. Donne’s speaker began the poem calling on the angels to blow their trumpets and the dead to rise. But he knows he is not ready for the air yet, because once that trumpet sounds, it will be too late for repentance.
The poem that began with epic imagery of the cosmos ends with a quiet spotlight on one repentant sinner on earth. “Here on this lowly ground / Teach me how to repent.” All he needs to do is repent his sins, and Christ will do the rest. To repent is “as good,” Donne writes, “As if thou hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood.”
“Teach me how to repent.” We often bristle when we hear that word, repent. Our culture prefers to talk about “choices” rather than “sins.” But we Christians know that sin is real, and that it can do damage to ourselves and those around us. The sinful choices we make can tear the fabric of family and of society. All of us are sinners, called to repentance. And when, like the speaker of Donne’s poem, we dare to look honestly at our own lives and to recognize our sinfulness—to repent—Jesus pours out mercy and forgiveness. And then we can look to his coming not with dread and fear, but with hope.




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Seattle, Washington  98104
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