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Holy Sonnet VII

In John Donne's (1572–1631) 'Holy Sonnet VII', a pretty important deadline is coming up – the Day of Judgement is. On this day, all the dead will be sorted into 'good' and 'bad', and the speaker of the poem fears they haven't had enough time to get into God's good books. Can the speaker redeem themselves before it's too late? Let's find out as we explore the meaning, themes, and literary devices in 'Holy Sonnet VII'.

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Holy Sonnet VII

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In John Donne's (1572–1631) 'Holy Sonnet VII', a pretty important deadline is coming up – the Day of Judgement is. On this day, all the dead will be sorted into 'good' and 'bad', and the speaker of the poem fears they haven't had enough time to get into God's good books. Can the speaker redeem themselves before it's too late? Let's find out as we explore the meaning, themes, and literary devices in 'Holy Sonnet VII'.

John Donne's 'Holy Sonnet VII'

'Holy Sonnet VII' is one of John Donne's series of Holy Sonnets or Divine Meditations which were published posthumously (after his death) in 1633.

John Donne was a metaphysical poet. Metaphysical poets were a group of poets known for their witty explorations of deeply philosophical and religious topics. 'Holy Sonnet VII' is an example of this.

Donne was a very religious man who worked as an Anglican priest under the monarch King James I. Like all of Donne's 19 Holy Sonnets, 'Holy Sonnet VII' explores the speaker of the poem's thoughts and feelings towards their relationship to the Christian faith.

When reading through the poem, try to identify the poem's basic structure, poetic devices, and key themes.

'Holy Sonnet VII'

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.

'Holy Sonnet VII': overview

Here's a brief overview of the poem's key aspects before we analyse them more closely.

Title'Holy Sonnet VII'
AuthorJohn Donne (1572–1631)
Publication1633 in the Poems poetry collection
StyleMetaphysical poem; Petrarchan sonnet
StructureOne stanza divided into 14 lines
Rhyme schemeABBAABBACDCDEE
Key themesJudgement and forgiveness
Poetic devicesBiblical allusions; anaphora; lexical field

'Holy Sonnet VII': summary

In 'Holy Sonnet VII' by John Donne, the speaker imagines the end of the world, or the Day of Judgment, according to the Christian faith. On this day, it is believed that God will judge every human soul, and the speaker of the poem hopes that their sins (bad deeds) will be forgiven.

Petrarchan sonnets like 'Holy Sonnet VII' are usually divided into an octave (a group of eight lines) and a sestet (a group of six lines). So, let's look at the poem step by step in this order.

Petrarchan sonnet: a type of sonnet popularised by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304–74) that usually:

  • Contains 14 lines.
  • Has an octave with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA followed by a sestet.
  • Contains a volta (a change of tone or idea in a sonnet).
  • Is written mostly in iambic pentameter (where each line contains five sets of stressed and unstressed syllable pairs).

The octave (lines 1–8)

The poem begins by commanding angels to blow their trumpets to bring all the dead souls back to life in preparation for them to be judged by God.

The speaker exclaims how countless people on earth died in countless different ways. Some drowned in a flood, and some will continue to die an eternal death in the fires of hell. Some died because of 'war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies, / Despair, law, chance' (lines 6–7).

Dearth: a lack of something.

Ague: illness involving fever.

Tyranny: political oppression.

There are also some lucky people who will see God in the afterlife without ever experiencing a painful death.

The sestet (lines 9–14)

The sestet begins with a volta, marked by the word 'But' at the beginning of the line.

The volta reflects the speaker's change of mind. They don't want God to wake the dead and begin the Day of Judgement anymore because they're not ready and need time to 'mourn' (line 9). The speaker wonders if their sins were worse than those committed by the many dead and grieves the lack of time they will have left to ask forgiveness if they are to die now.

The speaker asks God to teach them how to 'repent' (line 13) so that they can express regret and learn from their sins down on earth. If God teaches the speaker to repent, they can go into the Day of Judgement confident that they have God's official stamp of forgiveness.

Literary devices in 'Holy Sonnet VII'

'Holy Sonnet VII' contains multiple poetic devices, including allusions, anaphora, and a lexical field.

Poetic devices are literary devices used specifically in the context of poetry.

Allusions

'Holy Sonnet VIII' reflects the author's Christian faith through its many Biblical allusions.

Allusion: an indirect or subtle reference

In the poem's first line, it alludes to a passage from the Book of Revelation in the Bible, the Christian holy book, describing 'four angels standing on the four corners of the earth' (Revelation 7:1).1 The speaker of the poem alters this passage slightly by calling these four corners 'imagin'd' (line 1), suggesting the impossibility for humans to truly understand the workings of God outside of our imagination.

The Book of Revelation: the last book in the New Testament of the Bible that deals with the end of the world and heralds the ultimate victory of God over evil.

Did you know? The number seven is significant throughout the Book of Revelation, perhaps informing the placement of 'Holy Sonnet VII' as the seventh poem in the series.

Holy Sonnet VII, a statue of an angel blowing a trumpet, StudySmarterFig. 1 - 'Holy Sonnet VII' alludes to 'four angels standing on the four corners of the earth' in the Book of Revelations

Anaphora

The fifth and sixth lines of the poem begin with an anaphora.

Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of a series of multiple sentences or lines of poetry.

The repetition of 'All whom' emphasises just how many lives have been lost throughout history, and the speaker believes they were all less sinful than the speaker themselves.

Lexical field

A lexical field suggesting multiplicity runs throughout 'Holy Sonnet VII'.

Lexical field: a collection of related words and phrases grouped closely together.

These words and phrases include 'numberless infinities' (line 3), 'scatter'd bodies' (line 4), 'abound' (line 10), and 'abundance' (line 11).

The inclusion of this lexical field suggests the intense shame the speaker feels towards themselves as they see their sins as being so much worse than the countless number of people who came before them.

On the other hand, the lexical field reflects the speaker's feelings of insignificance in the grand scheme of history and their unworthiness of God's power and grace.

'Holy Sonnet VII': themes

'Holy Sonnet VII' explores thoughts and feelings about the Christian faith, especially around the themes of judgement and forgiveness.

Judgement

The fear of judgement is something that many of us have experienced. In 'Holy Sonnet VII', the speaker expresses their anxieties about being subject to the ultimate judgement that will decide whether they are 'good' or 'bad' – the judgement of God at the end of the world.

Forgiveness

Although the speaker fears God's judgement and wonders whether their sins will ever be forgiven, the poem ends on a positive note.

In the final line of 'Holy Sonnet VII', the poem alludes to the crucifixion of Christ by referring to God's pardon sealed by blood.

The Christian God is made up of three parts, God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. According to Christian belief, when Jesus was killed by crucifixion, he showed unconditional love by sacrificing himself in order to build a bridge between humans and God. Christians see this event as the beginning of human salvation, as humans could now be forgiven for their sins in order to have eternal life after death.

Although the speaker of the poem fears God's judgement because of the sins they have committed, they bring themselves back to the reassuring belief that they can repent and ask God for forgiveness.

Holy Sonnet VII - Key takeaways

  • 'Holy Sonnet VII' was written by the English poet John Donne (1572–1631) and published posthumously in the 1633 Poems poetry collection.
  • 'Holy Sonnet VII' is a metaphysical poem and a Petrarchan sonnet.
  • 'Holy Sonnet VII' is a poem about the speaker's relationship to the Christian faith and explores themes of God's judgement and forgiveness.
  • 'Holy Sonnet VII' includes poetic devices such as allusions, anaphora, and a lexical field.
  • 'Holy Sonnet VII' contains many biblical allusions, reflecting the author's Christian faith.

1 'Revelations 7:1'. King James Bible Online.

Frequently Asked Questions about Holy Sonnet VII

Judgement and redemption according to the Christian faith are the main themes in 'Holy Sonnet VII'.

The line 'At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow' in 'Holy Sonnet VII' is an allusion to a passage in Revelation 7:1 in the Bible.

Holy Sonnet 7 was written at some point during John Donne's adult life and published after his death in 1633.

'Holy Sonnet XIV' is about the poem's speaker's search for redemption as they ask God to violently shape them into someone new.

'Holy Sonnet 7' is a Petrarchan sonnet.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

In which century was 'Holy Sonnet VII' published?

What number does the roman numeral 'VII' represent?

In 'Holy Sonnet VIII', the speaker explores their relationship to which faith?

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