Poetic Flow Charts

For the last month in my Early Modern Literature class we’ve been reading 17th-century poetry. One of my favorite of the poems we’ve read so far has been John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet #5”:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite ;
But black sin hath betray’d to endless night
My world’s both parts, and, O, both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new land can write,
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drown’d no more.
But O, 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.

One thing I find really fascinating about this poem is how complex a poetic image is developed over the course of just fourteen lines. Equally fascinating, though, is how diagrammatical it all is; one could, and I have, write up a flow chart showing the movement of imagery in the poem, for it proceeds in an exquisitely logical way. Observe:

(1-2)      |  mind/body (air/earth)
(3-4)      |  -> sin
(4)          |  -> death
(5)          |   ; bible
(6)          |  -> knowledge
(7)          |  -> voyage (water)
(8-9)      |  -> water (drowned/washed)
(10-12)  |  ; fire (sinful)
(12-13)  |  -> fire (purifying)
(14)        |  -> fire (pentecostal; sacramental)

Almost all of the major ideas of the poem are here. Now, the chart is not itself poetic; it’s just a flow chart, after all. But the fact that the chart is possible, and is so interesting in and of itself, is one of the reasons it’s such a great poem. Poems that don’t have this kind of complex thought going on – that just go on  and on about the same thing,  trying to evoke a mood – can be good, but I almost always find much less pleasure in them than intellectually stimulating poems like this.

I suppose that’s probably my mathematical instincts showing through. But come on – even if you like the ambiguity poetry can offer (and I do), don’t you need some structure before there is anything there to be ambiguous with?

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3 Responses to Poetic Flow Charts

  1. e7th04sh says:

    The structure is a must. I happen to read much more amateur poetry than the established masterpieces, or the middle ground. And well, they ultimately fail because they try to do something with words, that is only visible to the author, i suppose. They have no construction, merit, structure a readable message conveyed. People should BEGIN with finding a poetic language that others understand, and subsequently make it more sublime, ambigous. The other way around is a lack of apprehension i think.

  2. ~autolycus says:

    My mother’s favourite poet was Donne, and that ensured a healthy dose… :)

    For me, I always remember that section in Meditation XVII which goes, “…all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another…”

  3. I hadn’t encountered Meditation XVII yet – I’ve sadly not spent a great deal of time studying Donne, only two days in class a few weeks ago. But good choice of passages to remember! Aside from perhaps elemental metaphors like the stuff we get in the Holy Sonnet above, apocalyptic books might be my favorite poetic images.

    You’ve probably already read it (and I mention it here quite often), but Hopkins’ Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves has a lot of similar stuff going on. Excellent poem as well, that one.

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