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?