the light fantastic

vague ramblings re: early british lit

Thursday, September 28, 2006

John Donne sonnet 5

In sonnet 5, Donne uses a conceit to explore the concept of grace and redemption. He describes his body as a microcosm of the world, made up of elements. And for the unexplained supernatural elements, and for the mind behind the eyes of the body, Donne includes "an angelic sprite."

This is more than a metaphor, since he continues to describe oceans as the source of his tears and the guilt from his sins (lust and envy are the specific ones he states) as a fire. More than just a world, his body is also an allusion to the Biblical stories of Noah and Revelations. The Great Flood in Noah's time cleansed the evil from the world, and the prophecy in Revelations utilizes fire to purge sin for the final time. He has line 9, "Or wash it if it must be burnt it heretofore," to reference God's promise to Noah never to use waters to punish. And since this microcosm is his body, the waters and the fires don't destroy, but merely renew, as in the couplet, "...with a fiery zeal, ...which doth in eating heal."

The metaphor can be seen the other way, the human body as a symbol for the state of the entire world. The black sin which destroyed both parts (elemental and spiritual) of the body is more visible in the world because of the physical separation of Paradise and because of the lack of miracles in present day. Line 5 talks about somewhere "beyond that heaven which was most high," where You, that is God, have left the world just as Jesus left behind his humanity.

This sonnet oddly, doesn't seem to have much emotion in it. It is neither pleading nor desperate. Even when he uses vocabulary such as "weeping earnestly" there is no pathos behind in, since there is no actually remorse about his sin in the first place. There is no sense of desperation of being betrayed, and since he doesn't lament his fall from paradise, the ensuing redemption isn't as dramatic, even with his punctuation and shorter phrases.

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