Macrocosm and Microcosm in Donne’s Holy Sonnet
Donne: Holy Sonnet V
(essay follows poem reproduced below)
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 oh both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new lands 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 oh it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envy have 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.
In Donne’s Holy Sonnet V, there is a clear contrast between the world that is Donne’s personal sphere and the world that Donne is surrounded by, and over which he has no control. He makes clear that there is a distinction within his own world when he says ³My world’s both parts,² but all that is known is that ³both parts must die.² There is an ambiguity surrounding these lines, for Donne defines his microcosm in terms of the greater world around him. His own world is composed of ³elements and an angelic sprite² but by stating outright that both parts of his world must die, Donne testifies not only to his fear of death by the physical ³elements², but also to perhaps what he fears the most – a second death. He fears that because of his black sins ³betrayed to the endless night² that the ³angelic sprite² that composes his world, his soul, will die. His sphere is doomed, and with this revelation it is now clear that the speaker is in a state of almost complete dejection. The ensuing lines of the poem reflect the speaker’s spiritual state, but are addressed as forces of elements like water and fire that are representative of his own emotions. Although his own sphere is already shattered in a sense, the speaker appeals to a greater sense of God, time, and life looking for some sort of salvation from his doomed fate. It is not just his mortality that threatens him, it is the prospect of eternal spiritual death that is even more frightening, and so we see the speaker revert to an earlier state of spirituality attempting to provide his own temporal salvation by compressing time.
By observing the choice of words that Donne uses in this poem, it is clear that Donne is questioning the very basis that comprises the fundamentals of Christian belief. The very first line states that the speaker is a ³world made cunningly². There is an intonation of deception in this first line, which would attribute to the speaker’s guilt for his mysterious ³black sin² throughout the poem. This leads the reader to question what it is about this newly formed world that is so deceptive, and why it is this very deception that must cause the deaths of his ³world’s both parts². The very foundation of the speaker’s spirituality is consecrated in his baptism, the formation of his ³sphere² and so with his own betrayal of the pledge made in baptism, his own sins have in turn betrayed him to the endless night which in this context would be natural and spiritual law. Both the elements and the angelic sprites are betrayed, and time is apparently unforgiving since the speaker is terrified that he will suffer the consequences even until after his body is physically dead. His entire world would have to have been made cunning in order to deceive others of his sin, and according to God his fate would thus be fixed right from the time when he was baptized. Donne goes on to say that in the past, the speaker revered heaven, but that he no longer currently does. The Speaker is under the assumption that his soul will be condemned for his ³black sin,² and thus that he will never know heaven. Therefore Donne explicitly states that the ³was² in ³Heaven which was most high,² to point out that going to heaven is now not the speaker’s main intention, but rather a past aspiration, or a theoretical objective which he no longer believes to be possible. At this point in the poem, it is clear that Donne believes himself to be condemned, right from the moment he was baptized, for his lack of loyalty and devotion to God and what can be inferred to be the Christian Doctrine. This is the unforgivable sin that renders the speaker’s tone to be both desperate and sad throughout the poem, and on a microcosmic level it is this sin that leads to the fires of his spiritual ruin.
In the first four lines of the poem, the speaker addresses the situation he faces within his own sphere, and in the fifth line we can see Donne venture outside the personal realm in which the speaker has affixed himself, and address God directly. ³You² he begins, ³which beyond that heaven which was most high / have found new spheres, and of new lands can write². Donne addresses astronomers and explorers who have made new discoveries, as the footnote indicates, but moreover, Donne is honoring God who is in general responsible for all human success. Although his own sphere is made up of elements and ³sprites², he is appealing to elements outside of God’s direct control for help. He calls upon both the angels in the sky as well as earthly elements to band together and help him break out of his doomed fate. He wants his fellow beings to ³pour new seas into (his) eyes² so that he may ³weep earnestly², and properly repent for his sins. Only twice does he call upon God directly, the aforementioned time and then again with ³O Lord² at the end. Throughout the rest of the poem, the speaker appeals to God indirectly with his brief references to Noah’s flood and the Day of Judgment for example, but he chooses not to outright ask God for salvation, rather he continues searching for a way to save himself first.
Donne is at God’s mercy yet turns to him really only at the end when he has assured himself that indeed he can finally ³heal². He finds his own method of salvation and is still unwilling to accept the absolute belief he rejected in baptism and will forever pay the consequences of, that God is an absolute power on which he relies. The speaker desperately cries for something, anything to cleanse him of his ill fitted fate: ³Wash (my world) if it must be drowned no more,² he declares. The speaker wants to be renewed by a flood, the symbolic opportunity of re-baptizing himself. However, like Noah’s flood, baptizing can only occur once and so in reality Donne has to reject the idea. Again he is trapped by lost opportunity, not unlike the speaker’s cunning world whose foundations are impossible to change. Donne turns to fire, ³Alas, the fire² whose flames will ³retire and burn² both the speaker’s body and soul. What Donne is describing is in fact the Day of Judgment where via conflagration his world is consumed by fire and finally purified. The irony is that only on this day will the angels to whom he has been appealing be united with their earthly spheres and thus be more able save the speaker’s own personal sphere, but by this time the speaker’s world would already have been decimated. To this Donne exclaims ³But oh, it must be burnt!² in order for the appropriate ³healing² to result, and after all that is ³foul² like ³lust and envy² are gone and only traditional Christian values remain, only then will the speaker find salvation. The speaker will then be a recipient of God’s ³fiery zeal², for through the refining properties of the fire God’s love for each man will show through.
The fate of the outside world is fixed, for if the speaker has one irreparable sin, then the macrocosm dictates that he will forever suffer. So knowing now that the fate of his own sphere is doomed, he can make the macrocosm better by renewing his soul and body by means of the purgative flame. The flame consumes him, and in the very last line ³Of Thee and Thy house, which doth in eating heal² we can infer that the speaker is allowed to take the sacrament of Holy Communion again and thus is forgiven even in the eradication of his sphere. He has lost his element and even his angelic sprite, but in doing so, he has accepted God. The speaker develops a parallel being with God, for by being accepted into his house he is able to be reborn and quite symbolically baptized in God’s house. The speaker is thus preserved both mentally and physically as the greater macrocosm that God controls but that ironically ensured the speaker’s own individual destruction, for just as the fires quite literally ate him, the speaker has figuratively eaten God and is no longer really recognizable as a self but rather as a part of God.
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Donne: Holy Sonnet V (essay follows poem reproduced below) I am a little world made cunningly Of elements and an angelic sprite, But black sin hath betray’d to endless night […]