John Donne

Helen Gardner (ed.), John Donne: The Divine Poems (Second Edition)

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pg 84

  • Editor’s Note1At the round earths imagin'd corners, blow
  • Editor’s Note2     Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
  • 3From death, you numberlesse infinities
  • 4Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
  • 5All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
  • Editor’s NoteCritical Apparatus6All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
  • 7Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
  • Editor’s NoteCritical Apparatus8Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
  • 9But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
  • 10For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
  • 11'Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
  • 12When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
  • Editor’s Note13Teach mee how to repent; for that's as good
  • 14As if thou'hadst seal'd my pardon, with thy blood. (VII)

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Notes

Editor’s Note
l. 1. the round earths imagin'd corners. Cf. Rev. vii. 1: 'I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth.'
Editor’s Note
ll. 2–4. See pp. xliv–xlv for discussion of the implication of these lines.
Critical Apparatus
4.6. dearth W: death 1633, C 57, H 49, TCD, Dob, O'F: see note
Editor’s Note
l. 6. dearth. Grierson, followed by later editors, adopted this reading from W, saying: 'This reading … is surely right notwithstanding the consensus of editions and other MSS. in reading "death". The poet is enumerating various modes in which death comes; death itself cannot be one of these.' The choice of the right reading is not so simple. The argument from logic falls to the ground on reference to the Book of Revelation, where the Fourth Horseman Death, has power 'to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the field' (Rev. vi. 8). The four plagues here are those of Ezek. xiv. 21: 'The sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence'; and the Revised Version gives 'pestilence' as an alternative translation of θάνατος in Rev. vi. 8. In related passages (Jer. xv. 2 and Rev. xviii. 8) 'death' is also used for 'pestilence'. We cannot dismiss 'death' as obviously wrong in this Apocalyptic sonnet; and it is defensible on aesthetic grounds. Donne is, as often, cataloguing by the enumeration of opposites. First come those who have died suddenly, in multitudes—by war and pestilence; then those who have died one by one—by natural decay. After these contrasted pairs, come those destroyed by the will of others—'them that were slain for the word of God' (Rev. vi. 9); and those slain by their own will—the suicides. Then come those cut off by the deliberate processes of law, and those slain by chance. 'Dearth' comes more tamely as war's partner. Although multitudes die by Famine, it is a slow process. The 'vehemence, the violence, the im-petuousnesse' of Pestilence (see Sermons, iv. 50) link it better with war.
In spite of these arguments, and its overwhelming textual authority, I have, though with misgivings, rejected 'death' on two grounds. First, the use of 'death' in a particular sense in l. 6, when it is used in its general sense in ll. 3 and 8, is very awkward. The second and more weighty argument is that I have found no parallel, outside the Bible, for the use of 'death', unqualified by an adjective, for 'pestilence'. The textual justification for reading 'dearth' is the ease with which it could be misread as 'death'. It is also possible to give a hypothetical explanation of how W might alone present the true reading. This poem appears not to have been revised. It is therefore possible that a slip of the pen or a badly written word in Donne's holograph remained uncorrected and was reproduced in the three independent manuscript groups; while, in the copy he wrote out for Woodward, he wrote the word he intended, 'dearth'.
Critical Apparatus
8 woe.] woe,1633
Editor’s Note
l. 8. deaths woe: the return of the body to dust. See the discussion of the text 'We shall not all sleep …' (1 Cor. xvi. 51) in Sermons, iv. 74–76.
Editor’s Note
ll. 13–14. True repentance is a guarantee that the general pardon purchased by Christ's blood is sealed to a man individually.
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