The Holy Sonnets of English poet John Donne (1572-1631) were written at a time when the devoutly Catholic Donne reluctantly became an Anglican priest upon strong “encouragement” from King James I. Donne’s brother had been jailed for protecting a Catholic priest, who himself had been tortured to death. Not the Anglican Church’s finest moment.
The turmoil from which Donne’s poetry arose is reflected in one of these sonnets, At the round earth’s imagined corner, sung here at St. Alban’s this Sunday to music by the late Lee Hoiby. This turmoil is not only related to that time in British history when being Catholic or Anglican was a life-threatening decision, depending on what day it was, but also related to scientific discoveries that rocked 16th and 17th century thinking. The earth had four corners, according to Revelations 7:1, and yet science determined it was actually round. That Donne could exhort his readers to imagine corners on this round earth is a wonderfully Anglican suggestion, in my opinion. It appears one way, but could be another and we can make a square peg fit into a round hole after all. Just imagine.
At the round earth’s imagined corners blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go ;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you, whose eyes
Shall behold God, and never taste death’s woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space ;
For, if above all these my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of Thy grace,
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent, for that’s as good
As if Thou hadst seal’d my pardon with Thy blood.
The narrator seems to declare in the opening octet, “let the Judgment begin Lord, I’m ready.” Interesting,and subject for much laughter during rehearsals, that Donne would include “law” in line seven’s list of things that had killed those being called to rise by the angels’ trumpets, until you think about the outlawing of Catholicism that had devastated his own family.
But wait…at the sonnet’s turn he asks that the dead be allowed to sleep a bit longer. The narrator may need more time to atone for sins. He wonders if perhaps learning to repent – to feel sorrow for past failures and consequently act to repair those failings – is part of Christ’s message for us.
Something for all of us to wonder about as we live out our lives on this round earth.
And the round earth bid farewell to baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau this past week, something I didn’t want to let pass unnoticed. I could have chosen from any of his sublime performances of German lieder, but instead leave you with his interpretation of Samuel Barber’ setting of sonnets by Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach.