Cunning elements: water, fire, and sacramental poetics in "I am a little world."
DiPasquale, Theresa M. Philological Quarterly v. 73 no.4. p403-416. 22.09.1994
In John Donne's sonnet "I am a little world," the speaker combats a nearly desperate fear of damnation with a desire to be purged, either by water or by fire. He declares himself "a little world made cunningly/Of Elements, and an Angelike spright," but he feels certain that his microcosm is doomed:
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse nightGardner and others have explained that the sonnet's movement from flood to fire is based upon two scriptural passages.(2) Recalling God's rainbow covenant with Noah - that there shall be no "flood to destroye the earth any more" (Genesis 9:11) - the speaker reasons that his microcosm, too, "must be drown'd no more." A watery apocalypse thus ruled out, he concludes with St. Peter that the end will be a conflagration, "the day of God by the which the heavens being on fyre, shalbe dissolved, and the elements shal melt with heat" (2 Peter 3:12). These biblical glosses clarify the reasoning behind the sonnet's turn at line ten, but they do not sufficiently explain either the psychological dynamics or the self-referential poetics at work in the poem.
In order to appreciate the emotional force - and, ultimately, the metapoetic implications - of the parallel Donne is making, we must recognize the typological relation between the Flood and baptism: the water of the Deluge is a "figure" of baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21). In a sermon preached at a christening, Donne stresses that the sacrament does for individual Christians what the Flood did for the earth: "it destroyes all that was sinfull in us."(3) Thus, the speaker's "little world" has, like Creation itself, been drowned once already; and the connection between the macrocosmic and microcosmic events is made clearer by the fact that baptism, like the Flood, is never to be repeated. There is, as the Nicene Creed declares, "one baptism, for the remission of sins."(4)
According to orthodox Christian teaching, God has made ample provision for sins committed after baptism. In a christening sermon, Donne stresses that "all the actuall sinnes [of the infant's] future life, shall be drowned in this baptisme, as often, as he doth religiously, and repentantly consider, that in Baptisme . . . he received an Antidote against all poyson, against all sinne" (Sermons 5:110). At other times, however, Donne's sermons betray the fact that he was preoccupied with the desire for a second baptism. He speaks of martyrs as having "found a lawfull way of Re-baptizing, even in bloud" (5:66), and - in one early sermon - goes so far as to define tears of repentance as the "souls rebaptization" (1:245).(5) In the sonnet, the speaker wishes to weep such sacramentally potent tears; but he has set up his typological analogy between baptism and the Great Deluge, and having done so, he must feel that his "little world," like the earth itself, "must be drown'd no more" (9).
In seeking to solve the problem he has thus posed for himself, he first considers what seems to be a valid alternative to drowning, suggesting that his world may be "washed" in tears even if it can no longer be drowned. Such a cleansing would seem to be the perfect completion of the typological comparison he has drawn: the earth, though it is never again to be utterly destroyed by water, is refreshed by gentler rains; and Christ provides not only baptism, but "another Water," as Donne explains punningly in a sermon: the "Ablution . . . [of] Absolution from actuall sins, the water of contrite teares, and repentance" (9:329).
In the poem, however, the speaker's state is one of near, if not complete, despair. In declaring from the start of his analogy that his "worlds both parts . . . must die" (4), the speaker has testified to a horrifying conviction: he will suffer, not only the physical death of his "Elements," but also "the seconde death" (Revelation 21:8) - that of the "Angelike spright" itself.(6) And the poem's form reflects his spiritual state. The line in which he considers washing as the alternative to drowning is the sonnet's ninth line; in a conventional Italian sonnet, it would be the turn. But here, it extends the water imagery of the octave into what ought to be the sestet, disrupting the relation between the sonnet's "both parts," only to make a far more decisive turn by resorting to fire imagery in line 10: "But oh it must be burnt."(7) In his dark state of mind and soul, the speaker cannot rest with the thought of cleansing tears, and the poet cannot rest with a neatly-shaped Italian sonnet.
The poem's desperate logic is clear; since the macrocosm "must be drown'd no more" after Noah's flood, it will instead be destroyed by fire. 2 Peter 3:7 declares that, just as the world was once destroyed by water, so "the heavens & earth, which are now, are . . . reserved unto fyre against the day of judgement, and of the destruction of ungodlie men." And if the fate of the macrocosm is thus fixed, must not the microcosm, too, be destined for a fiery end?
It would seem that the speaker - who cannot be neatly distinguished from Donne himself as the maker of the distorted sonnet - has analogized himself into a furnace. He is trapped by the parallels that his own wit has generated; Donne's homiletic poem "The Crosse" warns against just such a danger: "when thy braine workes, ere thou utter it, /Crosse and correct concupiscence of witt" (57-58). But here, even the crossings and corrections - as in the careful substitution of washing for drowning - help to seal the speaker/sonneteer's fate. According to the artful parallel he has established, both parts of his "little world" are "reserved unto fyre" (2 Peter 3:7) just as are the earth and sky of the macrocosm. He finds himself hedged by the flames he himself has fanned. Playing out the apocalyptic implications of his own trope, he finds that he must remain faithful to the poetic correspondence between sinful world and sinful self.
The irony of this suicidal commitment to analogy is that it springs from the poet/speaker's near-despairing sense that he has been unfaithful to the commitment he made in baptism. For it is just such apostasy which - on the microcosmic level - may lead to the fires of spiritual destruction. The Novatian heretics of the third century considered any breach in the baptismal covenant to be completely irreparable; they "denied that any man could have [grace] again, after he had once lost it, by any deadly sin committed after Baptisme" (Sermons 5:86). Many of Donne's sermons argue against such harsh doctrines and the despair they inspire.(8) But those pastoral efforts reflect the Dean's own preoccupations; he was haunted by the specter of an unforgivable sin, a transgression which would wipe out the effects of his baptism once and for all.(9)
Several passages in the scriptures fed Donne's fears. As he points out in a sermon on Christ's
declaration that "the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men" (Matthew
12:31), the concept of unforgivable sin is "grounded in evident places of Scriptures" (Sermons 5:91).
One of these is Hebrews 6:4-6, a passage which sheds significant light on the emotional logic of "I am a
[I]t is impossible that they, which . . . have tasted of the good worde of God . . . [i]f they fall away, shulde be renued againe by repentance: . . . For the earth which drinketh in the raine that cometh ofte upon it, and bringeth for the herbes mete for them by whome it is dressed, receiveth blessing of God. But that which beareth thornes & briars, is reproved, and is nere unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.This passage specifically invokes the image of earth which takes no benefit from having been watered. Those who bear no fruit when they are blessed by God's rain of grace will meet a fiery doom. No wonder, then, that the speaker of the sonnet should feel the threat of flaming death for "both parts" of his microcosm. Having acknowledged that his "little world," though it was once covered by the waters of baptism "must be drowned no more," he must fear that his wrongdoing has ruled out the possibility of being "renued againe" (Hebrews 6:6) and that, by sinning wilfully after he has received the "knowledge of the trueth," to quote another verse from Hebrews chapter 10, he has doomed himself to "the violent fyre which shal devoure the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26-27).(10)
The poem does not, however, end in despair. In an Easter sermon, Donne tells the congregation that the Church has provided an ongoing source of hope and renewal: just as "from the losse of our Spikenard, our naturall faculties in originall sin, we have a resurrection in baptisme," Donne explains, so "from the losse of the oyntment of the Lord . . . and the falling into some actuall sins, . . . we have a resurrection in the other Sacrament" (Sermons 7:112). In the sonnet, then, the speaker leaves behind the fears inspired by his meditation on one sacrament - baptism - to find hope in the thought of another - the Lord's Supper. He seeks a eucharistic renewal in the very flames with which, according to his typological analogy, he "must be burnt" (10). Having acknowledged the fiery guilt of his sins, the speaker prays: "Let their flames retire, / And burne me o Lord, with a fiery zeale / Of thee'and thy house, which doth in eating heale" (12-14). The lines refer not only to the purgative fires which - as in "Goodfriday, 1613" - restore God's image in the poet, but also to the Eucharist, during which the zealous believer is healed and strengthened "in eating." As Thomas Docherty points out, "The ambiguity here concerns who is eating what. The fire of the zeal consumes the poet certainly; but more importantly the poet also eats the Lord, and it is this eating which heals him."(11)
As long as one does not reject the Eucharist, Donne feels, one has a means of being restored to God; for the Epistle to the Hebrews characterizes the relapsed sinner as one who "treadeth under fote the Sonne of God, and counteth the blood of the Testament, as an unholie thing" (Hebrews 10:29). In a sermon, Donne interprets the description as applying only to "a falling away . . . from Christ in all his Ordinances"; for, he explains, "as it is impossible to live, if a man refuse to eat, Impossible to recover, if a man refuse Physick, so it is Impossible for him to be renewed" if he rejects the "conveyance of [Christ's] merits" through preaching and the sacraments (Sermons 7:112). The sonneteer is at pains to demonstrate that he is no such man. Begging to be burnt by the fire "which doth in eating heale" (14), he declares that, far from rejecting nourishment and restorative medicine, he embraces both.
In the Devotions, Donne associates the ninth verse of Psalm 69, "For the zeal of thine house hathe eaten me," with his feverish desire to be recalled from the "excommunication" of bodily sickness which forbids him to go to Church: "Lord, the zeale of thy House, eats me up, as fast as my fever; It is not a Recusancie, for I would come, but it is an Excommunication, I must not."(12) He is unable to worship in God's temple not only because he is physically sick in his bed, but also because he is himself no longer a holy place, having been - as he puts it in another Holy Sonnet - only "till I betray'd / My selfe, a temple of [the] Spirit divine" ("As due by many titles," 7-8). In "I am a little world," his adaptation of the psalmist's cry serves a similar purpose; for here, too, he is praying to be healed. He hopes that, "in eating" the sacrament of Holy Communion, he will be restored to the house of God, the Church which he first entered through the saving flood of baptism. Moreover, by partaking of the Eucharist and thus receiving Christ into his own body, he himself can become God's temple once again; for, when Christ enters into him, he will drive out all evil as he did the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple. As the passage from the Gospel of John recounts it, Jesus "made a scourge of smale cordes, & drave them all out of the Temple . . . And his disciples remembred, that it was written, The zeale of thine house hathe eaten me up" (John 2:15, 17).
But how can the essentially excommunicate sinner, bedridden in his sins, participate in the eating which heals? The Anglican service for "The Communion of the Sick" provides an answer. According to the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer, the rite exists so that, "if the sick person be not able to come to the church, and yet is desirous to receive the communion in his house," he may do so (BCP 307). The Epistle read during this service, taken from Hebrews 12, reminds the ailing communicant of sickness' purgative function: "My son, despise not the correction of the Lord. . . . For whom the Lord loveth, him he correcteth, yea, and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth" (BCP 308). The same book of the Bible that fuels Donne's burning fear thus provides as well for Christ's restorative, eucharistic entry into His defiled temple.
As the closing line of the sonnet suggests, it is not so much the body of the believer as his soul - moved by devout zeal - which consumes the sacrament. This idea, too, is supported by the Prayer Book rubrics, which explain that a Christian may communicate spiritually if "by reason of extremity of sickness" he cannot physically consume the consecrated elements: "[T]he curate shall instruct him, that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe . . . he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Savior Christ, profitably to his soul's health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth" (BCP 308).
Relying upon the doctrines articulated in the rite for the "Communion of the Sick," "I am a little world" remedies private desperation with liturgically-informed belief. The poet does not stop, despairingly, at the seventh verse of 2 Peter 3, which prophesies the fiery end of the world, but proceeds to the consoling words found in verse 13 of the same chapter: "But we loke for new heavens, and a new earth, according to his promes, wherein dwelleth righteousnes" (2 Peter 3:13). This verse looks forward to the perfecting of the macrocosm, not to the renewal of an individual's body and soul. But because the logic of Donne's sonnet is built upon the microcosm/macrocosm analogy, Donne can hope that the heavens and the earth of his microcosm - his spirit and his body - will also be transformed by purgative flame.
We might note that the sonnet's world analogy is complete only when Donne, realizing that no lesser
power can help him, looks to a "new heavens and new earth," burnt into being by God himself.(13)
Invoking other powers only helps to advance the self-destructive course of the analogy he has set up:
You which beyond that heaven which was most highThese lines address not only to heroic Renaissance scientists and explorers, but also the saints, the heroes of the Church Triumphant.(14) The speaker is, however, following a false lead when he asks those who have traveled beyond the old world to supply him with waters drawn from the oceans they have discovered; for the saints have not yet seen the "new heavens and new earth" which will be fired into being at the end of time. On that day, their "Angelike sprights" will be reunited with the perfected elements of their own little worlds, their resurrected bodies. But until then, Donne stresses in a sermon on 2 Peter 3:13, we can only speculate about the nature of the "new Heavens and new Earth" which are to be. In the sermon, Donne compares charts of New World discoveries to the works of various commentators explicating that verse:
[I]n these discoveries of these new Heavens, and this new Earth, our Maps will bee unperfect. . . . [W]hen wee have travell'd as farre as wee can, with safetie, that is, as farre as Ancient, or Moderne Expositors lead us . . . wee must say at last . . . that wee can looke no farther into it, with these eyes. . . . We limit, and determine our consideration with that Horizon, with which the Holy Ghost hath limited us.God, then, is the only author who "of new lands can write" in such a way that the text becomes an aid to salvation; and with the concluding prayer for the zeal "which doth in eating heal," it becomes clear that only the words of the divine author Himself can provide an escape from the typological cul-de-sac that the human sonneteer has constructed for himself.
Yet the poet cannot throw down his pen. Even as he calls upon the Lord to burn him, he phrases his prayer in terms which, on every level, maintain a delicate tension between divine action and human response. In evoking the eucharistic encounter, the petition for the "fiery zeale . . . which doth in eating heale" involves the penitent's willingness to "take and eat" even as it implies that he is a helpless object of the Lord's corrosive flames, a man "now zealously possest" - to cite the expression in La Corona (Sonnet 1. 11) - by a God who is zeal.(16) The phrase "zeale / Of thee'and thy house" is, moreover, ambiguous with regard to possession; the zeal with which Donne wishes to be burned is, in one sense, of God and his house in that it is a characteristic of Christ and his Church, an expression of their great love for each man. From that perspective, the allusion to Christ's furious assault on the temple merchants supports the poet's view of himself as a temple awaiting the zealous savior's whip of knotted cords. Yet the prayer is also a request that he himself be imbued with zeal of - that is, for - the Lord and his house; and zeal is the hallmark of the embattled Christian, himself active and eloquent on behalf of God and his Church.(17)
Human response remains a factor in the process of redemption as "I am a little world" portrays it; and for Donne as the maker of this highly wrought conceit, human response takes the form of poetic act. The artist must exert himself to heal his work - the poem - if he is to call upon God to heal and redeem him, the divine artist's own "cunningly" made work.(18) Though Donne crafts the first ten lines of the poem to reflect in deliberately dangerous trope the precarious state of his soul, it is also through a poetic act that he finds the way to make his final prayer. He can ask for the "fiery zeale . . . which doth in eating heale" only insofar as he can reinterpret the fire which threatens him with destruction; and doing so means enacting a eucharistic change. The element's function is redefined - flames are interpreted as instruments, not of annihilation, but of medicinal nourishment - in an enactment of the moral choice by which the afflicted man turns from despair to repentance.
The Anglican definition of eucharistic transformation involves a change in the use of the elements: in the sacrament, the bread and wine ordinarily used to nourish the body are appropriated for a sacred function and become nourishment for the soul.(19) Here, threatened by hellfire and in danger of utter despair, the speaker/poet must avail himself of the eucharistic flexibility of poetic language, and transform the element of fire. He must rework the image of burning, relying on the fact that flames - like the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper - have more than one use. Fire may destroy, or it may be an agent of purgation and digestion.(20)
The poet's eucharistic consecration of the fire imagery redefines and transforms the sonnet itself. As we have seen, its turn may be said to occur in line 10's desperate shift away from water imagery to that of fire; but from another perspective, the real turn does not take place until line 12, when the poet/speaker rejects the fevered fires of lust and envy, and addresses God directly, praying for restorative fire. And while this twice-turned shape dramatizes the speaker's tormented fluctuation between hope and despair, the resonant confidence of the final couplet - with its strong masculine rhyme - bears witness to the resolution of that conflict.(21)
The resolution is anticipated, moreover, in the sonnet's own testimony that it is no spontaneous
effusion, poured - unpremeditated - from the heart. "I am a little world made cunningly," it says in its
opening line, testifying to its status as a completed artifact, carefully crafted and revised, already
"made" even as it begins.(22) Such making is both perilous and potentially efficacious; and, indeed, the
danger and the power are one. For according to the sacramental poetics that underlies the sonnet,
conceits are either truly deadly or truly salvific, like the sacrament of Eucharist itself. A man who
receives the Eucharist unworthily is damned (1 Corinthians 11:29) or, as Donne puts it, he "makes
Christ Jesus . . . his damnation" (Sermons 7:321; my emphasis). Similarly, to doubt one's salvation is, as
Donne sees it, to weave a kind of dark Faustian conceit:
[T]o doubt of the mercy of God . . . goes so neare making thy sinne greater then Gods mercy, as that it makes thy sinne greater then daily adulteries, daily murthers, daily blasphemies . . . could have done, and though thou canst never make that true in this life that thy sinnes are greater then God can forgive, yet this is a way to make them greater, then God will forgive.In the sonnet, too, the poet makes a metaphor that threatens its inventor with perdition.
But he also finds his way out of the deadly trope, consecrating the elements of his analogy, making active use of the multivalence with which God invests language, and giving sacramental form to the fire of tribulation:
[I]f we can say . . . [t]hat all our fiery tribulations fall under the nature, and definition of Sacraments, That they are so many visible signes of invisible Grace . . . If I can bring this fire to . . . conforme it selfe to mee, and doe as I would have it; that is, concoct, and purge, and purifie, and prepare mee for God . . . [then] I shall finde, that . . . [t]hough we can doe nothing of our selves, yet as we are in Christ, wee can doe all things.Guided by the Spirit, the poet makes what he will of the element of fire, saying such things as to put it to a new and spiritually profitable use. In "I am a little world," the healing flames of a eucharistic fire save Donne from a burning fear that he has lost the grace of Baptism: the response to fire is fire, the answer to fears about sacramentality is sacrament, and poetic utterance remedies the despair that was spoken into being through poetry.
1 "I am a little world," 1-10. Donne's poetry is quoted from The Complete Poetry of John Donne, ed. John T. Shawcross (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1967). Subsequent quotations are cited parenthetically by line number.COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Iowa