I Am a Little World Made Cunningly (Holy Sonnet V), John Donne – an analysis


Huh. Are you one of those people who describe themselves as ‘quirky’?

Gut Reaction
Confusion. It feels messy and like the author is very conflicted, both about what is the sum of him, and what he wants and needs.

What does it all mean?
I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic spright,
Now this just sounds like some kind of…hmm. This world, this person, has come into being sneakily, like the ever misapprehended fox. Or just cleverly done. I love the vocabulary, it’s beautiful! We now have spright – old English for elf, or fairy. And this couplet conjures up such clever, beautiful imagery when perhaps all Mr Donne is saying to us is that he is a religious man.
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My worlds both parts, and oh! both parts must die.
Oooh, he done something naughty! What? What did he do? We want to know! Endless night I’d normally associate with death, and black sin I’d assume meant the most wicked of sins, whatever they may be. I feel like he’s saying he’s done something so bad that it has split his world into two part and as a result he’s going to lose everything. Or perhaps he is just talking about plain old death – he’s done something so wicked or his lover has suffered the wickedness of being killed, and now is world is ripped in two.
You, which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres and of new lands can write,
Or… the parting of his lover is like a death. You….have found new spheres – the lover has found new worlds – new things that hold their interest – or moved overseas perhaps – and my thoughts are getting jumbled. Hang on.
So. He’s talking to he’s lover – you, who were so angelic, so perfect, you were held in the highest of esteem even beyond heaven? Careful, lad, we can’t be putting everyone on pedestals, it just results in disappointment and bruises…
I like the idea of new spheres – new worlds – new things that his lover has found to do, and the ‘world’ aspect of it shows how separate this new life is from his. Taking the circle theme a little more from the spheres – new circles to move in – new friends? And it seems that our subject is a writer – and of new lands can write – which makes me feel like a lover has moved overseas and our author feels like his life ever changed, to the point of mourning the separation as a death. Which makes me feel that the sin that he has committed earlier on is what has driven them away.
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Aww. Aww don’t cry! He’s crying… someone pass him a box of Kleenex, the nice soft ones. He feels like he’s crying endlessly, and that he must cry endlessly – he is to blame for all that’s happened? Is it to cleanse his world with his earnest weeping? No, he’s talking drowning, apocalyptic deluge, he wants it all washed away. It feels like he wants to suffer.
Or wash it, if it must be drowned no more:
See? Cleanse it! Take it all away if there are to be no more tears to drown in!
But oh! it must be burnt; alas the fire
Of lust and envy burnt it heretofore,
Ooh. We’re having a little Robert Frost’s Fire And Ice moment.
He’s saying his world has already been burnt by his deeds. Or his lover’s deeds. Or someone’s deeds. Oooh, intriguing. Did lust and envy lead to clandestine relations that resulted with end of his world? Was there an affair?
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.
So what’s happened???? We’re intrigued! What was it, what was it! The world was made foul – so many synonyms! All gloriously image-conjuring, what kind of foul is this?
So now, we want the flames of these… bad things… to stop, and he’s pleading to god to what, smite him? With all the force of heaven? Or is he asking to be consumed by god and all that comes of faith so that he can heal? Is he asking to be reborn to forget all that’s happened?

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order

Not the most… jolly of poems, is it? There’s the desperation of a person pining for someone they’ve lost, all too aware that they have contributed to their departing perhaps?

Suggested rhyme scheme

Similes and metaphors
Hmm. Angelic spright and made cunningly – a religious man?
Black sin – the worst sin. What’s that, there’s so many to choose from!
Endless night – death/permanent separation?
New lands – overseas?
Thee and thy house – God and heaven?

Author’s relationship with their subject
Pining. Severe loss. The worst regret.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
There does seem to be a lot of disagreement about this one, looking out there in internetland. Of course there’s a heavy leaning towards the poem being entirely about religion since it is, after all, one of the holy sonnets. It… intrigues me!

Signing off
I actually love this poem. I love the conjured images, I love the despair, I love it all.

This is how I see the story of this poem. There is a man, our lovely author (or the character he’s writing on behalf of), is a religious man, he’s had a pious, holy upbringing. He’s met, and had the love of his life, and was perhaps married or betrothed. And then something happened, a sin involving lust and envy. I feel like he is taking responsibility for it so perhaps he has lusted after someone, or someone has lusted after his betrothed and the resultant envy he himself had has caused this splitting of the world into two. The subject of his affections has left, and I choose to think left, instead of died – it just feels like a death to him. They have a whole new life, new world away from him and perhaps they are more successful than ever in their career (as a writer?) because of all their new experiences, whilst he is left to weep, earnestly (there’s the responsibility thing again), and wants to drown in his sorrow. He thinks of how he’s burnt his own world with his sins and then asks god to take the drowning sorrow away and burn him instead – with holy fury – as in, to be taken back into the safety and familiarity of the religious life he has grown up in, to be reborn, and forget all that he’s lost.

Sometimes a poem really surprises me, and this one is a classic example. I’ve read it without paying much attention in the past, and when I first read it through for analysing, I didn’t like it much at all; it seemed fragmented and messy. But oh, how wrong was I? It is beautiful, and intriguing, and it just makes me want to climb into the page and interrogate Donne for the full story!


Poetry Foundation


When I read this I think of the song… Hmm. Something I can never have?


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