"I AM A LITTLE WORLD MADE CUNNINGLY" John Donne (1635) For one of his HOLY Sonnets, "I Am a Little World Made Cunningly," John Donne adopted the familiar conceit of man as a microcosm. He extended that allusion through the FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE (FIGURE OF SPEECH) of metaphor, contrasting the human body with the entire cosmos. As he had in other poems, he focused on the Ptolemaic theory of the universe to produce imagery of spheres that he could apply to his own physical and spiritual microcosm. However, some of the precise meanings of Donne's allusions remain under discussion.
Donne begins simply enough on a positive note, writing in his first two lines, "I am a little world made cunningly / Of elements, and an angelic sprite." He employs enjambment to run the first line into the second, intimately connecting the idea of his private, cleverly made world with that of both the body, or physical "elements," and the soul, "angelic sprite," where sprite means "spirit." Then Donne executes a neat reversal in tone, which becomes suddenly negative in the third line. The speaker reveals "but black sin hath betrayed to endless night / My world's both parts, and o, both parts must die." Terms such as black, sin, night, and die reflect on the previous term cunningly to suggest an evil, rather than a wise, force that exposes man to harm in its construction of an interactive body and soul. Because of original sin, inherited by all humans, the speaker knows not only his material body, but his spiritual soul, will suffer death. In addition, the speaker's announcement that both his body and soul must die prepares readers for Donne's conclusion.
In the next lines, the speaker appeals to those without sin to help him:
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
Donne uses a conceit characteristic of metaphysical poets and poetry with his request that the powers pour "seas" in his eyes. Although outrageous, the image works well, in its juxtaposition with imagery of exploration, as in seeking new spheres and new lands. Lesser poets attempting this type of metaphor succeeded only in developing revolting references that repelled, rather than fascinated, the reader.
The reference to "new lands" is one of those that critics continue to discuss. According to the Donne expert Helen Gardner, C. M Coffin noted the phrase new lands referred to Galileo's description of the Moon's landscape, helping date the sonnet after 1610, when the astronomer's work Sidreus Nuncius was published. Donne refers to it in Ingnatius His Conclave, noting that Galileo "instructed himselfe of all the hills, woods, and Cities in the new world, the Moone." If true, that would indicate Donne's support of the Copernican hypothesis of the universe. However, Gardner believes Donne refers, as he does in many poems, to the Ptolemaic system, with the outermost heaven the eighth sphere, that of the "fixed stars." She explains that Donne used this as a metaphor suggesting any new discoveries and the explorers who make them.
Donne extends his conceit, the speaker declaring, "Drown my world with my weeping earnestly, / Or wash it if it must be drowned no more." Donne alludes to God's promise to Noah after the flood that destroyed all living things on earth that he would never flood the world again. Donne next turns from the idea of water to fire as a cleansing element, offering a balance through those opposing elements. But he does more He distinguishes three types of fires. First, he alludes to the fires of human passion that lead to sin and destruction and ultimately to the fires of the Last Judgment. Next, he refers to those of the soul, which result in redemption through the destruction of sin. Finally, he calls on the Lord to burn him with the fire of zeal, its fuel faith, as referenced in the biblical Psalm 69:9:
But O, 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.
The psalm also uses the imagery of eating, as the Psalmist notes that the zeal in "thine house," meaning the Lord's house, has "eaten me up." Here the reference serves as another metaphysical conceit for Donne. As flames consume his body, so will zeal consume his flesh and spirit, in a transformative effort. The robust physicality of such conceits appealed to Donne's passionate and dramatic nature.
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