Here is the John Donne poem Holy Sonnet 7.
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter’d 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 speaker imagines the future in order to better cope with his present, which (it turns out) is related to what Christ did in the past.
The poem works backwards from the future (lines 1-8) to the present (lines 9-13) to the past (line 14).
The speaker imaginatively projects each step.
The opening eight lines take the biblical account of the final judgment (Revelation 7 and 8), compare it to current scientific understanding, and then drown (or burn?) the reader in rhetorical flourishes. The implications are clear. As starkly as the Bible describes the apocalypse–with its angels, resurrections, fire, and four horseman (invoked in the “war, dearth, age, and agues” of line 6)–it all remains a little too symbolic. The bluster of Donne’s rhetoric here (he gives us the four horsemen…then adds four more ways for people to die) is designed to conjure up as horrible a fate as possible. That requires the imagination, a person’s interpretation of the Bible’s symbolic truth.
This imaginative exercise continues when we reach the speaker’s present conundrum. The word “if”in line 10 is crucial. The speaker does not admit he is the world’s greatest sinner. His sinfulness is hypothetical.
As the speaker contemplates how to address this imagined sinfulness, he comes up with three scenarios: 1) Christ shows grace to him at the final judgment, 2) Christ teaches him how to repent here and now, or 3) Christ already secured the speaker’s pardon by shedding his blood at Calvary. The speaker doesn’t think Option #1 is likely. The speaker asks for Option #2, a sort of “Give a man a fish…teach a man to fish” gesture.
The final line is very confusing, however. Why is the effectiveness of Christ’s pardon hypothetical? Why the “as if”? Why compare the effectiveness of repentance TO the effectiveness of Christ’s blood if they are in fact part of the same process? Shouldn’t the line reflect that repentance is how Christ’s blood seals the speaker’s pardon (i.e. the speaker must accept Christ’s offering in order for it to work)?
The entire poem is a thought experiment, one that is designed to prompt spiritual insight “here on this lowly ground” in advance of the judgment. Instead, the speaker uncovers flaws in his own thinking about how to prepare in the present for that future which are, in turn, based on flawed thinking about what Christ did to secure his pardon in the past.