April 4, 2017 Cameron McNabb

From Here to There and Back Again

In my department, we joke that I teach “really old things” and “dead, white guys.” In fact, this is an oversimplification of my area of speciality (medieval and early modern literature), which includes cutting-edge research techniques and the first two named female authors in the English language, but it is true that there are really old things and dead, white guys aplenty.

One of those dead, white guys is the seventeenth-century poet and eventual Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, John Donne. And, although his poetry is really old, I think it still has something important to say to us.

One of Donne’s more famous poems is “At the round earth’s imagined corners.” This title, also its opening line, demonstrates a hallmark of his poetry–the ability to combine elements of our experienced world (“the round earth”) with powerful and often Biblical imagery (its “imagin’d corners,” a reference to Revelation 7:1) to produce startling insights into the relationship between this world and the next.

The poem goes:

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.

Note that the poem’s scope begins cosmically large: from every imagined corner of the earth, Donne calls on “numberless infinities” to “arise, arise” at the angels’ trumpets, heralding the end of the world. But, halfway through, the scope collapses into a narrow focus on Donne himself: he asks for “a space” while he is “on this lowly ground” to learn how to repent before the end of the world comes.

Donne’s shift in focus between the cosmic world to come and the narrow world of now reiterates that, for him, grace and repentance can only be sought on this side of heaven.

‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace

When we are there; here on this lowly ground

Teach me how to repent

But what exactly connects the vast and expansive “there” of heaven with the lowly “here” of earth? Grammatically, in the poem, the answer is a semicolon.

‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace

When we are there; here on this lowly ground

Teach me how to repent

It is very important that Donne chooses a semicolon (;) to connect the “there” of heaven with the “here” of earth. Donne had three options of punctuation that he could have used in that moment, and each punctuation mark would have made a different statement about the relationship between heaven (“there”) and earth (“here”).

First, Donne could have used a comma (,) to indicate that the two sentences are very closely related and that the one is an extension of the other. But “there” in heaven isn’t quite so closely related to the “here” of earth, nor is earth a mere extension of it. For we know that our “iniquities have made a separation between [us] and [our] God” (Isaiah 59:2).

Or, Donne could have used a period (.) to indicate that the two sentences are two completely different ideas and are fully separated. One sentence fully ends before the next begins. But the “there” of heaven isn’t fully separated from the “here” of earth, nor must the presence of one end before the next can begin. For Scripture says that God desired “the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). The separation from God our iniquities have caused is not a complete one.

Instead, Donne chooses the third option, a semicolon (;). This punctuation mark indicates that the two sentences represent different but closely related ideas. A semicolon is essentially halfway between the close connection of the comma and the sharp distance of the period. In fact, it combines the two graphically into itself (the period on the top and the comma on the bottom). The semicolon represents precisely how the “there” of heaven is connected to the “here” of earth. It recognizes both the presence of sin that separates us from heavenly life as well as the summing up of heavenly and earthly things in Christ. “There” is different but closely related to “here.”

As with Donne’s title about the round earth’s imagined corners, which combines our lived experience with powerful imagery, the semicolon here is a powerful symbol that invites us to reflect on our lived experience.

It also invites a reverse in the poem’s original scope, moving from the individual punctuation mark back to the cosmic implications of the relationship between heaven and earth. Donne’s semicolon brings us back to the original question: what exactly connects the vast and expansive “there” of heaven with the lowly “here” of earth?

In short, the answer is Christ, “the abundance of [God’s] grace.” The God-become-man, the fleshly semicolon that represents both the connection and the distance between God and humanity. (A colleague of mine called Donne’s punctuation mark a “soteriological semicolon”). Christ is different but closely related to us.

He perfectly bridges the gap between “there” and “here,” such that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-9).

But punctuation is also always a palindrome, read the same forward as backwards. So a second question is also raised: What connects the lowly “here” of earth to the vast and expansive “there” of heaven? If Christ was sent to connect “there” to “here,” what do we send to connect “here” to “there”?

This answer is worship, in the broadest sense, as it seeks to learn “to repent.” Prayer, praise, sacrament, service–all of these attempt to connect “here” with “there.” They all recognize our own sin and shortcomings, our separation, while also seeking to bridge “here” with “there” through the Spirit, forming an offertory semicolon to God. Perhaps David expresses such sentiments best in the Psalms. Worship seeks to make God’s “will be done on earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

Prayer, praise, sacrament, service–all of these attempt to connect “here” with “there.”

Donne’s poem asks us to reflect on how we can bridge the gap between “there” and “here” and “here” and “there.” To do so, ultimately, is to balance the transcendence–the great difference, the periods of God–with his immanence–the great nearness, the commas of God. In doing so, we begin to see the theological semicolons of our lives.

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About the Author

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Cameron McNabb Dr. Cameron Hunt McNabb is an assistant professor of English in the Department of Humanities. She has published widely on really old things and dead, white guys, including popular venues like Slate and Salon.