Thursday, July 5, 2012

"A Burnt Ship" by John Donne

John Donne (January 1572 -- March 1631 )

Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap'd forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown'd.

I have decided to spend some time analyzing a lesser known poem of Donne's, an early work which glowed with the metaphysical conceits which would make famous this Renaissance poet and later pastor.

"Out of a fired ship" -- the scene set for us, a naval battle, turns on the unique word "fired" -- the ship is attacking and is attacked at the same time, conveyed in the same phrase. The implications lead the reader to consider that every attacker takes arms in part because the enemy has fired upon or has instigated a threat. Yet this threat, in many cases, may be the conceit of a fiery and fearful imagination, like the religious fanaticism of Phillip the Second dispatching his Armada to end the Protestant tyranny of Queen Elizabeth.

This "fired" ship "by no way/ But drowning  could be rescued from the flame." Drowning as a means of rescue defies the simple logic of escape. Worse than leaping from the frying pan into the fire, the sailors aboard the burning ship "leap'd forth", only to find themselves fired upon from the "foes' ships", where "foes'"with apostrophe at the end indicates the widespread onslaught of a fleet of foes' ships.

"Did by their shot decay", "Decay" a strange image conjures up men perishing slowly, unwilling to be submerged beneath darkened waves, lighted only by the foreboding and forbiding fire which would consume them. The stranded naval men, bobbing and thrashing away from their burning ship, must endure the heavy fire falling upon them from the enemy.

"So all were lost" -- lost, with no referent to describe where they ended. With no escape, with no exit but death, those surround by water were destroyed by fire, and those surrounded by fire were slayed by water. The chiasmus created in the final line outlines the irony, darkly comic and comically tragic, which ended the lives of the men who would fire upon the enemy, only to be devoured or drowned as a result of the same fire.

The little poem contains the flagrant embers of a poetical imagination, one that burns to see the interconnecting irony even in the most pathetic of situations, both morally and emotionally. A simple scene dramatizes a terrible, gruesome end for fighting men, with a poet wryly identifying the reversal of outcomes.

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