In our online poetry class, we teach our students to read and understand poetry by asking questions. Although it sounds a bit formulaic, you would be surprised how a few well-placed questions demystify a poem: Who is the speaker? Whom does he address? What is the subject matter? What images or metaphors does the poet present to explain or enlarge his meaning? What form does the poem take?
Questions like these can illuminate John Donne’s classic Christmas meditation, “Annunciation.”
Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker’s maker, and thy Father’s mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.
Although the identity of the poem’s speaker is not immediately obvious, line five provides a helpful clue. There, he addresses a “faithful virgin,” a detail which, when combined with the title of poem, suggests the historic announcement of the imminent birth of Christ Jesus. This suggests the mysterious speaker to be the Angel Gabriel, his audience the Virgin Mary, and his subject matter the prophetic proclamation of the incarnation.
The poem’s end rhymes and line count reveal it to be a Petrarchan sonnet, which form begins by stating a problem or quandary and then proceeds by offering a solution or helpful insight. Having identified this form, the rest of the poem comes into focus.
Gabriel introduces his subject: a proclamation of salvation, held out to mankind in the person of the “All” referenced in line two, which is God Himself. Describing Him as omnipresent (“which always is all everywhere” in line 2), sinless (“which cannot sin” in line 3), sacrificial (“all sins must bear” in line 3) and eternal (“which cannot die” in line 4), the angel heralds the Savior Babe to His mortal mother. He announces to Mary that this very God “yields Himself to lie/ In prison, in thy womb” (lines 5-6). This metaphor introduces a paradox that Donne proceeds to build to a startling crescendo. Comparing Mary’s womb to a prison, the poet imports all the confinement which the incarnation of God in flesh implies. Pursuing the irony of the already established omnipresent all confined within the small womb of a single woman, the angelic voice makes sure to maintain the sinless conception of the Child, maintaining that “He there/Can take no sin, nor thou give” (lines 6-7).
What must such indwelling and willful confinement portend? The angel continues, “yet He will wear,/ Taken from thence, flesh, which death’s force may try” (lines 7-8). This God-child, free of the sins of the mother, takes from her womb humanity. Angelic wonder continues to mark Gabriel’s observations. This All will become One. This Everywhere will become localized. This Immortal will become, in time, subject to the force of death. With his subtle use of the word “try,” Donne’s angel prophecies even as he announces, couching the cross in the manger. Moreover, he implies that death’s attempt may not succeed, in this way foreshadowing the resurrection.
Donne achieves much in his first eight lines – but he has more to say! Having established the miraculous circumstances of the nativity, the persona continues to reflect on the ironic implications of the occasion. Alluding to Ephesians 1:4, the angel suggests to Mary that she herself was known, thought of, chosen and loved before the foundations of the world. “Ere by the spheres time was created, thou/Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;/ Whom thou conceivst, conceived…” (lines 9-11). Playing with the word conceive, the poet creates another elaborate metaphysical conceit. Mary has conceived, or become pregnant, with the God who conceived, or created, her. In this way, she has become her “Maker’s maker, and [her] Father’s mother” (line 12).
With these preposterous, yet technically accurate metaphors, the magnitude of the annunciation resounds. Mary, in her close, small, confined and dark womb, shelters divine immensity and light. “Thou has light in dark, and shutst in little room, / Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb” (lines 13-14). Donne thus depicts the annunciation as not only a joyful announcement of the forthcoming Messiah, but also a tender revelation of a loving, personal, creator God, who, knowing Mary herself, makes good preparation to meet her every need at His own expense. In this revelation, the paradox of incarnation is met and resolved. Immensity draws near for the sake of love. The “All” submits to the confinement of flesh and the trial of death for the “all.” In this way, Donne announces the personal love of the Savior God to his readers: Salvation to all that will is nigh indeed.