John Donne, one of history’s finest poets and literary minds, was the father of many unique and emotional compositions. One of these many compositions was “A Burnt Ship,” an epigram detailing the deaths of those who had the misfortune of sailing upon a ship that caught fire. Donne uses irony and descriptive imagery to create a tragic scene of a mass-death upon the high seas of a ship in war.
The epigram begins with the words, “Out of a fired ship, by which no way but drowning could be rescued from the flame.” These beginning two lines first lay a premise for the rest f the poem’s discussion. Donne states that a ship has been set to flame, and the only way to escape death by fire would be to drown. This imagery creates a scenario of inescapable death, where one can only choose his cause of death, and cannot survive the incident. Donne’s use of imagery and the setting of a sinking ship asserts inevitability, for a sinking sip will always completely sink and a fire will always spread. This statement alludes to the proclamation of death’s inevitability as a whole, in all facets of life.
Water and fire are exact opposites. In many other writings, water and fire spirits have often either been the manifestations of good and evil, or have battled each other to great extents. Now, John Donne uses these opposites to assert that death is inevitable on both sides of life’s spectrum. Water is generally referred to as calming, invigorating, and ultimately the source of life; however, it is now used to convey the end of life. This statement alludes to the possibility of Donne believing that even if one chooses life, he will still die. Fire is used as a metaphor to express death in evil. Often, fire is man made, or is used to convey Satan in Christian texts. In “A Burnt Ship,” John Donne uses fire to state that evil will most definitely result in the discontinuation of life.
The poem concludes with, “They in the sea being burnt, they in the sea being drowned.” This finale invokes irony, for those aboard the burnt sip were found free of burn wounds. Those who jumped ship were found burned. Donne is referring to the irony of death itself. In many ways, death is unexpected, and is even sometimes referred to as a “surprise.” This surprise is that death can still find a man even a way that was not originally predicted to happen. One will meet the face of death. However, it is always not in the time or place that he wishes it to be.
John Donne’s epigram, “A Burnt Ship” is a work of literary genius that invokes immense emotions of sorrow and loss through metaphor, imagery, and irony. The scene of death by fire and drowning aboard a failing ship creates an aura of agony and demonstrates the inevitability of death’s ways. Donne’s use of irony beautifully describes death’s powerful abilities and surprising tactics. In many ways, Donne creates an invisible spirit out of the event of death, and personifies the action without explicitly stating a manifested form.