Guest Blog: John Donne’s ‘A Burnt Ship’
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 drowned.
This poem is a bitterly ironic reminder of one of the horrors of naval warfare in the age of the sail; if a ship was set on fire, it was almost certainly going to sink. Sailors who leapt from the ship either drowned or were killed by the enemy who lit the ship on fire in the first place (‘near the foes’ ships, did by their shot decay’). All who were left in the ship, in a wet, flaming oxymoron, were burnt in the sea and drowned in a burning ship.
The poem is strangely emotionally detached. It observes without moralizing, reading almost like a sterile account of events. There are no dramatic exclamations (‘O, alack, alay!’), no mourning the crew, no cursing the enemy (who is only referred to as foe, a fairly neutral word). It’s as if Donne is inviting us to be observers and to judge for ourselves. In doing so, I think that he makes the gruesome fate of the sailors seem like even more of a tragedy. We can draw our own conclusions about the scene, and I doubt there are any who do not feel some sort of pity for the poor souls who burned in a watery grave and drowned in a funeral pyre.
There is some ironic black humor in burning to death on a sinking ship, or drowning in a burning ship, but somehow I don’t think that’s the point of this poem. I do admit that I smiled a little at the image, and like to think that if I was one of the unfortunate souls in the poem, somewhere between saying my prayers and cursing my bad luck, I’d chuckle to think that I’m about to drown trapped inside a flaming ship.
Structurally, the poem contains six un-metered lines following a rhyme scheme of ABBACC. The final rhyming couplet serves to draw a tidy conclusion to the grisly scene. When one reads the poem aloud, there is a definite feeling of finality in those lines.
If you enjoyed this analysis, you might also like our pick of Donne’s best poems.
Christopher Hart is an English teacher in Uiseong-gun, South Korea. Born in Wallingford, CT, in the United States of America, he received his B.A. in English and Music at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. He believes firmly in both education and poetry, and believes that poetry and song should be vital parts of every day life. He thinks that we often read too fast, and should read aloud more often. His blog, ‘A Poem a Day’ updates five times weekly with poetry and light analysis. His blog may be found here.