Throughout the centuries after his death, and especially during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, John Donne’s writing was not well appreciated. While it is lauded today as some of the greatest English poetry ever written, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was often seen as unsophisticated and poorly constructed. It was not until the birth of Modernism in the twentieth century that Donne’s poems became widely popular again. While his diction and form do not align with that of renowned modernist poets like T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, his ideas and messages do, and thus his poems gained a new life and appreciation.
In “A Burnt Ship,” Donne displays this modernist-like thinking as he rejects logic and instead embraces an ironic and nonsensical viewpoint of men involved in a maritime battle. When a nearby enemy ship attacks, the men must choose between dying by burning alive or drowning. Each man chooses the death he thinks he is best suited for. This image of men jumping to their deaths is reminiscent of September 11, when many people chose to jump from the Twin Towers rather than be burnt in the flames or crushed by the falling building. These people, like the men who jumped from the burning ship in Donne’s poem, refused to be killed by another and subsequently took their deaths into their own hands. Although separated by about four hundred years, these two images show that even in drastic and traumatic situations, humanity inherently longs for free will.
Ironically, though, the men in Donne’s poem who actively decided to drown were instead burnt by enemy fire. As soon as they jumped into the water, those on the opposing ship shot them. The people who remained on the burning ship, resigning to be murdered by the enemy, were drowned as the ship sank beneath them faster than it could burn. Donne uses this situational irony to illustrate that despite the natural human longing for control over oneself, it can never be fully attained.
By using a simple ABBACC rhyme scheme, Donne compacts this horrific image into an intellectually manageable package. He simplifies the death of many men into a neat, six-line poem, adding even more irony. Each line is written in pentameter as Donne describes the events occurring and the mindset of the men on board. In the last line, however, Donne skews the rhythm, inserting an extra foot and ending on three consecutive stressed syllables. This change and emphasis highlights the inability to fit the irony of reality into man’s perceived version of what should be and his impractical reliance on free will. This confusion and hopelessness fits Donne’s ideas into the realm of Modernism, and may explain his unpopularity throughout the preceding centuries. He was simply ahead of his time.
Read more of Donne’s poems in John Donne: The Complete English Poems (Penguin Classics)