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A Short Analysis of John Donne’s ‘A Hymn to God the Father’

A summary of a classic Donne poem

‘A Hymn to God the Father’ is one of John Donne’s most famous religious poems. As the Donne scholar P. M. Oliver observed, what makes Donne’s poem unusual and innovative is that, in ‘A Hymn to God the Father’, Donne has written a hymn that does not set out to praise God so much as engage him in a debate. The poem is one of Donne’s most masterly holy poems. Below are a few words of analysis.

A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.

As the numerous questions in the first two stanzas demonstrate, Donne is not aiming to sing God’s praises uncritically: rather, he wishes to ask God about sin and forgiveness, among other things. The to-and-fro of the poem’s rhyme schemes, where its stanzas are rhymed ababab, reinforces this idea of question-and-answer. We might paraphrase Donne’s argument in ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ as follows: ‘Will you forgive my sins, which I was responsible for, though many have committed them before me? If you will forgive me for those sins, then your work will not be done – for I have more sins to confess when we’ve done those. Will you forgive me when I have led others to sin, and even introduced them to the world of sin, acting like a door to welcome them in? Will you forgive me for the sin which, barring a couple of years of abstinence, I practised for twenty whole years? Again, if you will forgive me for those sins, then you should know: there are more. I also have another sin – that of fear, or specifically, fear of death. But if you, God, can swear that when I die, I will see your son, Jesus Christ, shining and there to save me, then all is all right: I fear no more.’

‘I have a sin of fear’ is a masterly inversion of the phrase we might expect (‘I have a fear of sin’). Similarly, the poem’s opening lines seem to refer to Original Sin, which partly lets Donne off the hook, since it’s what God should expect of mankind: ‘Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, / Which was my sin, though it were done before?’ Adam and Eve started the whole sin game: Donne is weak for following them, but in a sense he is only being human. (If the first man couldn’t resist…)

Is Donne (pronounced ‘done’ or ‘dun’, we should remember) punning on his own name in ‘A Hymn to God the Father’? ‘When thou hast done, thou hast not done.’ Perhaps: John Donne was, after all, the poet who wrote, after he landed in trouble for marrying Anne More for love, the bitterly punning line: ‘John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done.’ The idea of God being ‘done’ with Donne would probably have struck the poet with its aptness, and it chimes nicely with the idea of things being, to an extent, predetermined (or already ‘done’) thanks to Original Sin – something hinted at in the poem’s opening lines.

‘A Hymn to God the Father’ is refreshing in its directness, and the no-nonsense, don’t-stand-on-ceremony way that Donne addresses God. The cheekiness of asking God to ‘swear by thyself’ – just as we mere mortals swear by almighty God – is almost irreverent, but the tone and meaning of the poem is sincere. Donne’s soul-searching self-analysis meant that he had, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, come to ‘know the anguish of the marrow’ and the ‘ague of the skeleton’. Like Webster, he was much possessed by death. But he realised that his fear of God could be allayed, even extinguished, by putting his trust in God. ‘A Hymn to God the Father’, like many hymns, is a plea: a plea for a guarantee that that trust will not prove to have been misplaced.

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on June 13, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. One of my favorite Donne poems – such clever use of words! Thanks for posting this.

  2. Ok. Thanhk

  3. Jeanie Buckingham

    It’s always a good idea to offer a plea and some flattery before you go. I wonder how he got on.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  4. “Death Be Not Proud” is another clever poem, one that highlights both his belief and ability to employ language to aptly express his perspective. It’s a real game-changer for my students.

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