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John Donne's "A Hymn to God the Father"

Updated on April 12, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

John Donne Portrait

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "A Hymn to God the Father"

John Donne had dramatized the sins of the flesh in his seduction poems, such as "The Flea" and "The Apparition." In his prayer/poem, "A Hymn to God the Father," his speaker is asking for forgiveness of those earlier misuses of the sex urge.

A speaker with a change of heart appears in Donne's later works, one who seeks ablution for his earlier misdeeds and abuse of the sex instinct. Donne's mature hymns exemplify a seasoned speaker who understands his failures and is eager to gain unity with his Creator instead of his satisfying his fleshly desires.

Donne's "A Hymn to God the Father" is displayed in three stanzas, six lines in each stanza; however, the whole rime scheme consists of only two rimes. Thus each stanza's rime scheme beats out, ABABAB. (Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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.

Reading of "A Hymn to God the Father"

John Donne

Source

Commentary

The speaker in Donne's prayer/poem, "A Hymn to God the Father," is seeking forgiveness of his earlier indulgences in sins of the flesh.

First Stanza: Original Sin

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.

The prayer commences as the speaker supplicates against the original sin of having been born into human flesh. Aware that he, of course, does not recall choosing a human birth, he intuits regardless that the incarnated soul signifies a non-perfected being. The speaker understands that he is burdened with karma to overcome. He has sown and now he must reap what he has sown. He knows that he has to repair his life in order to reap only good in future.

The fact that the speaker has become painfully aware and sin-conscious indicates that he is making progress on the path to self-awareness. Instead of using his energy to seduce virgins, he is now seeking soul-awareness and a clean, dutiful life through prayer and meditation on the Divine. The speaker continues to be accosted by fleshly lusts which are difficult to subdue, but now he knows where to go to get help in overcoming the animal lusts that still exasperate his attempts to remain quiet and still.

The speaker has come to hate his earlier sin, and he is aware that he needs help from the Divine as he strives to control and overcome that sin. Thus, the speaker confesses in multiple layers.

Second Stanza: The Sin of Lust

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.

A second sin for the speaker is that he has urged other people to commit that same sin, which is the sin of lust. While the speaker has found it possible to control his lust for a short time, he had engaged in his sin many times longer, thus making the ridding of it very difficult.

The speaker knows that the only help that will be of any true assistance is God. As he fashions his heart song to God, he places his faith, trust, and soul in God's hands. Yet the speaker must continue to ask for more and more. It seems that sin multiplies like rabbits.

Third Stanza: The Sin of Fear

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.

The speaker now addresses an ultimate sin, that of fear. He fears total annihilation after death of the physical body. Although he understands that he is primarily an eternal soul and immortal, he confides to his Maker that he also has doubts. Not having achieved union with Divine, the devotee, regardless of how faithful will be tinged with doubt until that union is achieved. The speaker supplicates thus all the more intensely in order to overcome the sin of fear and doubt.

The speaker affirms his strong faith in Christ, and he knows that with guidance from "God the Father," the speaker can gain even deeper realization of the shining presence of Christ. The speaker understands the eternal existence of the Christ-consciousness. Only after the speaker has gained that state of being can he aver, "I fear no more."

A Note on Donne's Biography

John Donne married Anne More when she was only seventeen years old; she bore Donne twelve children in fifteen years and died at age thirty-three. Although some scholars and critics have suggested that the two major rimes in this poem "done" and "more" amount to a pun, that claim offers no useful information regarding the poem's meaning or value.

It is obvious that the rimes refer to the poet and the object of his lust. Anne More, perhaps along with others, had provided serious obstacles to Donne's spiritual progress. As he continued to press his virgin(s) to have sex with him, his lustful appetite obstructed his spirituality. But in the final analysis, it is not the object of lust that is the culprit; it is the manner in which the one suffering the lust addresses his issue. Donne's earlier behavior of pursuing his lusts with a vengeance had triggered in him fears that needed to be addressed.

John Donne: Monumental Effigy

Source

Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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