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John Donne – Hymn to God the Father: written circa 1630

John Donne – Hymn to God the Father: written circa 1630

Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun
Which is my sin though it were done before
Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run
And do them still though still I do deplore
When thou hast done
Thou hast not done
For I have more

Wilt thou forgive that sin by which I won
Others to sin and made my sin their door
With thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two but wallowed 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
Swear by thyself that at my death thy sun
Shall shine as it shines now and heretofore
And having done that
Thou hast done
I have no more

What can a person say? Where abouts to begin? Is there enough text to sing the glories of this astonishing poem? Maybe a bit of background on the poet?

John Donne (pronounced ‘dun’) lived a contemporary of Shakespeare in London England between 1570 and 1640. He was renowned in his time as a ‘wit’, a brilliant university educated member of the lower gentry classes. He was a cut above Shakespeare who had no university education and whose father was a glovemaker.

John Donne had expectations as a young man and attached himself to James I royal court in the hope of ‘advancement’. He blew any prospects he might have had when he married, against her parents’ wills, a lady called Ann Moore. She was his darling dear and sweetheart, whereas in those days a person of any pretension married always by stratagem to enhanced the family fortunes. But not for love.

Donne had been a profligate in his earlier youth; a playboy, we might have called him these days. His poetry of his youth reflects this amorous and lascivious character. His attachment to Ann Moore brought him into line; but ruined his finances and outlook.

Ann died quite early in life, and Donne was devastated. Now a widower his attachment to Ann began to mature into a devout devotion to God. His career picked up again a little and over time he rose in the Anglican Church to occupy the position of Dean of St Pauls’ Cathedral in London (not the Wren building but the previous building before it was destroyed by fire).
During this development and elevation to Dean, his poetry moves rapidly away from his early rakish lasciviousness and heads towards the devotional poetry of his later years. This ‘Hymn to God the Father’ is thus a late poem of his; one of his final few.

Donne also wrote prose sermons and was called to preach before the king, who was renowned as a ‘connoisseur’ of theology and devotionals. Donne preached to him very regularly.

Donne’s prose and his poems alike are remarkable for their directness; the way they hit a person who hears or reads them ‘right between the eyes’. They have an immediacy of emotion and a personality of engagement that is hard to mistake. His religious poems for the most part are ‘confessional’ poems.

Donne can weave arguments in threads throughout his poems; and uses old alchemy and scholastic beliefs as well as the bang up to date navigational and empirical scientific understanding emerging during his lifetime. So magic and monastic learning; the New World and figures from mathematical studies are all found as commonplace items in his works

His poems are always conversational, despite all their convolutions of argument, and peppering of arcane knowledge, and he is a wonder how he keeps the flow of speech going in such tight and disciplined forms like the sonnet and in works like the ‘Hymn to God the Father’. He can be audacious, and tender, and fierce and brilliant in the space of two lines. He was a remark able and astoundingly versatile and intelligent, emotionally virile marvel.

In’ Hymn to God the Father’ we see Donne divesting himself of showiness and flashiness in ideas and in the sentence constructions of his poems. It is a poem much more likely in its apparent simplicity of statement to have been thought to have come from the pen of his great contemporary George Herbert, who is renowned for unostentatious holy thought in his poems.

Donne in this poem is baring his heart and soul before God, not using smart tropes and fancy rhetoric, no trendy ideas; and has relinquished what Samuel Johnson called his ‘ransacking’ of knowledge and images and cleverness.

Now let us begin with the poem in particular: Hymn to God the Father.

It’s a series of questions; with each verse ending with a resolution to the questions being raised. The first two verses are only partially resolved by means of pointers that, for all this gone before, there is matter yet to come.

Read the poem out loud to get the forceful rhythmic drive it builds and maintains; to see how the lines end each naturally as speech, but are carried on nonetheless by their subsequent lines. The conversational flow, addressed directly to God, is unmistakeable; as a penitent asking for absolution.

The poem builds, verse by verse, to a firm and confirmed surrender of himself: ‘I have no more’.

Not just ‘no more sin to confess’ but ‘no more objections to make about why he should not be brought into God’s fold and arms and be made assured. But he fears God might have his own objections; hence the audacity of Donne’s almost-demand beginning ‘Swear by thyself…’ as if that is the only reassurance that will set Donne’s mind at peace, and allow him rest from his self castigations. Donne has said to God, to paraphrase the drift of the poem: ‘I confess everything, but I keep finding in myself more to confess; I cannot confess anymore, I am throwing everything I can at you to forgive me. I have nothing more I feel I can offer, please show me in some way I have done enough, for you to take me into your Kingdom’

At this level then the poem is a personal plea to his Maker, ending with Donne resigning everything to God, throwing himself upon God, for mercy and acceptance. The poem ends because there is nothing further Donne can do; he has done his utmost, and the emotional sense one senses seems to be that, yes, he has done enough by having done all he can. (In fact Donne’s definition of charity was ‘To do what one can: all one can’)

So where lies the art in this heartfelt and colloquial plea for forgiveness? What makes it a poetic masterpiece? Besides its emotional power? A scream has emotional power, but a scream is not a poem a work of art.

Remember Donne’s name is pronounced ‘dun’ (‘done’)

‘When thou hast Donne
Thou hast not Donne
For I have more’

Remember his wife’s name was Ann Moore:

When thou hast done
Thou hast not done
For I have Moore’

Remember that the ‘Thy sun’ asked to ‘shine thereafter as heretofore’ is ‘God’s Son’ shining in glory.

‘Swear by thyself..’ brings to mind Jesus’s words: ‘Swear not by the Great King, nor by thy own head, let your yea be yea and your no be no; all else is from the Evil One’. Donne with some poetic license is ‘out of line’ here, in asking God to swear by himself; but gloriously so; his abject needing to be sure of God being accentuated by his asking God to swear on Himself.

And the smallness Donne feels himself to be before God is caught exactly when the poem says:

‘I have a sin of fear that when I have spun
My last thread I shall perish in the shore’

Could this have inspired TS Eliot’s:

‘I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas’?

The image is of a spider or worm spinning a web or a skein of silk. A barely considered creature, dwelling among the lower orders of creation; an insignificant object; which shall perish on the shore; that is, will be washed up half dead to pass away stranded on the sand and out of its native element. His last thread is his final deeds which Donne figures in God’s eyes to be less than trivial, and likewise his expiration he fears will go unnoticed.

The pain and agony and sense of worthlessness, but not hopelessness, just fear, are clearly brought out in these lines – like Crashaw in our last piece Donne senses he is ‘A thing of nought’ into which inexplicably ‘God has overbought’.

Let’s look a little at the rhymes. ‘Begun’ ‘run’ ’shun’ ‘spun’ ‘ won’ ‘done’ and ‘before’, ‘door’, deplore’ ‘shore’ ‘more’ – rhyme runs like a silken thread through the verses holding the thought and themes together. It is the cement of the rhetoric, the links of chain in the motor of the poem’s momentum.

The rhymes drive the poem forward, are staging posts on the way to the final rest at its ending.

There is the rhythm of the lines also which carry you with them as they proceed. Smoothly, fluidly, at first with ‘Da-daah, da-daah, da-dahh, da-daah, da-daah’ until the end verse lines when the rhythm changes abruptly; ‘da-daah-da-daah (pause) da-daah-da-daah (pause) da-daah-da-daah’

The final verse has rhythms which vary from the earlier two verses. In the first line here there’s an almost tripping up stumble at the words ‘that when I have spun’ which is not present in the earlier verses; and which suits perfectly the sense of the poet being unsettled by and reluctant to face having come to his last ‘thread’ – the end of his tether.  And the next line and the words beginning it, ‘My last thread’ have a variant rhythm also, with a natural pause after ‘thread’, signifying ending and maybe death.  When the line picks up its momentum again with ‘and perish on the shore’, Donne’s desperation to the point of despair is palpable. The pushes of breath in saying the words ‘perish’ and ‘shore’ when one reads them is like a last gasp and a plaintive whimper.

And miraculously, with all this going on in the verse of the poem, the conversational and intimate, in-confidence personal plea and appeal to God goes on undisturbed by a hint of out of place diction or sense to shatter the mood and the emotional engagement we are absorbed in. To read through the poem seems so easy to us; the language so natural, the flow of thought so even and tight; and the effects so powerfully moving; that we can easily be kidded that the poem is a simple and plain and unadorned piece put together by a person not so gifted and in the space of a few minutes.

This seems an assessment, once we see what the poem does and how it does it, to be a reflection of our own poverty of discernment as readers, when we are set beside the like of John Donne for comparison. As Milton wrote about Shakespeare, we might say also of Donne:

‘Thou in our wonder and astonishment
Hast built thyself a livelong monument
And thus by fancy of ourselves bereaving
Dost make us marble with too much conceiving…’

Truly one of the wonders of the Golden Age of English verse; one of the finest of the fine; a man wrestling with his art and weaving into it the struggles of his life and his tempestuous quest for personal rightness before God; whose work was relatively fallen into neglect until the 20th century: whose fine and acute sensibility coupled with superb intelligence and a fervid devotion, and who will be valued and remembered as long as men and women speak and hear the cadence of English language.

The Dear Bargain

The Dear Bargain
By Richard Crashaw (1612?–1650?)

I have decided to run a few of these great poems of religious faith by you people who might read on this blog; adding also a few things of my own which might go towards interpreting the poems and maybe also make the re-reading of the poems more enjoyable and lucid for you, especially having people new to poetry in mind?

This first poem is a little known one; a favourite of mine from my long-gone student days where I first encountered it and was won over wholeheartedly by its ‘rough magic’.

Have a read through of it, and then see whether you agree with me about its power and grace; and then, after having borne with me and my peregrinations around its themes and ideas, read it again and see whether you enjoy it more?./Peter

The Dear Bargain

LORD! what is man? why should he cost you
So dear? what had his ruin lost you?
Lord! what is man, that Thou hast overbought
So much a thing of nought?
Love is too kind, I see, and can 5
Make but a simple merchant man;
’Twas for such sorry merchandise,
Bold painters have put out his eyes.
Alas! sweet Lord, what wer’t to Thee,
If there were no such worms as we? 10
Heaven ne’er the less still heav’n would be
Should mankind dwell
In the deep hell,
What have his woes to do with Thee?
Let him go weep 15
O’er his own wounds,
Seraphims will not sleep,
Nor spheres let fall their faithful rounds:
Still would the youthful spirits sing,
And still the spacious palace ring: 20
Still would those beauteous ministers of light
Burn all as bright,
And bow their flaming heads before Thee,
Still thrones and dominations would adore Thee,
Still would those wakeful sons of fire 25
Keep warm Thy praise
Both nights and days,
And teach Thy loved name to their noble lyre.
Let froward dust then do its kind,
And give itself as sport to the proud wind; 30
Why should a piece of peevish clay plead shares
In the eternity of Thy old cares?
Why should’st Thou bow Thy awful breast to see
What mine own madnesses have done with me?
Should not the king still keep his throne, 35
Because some desperate fool’s undone?
Or will the world’s illustrious eyes
Weep for every worm that dies?
Will the gallant sun
E’er the less glorious run? 40
Will he hang down his golden head,
Or e’er the sooner seek his western bed,
Because some foolish fly
Grows wanton, and will die?
If I was lost in misery, 45
What was it to Thy heav’n and Thee?
What was it to the precious blood,
If my foul heart call’d for a flood?
What if my faithless soul and I
Would needs fall in 50
With guilt and sin?
What did the Lamb that He should die?
What did the Lamb that He should need,
When the wolf sins, Himself to bleed?
If my base lust 55
Bargain’d with death and well-beseeming dust,
Why should the white
Lamb’s bosom write
The purple name
Of my sin’s shame? 60
Why should His unstain’d breast make good
My blushes with His own heart-blood?

O my Saviour, make me see,
How dearly Thou hast paid for me,
That lost again my life may prove, 65
As then in death, so now in love.

Peter’s Notes on: The Dear Bargain:

The first thing I noticed I remember, after reading this poem for the first time, was the ways the pulsing and strong rhythms had got to me. It’s a rhetorical masterpiece and the rhythms which carry it along are geared up to reinforce the rhetorical tour de force within the use of language by the poet. Like a good rock song has an enticing melody reinforced by an infectious driving rhythm; a guitar and percussion lifting you out of yourself with animation and joy; that’s how this thing grabs me. First a little history.

Richard Crashaw was the son of Puritan parents and was born and raised in the years immediately before the English Civil War (of 1642 – 1648). He went to University at Oxford and so was very privileged to become educated. Oxford was always on the King’s side before and during The Civil War (against The Parliamentarians) and so Oxford was Established High Church Anglican (whilst the Parliamentarians were the Puritan Non-conformists).

Richard Crashaw was won over to High Church Anglicanism at Oxford; and later, when The Parliamentarians has defeated the Royalists (during the late 1640’s) he moved further over to become a Roman Catholic.

In those days to be a Catholic was dangerous and not conducive to a career or progression in life within the UK. A number of Catholic priests were caught and executed for preaching in the UK at this time. Crashaw then, we can take it, was a man of principle, willing to put his heart and spiritual persuasion ‘on the line’ at a time of a very antagonistic environment.

Late in his relatively short life of 37 years, he published a (final) series of poems in English titled ‘Steps to the Temple’, which represents his mature religious outlook and final settlement of mind.

This poem ‘The Dear Bargain’ is from that final collection.

Before I write about the poem itself it’s worth pointing out, I think, that Richard Crashaw was not hostile to others of other denominations. One of the very major poets of his times was George Herbert, a priest of the Established English Church; and Richard Crashaw’s final collection of poems was in large part a conscious homage dedicated to George Herbert and so it echoes the title of George Herbert’s great sequence of poems which he called ‘The Temple’. (George Herbert will follow in this my series, I hope)

Now that’s the potted history done with; we get on with some talk about the poem.

Richard Crashaw uses a lot of very physical descriptions in his poems. Some people find these a bit unsavoury; the more Puritan readers generally do; and a lot of secular people do too. He talks a lot about items like blood and milk, in a theological context of human suffering and motherly relationships for instance.

You might remember Jesus saying to his followers that they must ‘eat my body and drink my blood’ if they are sincerely to follow him? – and that ‘many left him when they heard these words’, because they ‘could not accept them’. We can assume this implies the followers who left him were a little disturbed and offended at these ideas? Even appalled?

I believe Richard Crashaw was in tune with this aspect of Jesus’ expectations of us, it is built into the Eucharistic rite; and as a Catholic of course Richard Crashaw would subscribe to belief in a Transubstantiation of the Host at the Altar. Regardless however, it seems to me without doubt that any Resurrection promised to us by Jesus in the Gospels, and after the model of his own; should we experience one, will be a physical and a visceral and a hard empirical and factual Resurrection.

It’s hard to deny that this was the Gospel experience of Jesus’s disciple on and after the first Easter Sunday. (See, for instance, Doubting Thomas and his awed adoration; the fish on Galilee shore Jesus cooks for Peter and co.; and the fish Jesus himself eats to show his continued physicality)

So in this way, Richard Crashaw, who would have known the Bible very, very, well, was adhering to an acknowledged Gospel tradition, notwithstanding differences held in particular denominations or sects.

Likewise, ‘the milk of a mother’ is a very Old Testament theme; the Old Testament being in its use of images and descriptions perhaps considerably more ‘bodily’ and visceral than the New? Throughout The Psalms, The Prophets, and The Pentateuch this bodily visceral physicality is emphatically borne out. Richard Crashaw was bigtime ‘into’ actual Biblical imagery.

So that’s the ‘difficult to stomach’ bit dealt with and made a bit clearer I hope?

The physicality and physiological nature of Richard Crayshaw’s images and descriptions are normally connected to religious, even theological, ideas, and he works hard to highlight these ideas, and how they impact as real consequences of belief and of living out The Way (in as far as we can do so). His are the theological implications, if you like, that we need to take notice of if we are serious about our religion, and how these pan out in real life, are not as they are perhaps often managed ‘under the carpet’ by us in our practice?

Thus our status as men and women before God; which in this poem and in his later work generally, were it without an elaborate, baroque, colourful, use of images, could be taken to have been written by a Calvinist:

‘If my base lust 55
Bargain’d with death and well-beseeming dust,
Why should the white
Lamb’s bosom write
The purple name
Of my sin’s shame? 60
Why should His unstain’d breast make good
My blushes with His own heart-blood?’

We are ‘dust’ we practice ‘lust’ we are ‘shamed’ by our ‘sins’; of which our deaths are the wages. This is a heavy indictment of the Human Race, very solemn, very abased and contrite. Richard Crashaw, like Job before him, was wholly humbled and mortified by the idea of the presence of God before him.

The implication here is that indeed we can do little good before God; that we are wholly at God’s loving mercy; and that our Salvations are great and unearned Gracious favours of God towards us. Throughout this poem this is the attitude of Richard Crashaw about the general relationship between man and God.

The use of questions to us from the poet; who piles up question after question at us, is his speciality. None of the questions are ostensibly answered – except by us by our understanding that, yes, this is me, these are my faults listed, and my dependency laid bare. The continuous ‘Why shoulds…?’ he uses, spoken almost in a child’s impetuosity; these big up to the hilt the utter preposterousness of our presumption to expect anything good as a result of our behaviour per se.

The ‘Why shoulds…?’ repeat rhythmically, like the rest of the excerpt does here. Richard Crashaw’s questions are answered, but are answered implicitly by the couplings of their images in their contexts. The ‘white bosom ‘of the Lamb, Christ, answers to the ‘purple name of our sins’ shame; Jesus’s ‘unstained breast’ answers to our ‘blushes’ of shame. There’s absolutely no question what the answers are here. The questions are as we say rhetorical ones.

The long lines of verse are punctuated with shorter and pithy couplets of lines which, like a song’s middle eight, thump a refrain that drums their sense into our ears and hearts. The longer lines sort of tee us up for the short couplets; setting us up for a haymaker as it were. And Richard Crashaw is not afraid of using rhyme. He uses rhyme as emphasis, like a punch line in a tall story, or a halter on a horse used to pull us up most abruptly.

Look at the stresses on the words and syllables in the lines of the extract. There’s a hammer blow given us at every occurrence of the word ‘Should’; and other blows hit us with the words ‘lust’ and ‘dust’ spoken or read. ‘Good’ rhymes with ‘Should’ in the next to last line, and for Richard Crashaw both words would have rhymed with the word ‘Blood’ in the last line, and together these rhyming words take on a powerful emphasis of their own which echoes the thump of the ‘Should’ just given to us.

I think I’ve said enough about how the poem works for now, for you to get the drift of things, and to see how very complex and effective Richard Crashaw’s use of English is here in the poem ‘The Dear Bargain’.

Why not try reading it again? This time aloud? When the poem was written people, even when reading in private for their own amusement only, spoke the lines they read out, unlike our modern silent way. If you feel awkward reading it again and aloud to yourself, then get you wife or husband or child to be your audience. Remember, hit the rhythm, the rhyme, the stresses, the emphases, use the short/long lines in teeing things up, make plain the power of the images and descriptions used, and remember the theology behind them, its Biblical nature. But most importantly, keep the meaning and the feelings that this poem raises in your heart, and so enliven this your rendition, so as to convince your audience of the integral authenticity of this marvelous poem and of the sincerity and genius of its creator – Richard Crashaw.