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.