Scholars of the works of John Donne continue the search for various elements in his poetry to aid in the dating of their creation and even in the ways to refer to the poems. As Donne did not title his own poems, most titles derive from their first lines. However, A Hymn to God the Father (1633) gained its title from its subject matter. Its similarity to other hymns, such as Hymn to Christ, seems to challenge the affording of a title, with its opening stanza asking forgiveness making it appropriate as a hymn to God or Christ. A close reading of the poem’s three six-line stanzas, with a traditional meter of iambic pentameter, reveals why critics have concluded that the hymn is appropriately a prayer to God the Father.
As the speaker asks forgiveness, he refers to the theory of original sin, committed first by Adam in the Garden of Eden, dooming all men to repeat that commission: “Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, / Which is my sin, though it were done before.” In these lines, Donne makes clear that although worshippers may wish to blame Adam and Eve for the sin, they must take credit for their own sinful acts. The speaker continues, “Wilt thou forgive those sins through which I run, /And do them still: though still I do deplore?” Donne repeats the verb do to emphasize again the active nature of sin. He also requires those who sing the hymn to admit their own hypocrisy, as they “do” their sins “still,” even thought they hate the fact that they continue. In the final line of the first stanza he inserts a play through paradox on the word done, extending his use of the verb “do”: “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, / For, I have more.” The speaker admits to the deity to whom he prays that when the deity is “done” forgiving him, he is not truly “done,” as the sinner will continue to commit his sins. Typically of Donne, most words consist of a single sentence, simplicity in format producing a carefully planned effect.
In the second stanza the speaker pursues the same topic, as Donne employs repetition often seen in hymns. He asks again:
Wilt thou forgive that sin by 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 wallowed in a score?
This stanza emphasizes the extent of the speaker’s sin more strongly than the first. Not only has the speaker sinned, he has led others to sin as well. Donne employs the figurative language (figure of speech) of metaphor, using a door to represent the entrance he offers others into a sinful life. The speaker also apparently repeats a previous sin, probably forgiven in the past but returned to haunt him. Donne’s choice of the verb wallowed proves effective, making clear the abandon with which the sinner embraces his sin. The term wallow is often attached to animals such as pigs, which enjoy rolling in mud and slime, sometimes composed of their own waste. Donne clearly connects men’s baser instincts to those of animals, suggesting that without God’s grace, men would be no better than such irrational beasts. The speaker repeats the final two lines of the first stanza, which act as a refrain for those singing; “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, / For I have more.”
The third stanza departs from the previous pattern of questioning, beginning with a statement, “I have a sin of fear.” As the speaker describes his sin, Donne’s use of metaphor proves particularly effective: “that when I have spun / My last thread, I shall perish on the shore.” He adopts imagery of spinning that could add meaning to the poem on several levels. First, Donne comments on his own activity of writing literature, as spinning was traditionally associated with storytelling, that is, “spinning a yarn.” Second, and of interest to feminist critics, the act of spinning calls to mind the mythological figure of Penelope. As Odysseus’s wife, she had to weave a funeral shroud each day, and then pulled it apart at night to keep her suitors at bay as her wayward husband made his way homeward. She constantly destroyed her daily work, in the end creating nothing, as a sinner might daily commit destructive acts. Finally, Donne also suggests a spider weaving a web, a structure that never lasts long but must be constantly reconstructed. If the speaker spins webs, he daily repeats the same actions in a futile pursuit of happiness.
Donne’s reference to the shore also suggests multiple meanings. The first is that of a journey by sea like that mythological heroes such as Odysseus embarked upon with unknown destinations. Thus, the journey could be simply that represented by life, with the act of reaching the shore suggesting a conclusion to life, or death. A second allusion through the shore imagery could be to the river Styx, literally “river of hate,” one of five mythological rivers surrounding Hades. Travelers had to traverse those rivers after death.
At this point, the speaker asks the one to whom he prays, “Swear by thy self, that at my death thy Son / Shall shine as he shines now and heretofore.” This vow would cancel the fear felt by the speaker, were he a believer. The reference to Abraham’s promise in this final stanza also allows scholars to characterize the hymn as addressed to God the Father. In addition the speaker references “thy Son,” meaning Christ, a reference that proves appropriate only if the speaker addresses God. In some older versions, the word Sunne is employed, allowing a double meaning in the suggestion of the sun shining; without the warmth of the sun, man would perish. However, Christ as God’s Son was also referenced many times in the New Testament as a light revealing truth to man, allowing Donne to suggest the shining caused by wisdom, realization, or knowledge. The speaker concludes, “And, having done that, thou hast done, / I fear no more.” Here Donne reflects on the previous lines, declaring that when God forgives a sinner, he is not “done,” as the sinner will continue to sin. However, the promise of Christ as savior removes the speaker’s fear. Without fear, he will sin no more, and God is truly “done.”
Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Divine Poems. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Grierson, H. J. C., ed. The Poems of John Donne. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1912.