John Donne probably wrote this poem in 1623, after he had recovered from a serious bout of the “spotted fever” which gripped London in an epidemic that year. There is a confidence in this poem’s tone, which gives the reader the impression that Donne has “assurance of Gods favor to him." He has been saved from a disease which was very often fatal, and the speaker of the poem seems to be baiting God a bit in this song-like poem of eighteen lines.
The poem is in three stanzas of six lines each, each ending with “When thou has done, though has not done / For I have more.” In each stanza the speaker holds up his sins to God (and these confessions, while couched in this punning, sometimes daring tone, are nonetheless sincere), and he hopes that God will forgive him for these things. But, with a dark glee, the sinner assures God that “he has more” of these sins – the sinner is a collection of many sins, and God has his work cut out for him to do the forgiving. He begins with original sin (the belief that certain Christian sects have that Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden were passed down to all humanity), and then progresses on to sins that he has brought others to (“…made my sin their door” line 8), to a sin of “fear” (line 13). The speaker is begging forgiveness of God, but he is like a difficult child taunting his parent with ever increasing transgressions.
The puns in refrain lines at the end of each stanza have to do with names. “Done” which is repeated six times, refers to Donne’s own name, and “more”, which ends each stanza, refers to his wife Anne More’s maiden name. The meaning of these puns seems to be to add a certain levity to this poem, and may mean either than his wife incites him to more sin, or, perhaps, she is his consolation for his sins.
The reference is tinged with sadness, however, because Anne More Dunne died in 1617, some six years before this poem was written. The final line reads “I fear no more,” meaning after he dies his sins of fear will be erased and he will once again be with his wife. This hymn was set to music by John Hilton, during Donne’s lifetime, and was probably sung in some English churches during the seventeenth century.