How would you explain or explicate John Donne's poem "A Hymn to God the Father"?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Donne’s poem “A Hymn to God the Father” is typical of his religious poetry in many ways. For instance, the speaker directly addresses God. In addition, the speaker expresses a deep sense of his own sinfulness. Furthermore, the speaker shows his recognition that his only hope for salvation is God’s grace, which can only be attained as a gift freely given by God, not earned by the speaker. All of these ideas and techniques also appear in Donne’s Holy Sonnets.

In the first stanza, the speaker asks God whether He will forgive the speaker’s very first sin – a sin the speaker claims as his own even though it was committed by many people before him (1-2). These lines also allude, of course, to the standard Christian concept of original sin – the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a sin that tainted all their descendants. In the next two lines, the speaker asks whether God will forgive the sins the speaker continually commits, even though he continues to “deplore” them? When God has “done” (that is finished) forgiving those sins, he still has “not done” (that is, not finished, although the phrase also wittily suggests that God still does not have John Donne, the sinner). After all, in line 6 the speaker admits that he still has “more” sins for God to forgive.

In the second stanza, the pattern established in stanza one is repeated. The speaker asks God if God will forgive the sin(s) the speaker has committed that have led “Others to sin” (8), so that he has opened the door for them to sin. In lines 9-10, the speaker asks whether God will

. . . forgive that sin which I did shun

A year or two but wallowed in a score . . .

In other words, will God forgive the sin the speaker rejected for a while even though he had “wallowed in” that sin, like a pig in mud, for twenty years? Lines 11-12 repeat exactly the phrasing found in lines 5-6, as if to suggest that the speaker has an almost limitless number of sins for God to forgive.

In stanza three, however, both the method and the tone of the poem significantly change. Here, rather than asking questions, the speaker makes a declaration: he is guilty of the “sin of fear” (13). In other words, he worries that when he reaches the point of death (when he has spun” his last thread [13-14]) he will die, spiritually, before being forgiven of all his transgressions.

In lines 15-16, the speaker begs God to

Swear by thy self, that at my death thy Son

Shall shine as he shines now and heretofore . . . (15-16)

Here Donne uses the standard Christian pun on Son/sun, while the repetition of “shine”/“shines” in a single line mimics the very kind of continued light the speaker seeks.

If God is willing to swear that Christ will assist the speaker in his hour of need, then God “hast done” (17): that is, he is finally finished dealing with Donne’s sins, and He also has John Donne as well, since Donne now “fear[s] no more” (18).