In John Donne's poem A Hymn to God the Father, what is the shore to which he refers in the line "I shall perish on the shore?"

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In John Donne’s poem A Hymn to God the Father, the noted writer and theologian presents one of his more profound expressions of hope tinged with skepticism.  Donne, of course, lived in very turbulent and dangerous times for anyone professing faith in pre-Reformation Church doctrine.  His own theological inclinations remain difficult to fully grasp, although he was representative of a school of thought that struggled to reconcile theology with the scientific realities that couldn’t logically be ignored.  He lived his life to the fullest while adhering to certain underlying principles of morality, and, in this poem, seems to come to grips with the inevitable rubric across which he would eventually pass.  The first two stanzas of A Hymn to God the Father are a plea for forgiveness for his multitude of sins, mainly, presumably, involving an active libido.  Inherent in this poem, however, is the skepticism regarding the precise truths involved in religious conviction.  The third and final stanza reflects Donne’s concerns with the inevitability of death and the possibility that, just maybe, he will be judged and found wanting:

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun

         My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son

         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;

                And, having done that, thou hast done;

                        I fear no more.

The “shore” to which the author is referring is the metaphysical line separating life on Earth and life in the sweet hereafter.  Donne is conflicted regarding the ultimate answers to life.  This line – “I have a sin of fear” – is an admission of his intellectual uncertainties regarding religion and that, if he guesses wrong, he will not enter the gates of Heaven.  

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