"A Litany" was written during a dark time in John Donne's life (probably in 1609 or 1610) when he had turned away from the Catholic Church into which he had been born and had become a member of the Church of England. The differences between the two churches' liturgies (Catholicism was outlawed during this time) were less significant than they are today, but some critical differences remained which caused Donne some religious anguish. In this poem, Donne goes through the various parts of the Catholic liturgy (which were broadly called the Invocations, Deprecations, Obsecrations, and the Intercessions) but uses it not as a public poem or meditation, but rather a private prayer. He calls upon the persons of the Trinity, the Virgin Mary, the Angels, and the various doctors and saints of the church, but, unlike in the Catholic Mass, does not call on each one of these to pray for him. In each of the the nine-line stanzas (following an ababcdcdd rhyme scheme), Donne meditates on the nature of the person or group, and how it relates to his own sins and desires. He said of the Doctors of the Church "[(]To know thy Scriptures tells us, we are wrote / in thy other booke) pray for us there / That what they have misdone / Or mis-said, we to that may not adhere," (lines 112-115) making an unsubtle jab at incorrect interpretation of Scripture by Catholic theologians in the past. Donne, a profoundly religious man who would go on to be a high official in the Anglican church, was conflicted about his change from the Church of Rome to the Church of England. This poem, while preserving much of the Catholic litany, shows his attachment to the old ritual while the content sometimes provides a criticism to the old ways of thinking. Donne, ever the intellectual poet, sometimes uses his wit to make such incongruous comparisons that his self-conflict becomes evident: "...for Oh, to some / Not to be Martyrs, is a martyrdome" (lines 89-90) or "As sinne is nothing, let it no where be" (251-252).
After the first thirteen stanzas, the rest of the poem consists of another fifteen in the same form which touch upon the various temptations, challenges, and failings that Donne faces as a Christian. His overriding desire is for "evennesse" (166, 208), or consistency in facing and overcoming sin. It is an extraordinarily complex work, as is usual for Donne, with a wealth of allusions, paradoxes, extended metaphors, and abstractions. Donne is struggling in this poem to overcome the more "wicked" parts of himself, and become a better and more whole Christian. He refers to other sinners too, "Sonne of God hear us" (244), but this is essentially a personal poem, a catalog of Donne's personal struggles—especially his more esoteric and theological ones—couched sometimes in the language of generalities; but it is always more about his own soul's peril than the world's. "A Litany," written about a decade before his Holy Sonnets and considered inferior to them both as poetry and as religious meditation, is nevertheless an example of his poetic virtuosity, and is an interesting artifact of a turning point in a great poet's life.