An Analysis of Some of my Favourite Poems by John Donne

 John Donne

THE POETRY OF JOHN DONNE

John Donne was a convert to the Established Church from Catholicism and was eventually persuaded to become a clergyman by James I, and also by the fact that he had no job!  Even then he had doubts as to what was the one true Church, and this is reflected in some of his religious poetry.  His death, too, obsessed him throughout his life, and many of his poems deal directly with death and the terror which the sense of his own sins inspires in him, e.g. “What if this present were the world’s last night?” and “I dare not move my dim eyes any way, / Despair behind, and death before doth cast, / Such terror.”  But he is always conscious of God’s mercy.  This is seen in “A Hymne to God the Father.”  It is believed that he stopped writing poetry when he entered the Church as there is no evidence of a ‘conversion’ in his poetry, and the ‘Holy Sonnets’ were written beforehand.  He published very little of his verse, but hand-written copies of his ‘Songs and Sonnets’ had been circulating in the literary world for years.

Much of his poetry reflects the tension between spiritual and fleshly impulses: he was tormented by the idea that passion, even in marriage, was a forbidden thing.  In spite of this his poetry can be very passionate, e.g. ‘The Good Morrow’  and The Holy Sonnets.  He is often flippant, e.g. ‘A Hymne to God the Father’, but there is a seriousness and earnestness underlying all he writes, and it is this as well as his tone of the spoken word that gives the impression that he is talking to us personally.  His qualification, second thoughts and new twists to an idea are perhaps a portrayal of his confusion.

LOVE

There is a touch of arrogance in his love poems, and a lack of formality, and he seems obsessed with the problems of unity: the sense in which the lovers become one – and also the sense in which the soul is united with God.  Frequently the union of the lovers becomes an image of the union with God, e.g. ‘Batter My Heart’.  His special marks are the repeated use of the religion/love association, as well as his constant reference to the lovers’ world and to death.  He said, “All Divinity is Love or Wonder”.

A frequent notion in the ‘Songs and Sonnets’ is that lovers are a complete world to each other.  They are everything that matters in the world, therefore they are the world, e.g. ‘The Good Morrow’.  Here, as in other poems, he airs the view that all the lovers’ experience was an immature preparation for this; that every previous ‘affair’ was only a partial anticipation of this.  But the attachment must be shared; a one-sided love is not love at all.  This love is always exempt from time, e.g. ‘The Anniversarie’.

A METAPHYSICAL

Donne uses the conventional images associated with the Metaphysicals – Science, alchemy, and travel.  He is a master of paradox.  Ben Jonson said of him, “Donne for not being understood, will perish”.  But maybe it is because of these same paradoxes that he has assumed a new importance.  Rupert Brooke wrote of “that wider home which Donne knew better than any of the great English poets, the human heart.”  He also said “Donne could combine either the light or grave aspects of love with this lack of solemnity that does but heighten the sharpness of the seriousness.”  W.B. Yeats remarked “Donne could be as metaphysical as he pleased and yet never seemed inhuman and hysterical…because he could be as physical as he pleased.”

Apart from his imagery his poetry is characterised by a consistent use of the first person, dramatic and conversational tones, and the irregularities in the verse, which in fact fit in with the dramatic emotions involved in his poetry.  One of the exciting things in his work is the element of drama.  Part of this came from his use of the words and speech rhythms which people were using every day.  Speech rhythms are identified by run-on lines, internal pauses, questions, and exclamation marks.  It has been said of his poetry that it offers us “the rhythms of thought itself.”

His variety of mood (and so of tone) has often been compared to that of Prince Hamlet – but it is not certain if all his poems are representative of his feelings.  This does not necessarily mean that some of his poetry is insincere – not if the imagined feeling is well created.

His use of the first person involves the reader in Donne’s private experience and in his self-analysis, and creates a sense of being present, as if Donne is writing as he experiences – this is the sense of immediacy.  Contrast this with Wordsworth’s idea of ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’.  This immediacy adds to the dramatic effect of all of Donne’s poetry.

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At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners

Some knowledge of metaphysical poetry is necessary before we can fully appreciate the sonnets of John Donne.  This term was, of course, first used by Dr. Johnson in his famous discussion of Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Marvell.  He observed that, “about the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the Metaphysical poets.”  Since then the term has acquired a current usage, and it implies a type of poetry that has definite characteristics.

  • The first characteristic of metaphysical poetry is its concentration. Poems in this category tend to be brief, and very closely woven.  This tendency is plainly seen in this sonnet where a list of human woes are strung together giving the verses a slow and heavy movement:

“All whom war, death, age, agues, tyrannies

Despair, law, chance hath slain…”

  • A second characteristic is the vividly dramatic quality of metaphysical poetry, particularly of the opening lines. This poetry belongs to the great era of English drama and many of the qualities more natural to drama came to be used in writing poems.  Donne was, we are told, “a great frequenter of plays” in his youth.  The rhythms of his verse, so misunderstood by many readers, are closer to the ordinary speech found in Shakespeare’s plays than to that of most lyrical poems.  The sextet of At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners, for example, adopts a very colloquial tone:

“But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space.”

  • A third characteristic of metaphysical poetry is the use of wit. This term has undergone a remarkable transformation in meaning in modern English.  However, it still bears the important implication of intelligence and originality.  Metaphysical poets tried to present brilliant or arresting things, to surprise the reader by means of unexpected thoughts or expressions.  This tendency led in turn to the development of conceits.  A conceit is a comparison between things which at first sight seem to have little or nothing in common; it is a comparison which is more striking than correct.  For example:

“At the round earth’s imagined corners blow

Your trumpets, angels and arise, arise….”

  • Indeed the first four lines of this sonnet are impressive and appeal through the apparent contradiction suggested in the first line as well as the immensity of life’s history presented in the third (“You numberless infinities…”)
  • A fourth characteristic of metaphysical poets is that many of their poems are taken up with arguments or with clamorous, passionate addresses. Remarkable illustrations of this technique can be seen everywhere in Donne (“arise, arise from Death..”; “to your scattered bodies go…”;  “let them sleep Lord…”;  “teach me how to repent.”)  Sometimes he cannot refrain from arguing with God, to whom he sometimes addresses outrageous paradoxes: “That I may rise, and stand o’erthrow me, and bend Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new”. (Batter My Heart).
  • A fifth characteristic is the striking use of imagery and tone. Throughout the seventeenth century love poetry and religious poetry often sprang from a common basis of inspiration.  In metaphysical poetry in particular a tradition was soon established whereby imagery taken from Elizabethan love poetry was transferred into poems which expressed love of God.  Donne’s thinking on spiritual love is influenced by this tradition.  In Batter My Heart the speaker’s search for love is powerfully illuminated by the imagery in the sextet: here, the harmonising of apparently different elements, the reconciliation of religious and earthly love is supremely accomplished in the paradoxical images (“for I…never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”).

With these characteristics in mind one is better able to appreciate the technique Donne employs in his sonnets.   The first five lines of At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners build up with increasing intensity to culminate in a shattering list of destructions at the end of the octave.  The style is clamorous and rhetorical – an impassioned outburst that cannot be read calmly.  The formal devices of metaphysical poetry are made to serve an express purpose: the octave attempts to create the atmosphere of clamour and confusion which Donne imagines will precede the end of the world.  The imagery bears many similarities to traditional Christian representations of the last day, particularly as expressed in medieval theology.  Indeed the octave of this sonnet is in accord with many aspects  of contemporary thought and sensibility, besides constituting a remarkable expression of Donne’s own speculation, scepticism and melancholy.  There is a marked division between octave and sextet.  The grand awakening of the opening lines gives way to a gentle sadness; the pitch is suddenly lowered to a simpler level.  This sudden variation in tone is a marked characteristic of Donne’s best sonnets.  In the sextet the voice is lowered, and the poet’s desire for a revelation changes to a sense of humility.  There is a movement from complexity to simplicity, and the bold theological references are replaced by a simple Christian faith.  In contrast to the rhetoric presented in the octave, there is a definite sense of human interest about the last lines, particularly in the poet’s personal petition for God’s forgiveness: “Here on this lowly ground/Teach me how to repent.”  The poet’s speculation on the Day of Judgement allows him to indulge his imagination somewhat and to use his wide store of religious images.  However, when the frame of reference shifts to the poet himself – to his spiritual needs and condition – he speaks with simplicity about his true feelings.

However, there have some major criticisms of this poem and these focus on five main areas:

  • Poetic rhythm and harmony seem to be totally lacking, and the poem could have been written in prose;
  • In structure the passage is defective;
  • Particularly displeasing are the fifth, sixth and seventh lines;
  • The first eight lines seem to have nothing whatever to do with the last six;
  • The confusion in thought has failed to establish communication, or even comprehension.

BATTER MY HEART

Batter my Heart

This is a religious poem set in secular terms of love and physical passion.  It might be said that such a relationship with God is a true reflection of the poet’s commitment to God as well as his own unworthiness.

The theme might be the paradox that to be a prisoner to God’s will is the only true freedom.  It is a poem of action, but the action is only an image.  It is highly dramatic and he expresses his mental conflict in violent terms that show his inner torment.  The verbs are violent: “Batter”, “O’erthrow”, “bend your force”, “Break”, “imprison”, “ravish”.  It is interesting to note that Donne’s own title for this poem was “Prayer for Violence”.

Dr. Johnson’s objection to metaphysical poetry was that “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”  Most modern critics would admit to the heterogeneous aspect of Donne’s wit, but deny that “yoked by violence” was a fair description of the general effect.  Batter My Heart is a good example of a metaphysical poem which relies on the use of conceits to present a unified experience.  The sonnet contains two extreme comparisons: the poet imagines himself to be a town under siege, in the octave; then the imagery changes and he compares himself to a married woman, in the sextet.  Let us examine these images in turn.

The poem begins as a prayer to the Trinity, expressed in military terms: “Batter my heart.”  To each member of the Trinity he assigns a separate request: “breathe” (Father), “shine” (Spirit), “seek to mend” (Christ).  The third line introduces a metaphysical paradox i.e. a statement which on the surface seems self-contradictory but which turns out, on close examination, to have a valid meaning.  The image presented is of a town or castle under attack.  Donne wishes to be “overthrown” in order that he may “rise”.  Suddenly in line 4  the imagery changes: “break, blow, burn, and make me new”.  Here he wishes God to destroy his former self and to create for him a more spiritual personality.  This line makes demands on the reader’s knowledge of alchemy: as the alchemist breaks down base matter in his furnace (“burn” and “blow”) and transforms it into gold, so God will work on the darkness of the poet’s soul and transform it into his own likeness.  The imagery of a captured town continues in the simile of line 5.  Furthermore, reason – personified in this context as an intermediary between God and man – is also ineffective and has deserted his real function.  Once again in the sextet the imagery changes.  The speaker becomes a woman who wishes to be loved by God.  She is, however, married to God’s enemy and wishes that this marriage bond may be broken.  As in the opening lines, Donne expresses his desire for a union with God in very emphatic terms: “Take me to you….enthrall me.”  The violent sexual union depicted in the last lines represents the poet’s desire to be overcome and united spiritually with God.  Donne attempts to express his meaning through vivid use of paradox: he will never be free until he is imprisoned by God; he will never understand Christian purity until God has ravished him.

The chief advantage of the conceits Donne uses in this sonnet is the quality of inclusiveness they make possible.  They are a way of bringing effectively into poetry all his interests, activities and speculations.  No part of his experience is regarded as intrinsically unpoetical.  Indeed, a marked characteristic of his style in this sonnet is the depictment of religious experience largely in secular terms.  There was, of course, a traditional Christian frame of reference which Donne might have used in composing this sonnet.  However, he prefers to engage our attention not through expected images and associations, but through unusual ideas and comparisons.  Whatever poetic licences are taken, the general effect is to reinforce, modify and generally heighten the reader’s response to each sonnet.  In this regard, the imagery of Batter My Heart has always impressed readers by his range and variety, as well as by its avoidance of the conventionally ornamental.  It was to the endings of his sonnets, however, that Donne attached particular importance.  In one of his unfortunately rare comments on the art of poetry he says: ”In all metrical composition…the force of the whole piece is for the most part left to the end; the whole frame of the poem is a beating out of a piece of gold, but the last clause is as the impression of the stamp, and that is what makes it current.”  Significantly, therefore, Batter My Heart ends with two tremendous paradoxes.

O, MY BLACK SOUL

O, My Blacl Soul

This is another of the Holy Sonnets structured on the Jesuit method of mental prayer.  Here he conjures up the image of his deathbed and supports it with comparisons and then begins to pray.  It is a true meditation.

The theme may be his fear of punishment that can only be avoided by his repentance which can only come from God’s grace which can accomplish anything.

Many religious poems are important only to religious sympathisers.  Some such works may arouse the interest of historians and scholars once the writings are sufficiently dated.  Others remain confined to a small literary audience.  Donne’s religious sonnets, however, have gained more attention than any other English works in that genre, and while the interest in the poet himself accounts for a good deal of that popularity, it is hardly the only reason for his being called “the greatest writer of religious verse in seventeenth-century England.”  Of particular interest is the fact that Donne’s religious sonnets have attracted the attention of readers of different religious persuasions.

Part of the popularity of the religious sonnets rests on Donne’s ability to depict religious attitudes through secular imagery and comparisons.  An intensely secular excitement marks all his devotional works.  He had the power of experiencing keenly his own religious attitudes and of reviewing them against a wider background.  O, My Black Soul, for example, explores the theme of the poet’s sinfulness with images gathered from different sources.  A literal reading of the first two lines reveals much of the nature and content of each sonnet.  Here, the poet returns to the idea of death and judgement, describing again his own lack of readiness to meet God.  Death and sickness are both personified: sickness is death’s “herald and champion”, this image referring to a challenge or duel, and is also contained in the word “summoned”.  Personification of abstract ideas is an old device, common to many poets.  Death and sickness take on human features and are invested with specific powers, thus giving them a dramatic immediacy.  Many seventeenth-century poets describe their terror and fear at the approach of death, often using personification to heighten the effect.  Hamlet, for example, speaks the following line as he lies dying at the end of the play: “this fell (foul, evil) sergeant, death,/Is strict in his arrest.”  An important element in Donne’s personifications is a kind of poetic aptness.  In this context the reference to the poet’s two enemies, who summon him to engage in a trial of strength, makes him turn in the sextet to Christ for courage and support.  The two striking similes in the octave are meant to create the idea of the poet’s terror, as well as of his isolation: he is wandering alone in an unknown foreign land afraid to turn back to God because of the many sins (“treason”) he has committed.  Similarly, the next simile expresses an insoluble predicament: he has complained about his sickness and wishes for death, but now that his moment of execution has arrived, he wants to cling to life for a little while longer.

Until this point the tone of the sonnet is dramatic, and its statements command attention.  As so often in Donne’s poetry, however, the tone suddenly changes.  The emphasis now shifts from fear to optimism: he is not done after all.  What he needs is the grace to repent for his sins, a grace which is only given by God after certain conditions have been met.  The poet must “mourn” for his transgressions, he must “blush” with shame at what he has done.  Only in this manner can he share in Christ’s plan of Redemption which is powerfully evoked in the imagery of the last two lines: “wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might/That being red, it dyes red souls to white.”  This conceit is part of the special language of the period.  Donne’s awareness of the mystical power of Christ’s blood is clearly evident in these lines which rest upon a common alchemical concept, that of the tincture.  This was an enormously strong colouring agent, made during the chemical experiment, which had the power of transforming substances.  Donne uses this image of the tincture to describe the power of Christ to save both body and soul.  Christ, he says, can turn even a black sinful soul into a state of perfection.  Indeed, this sonnet is notable for its colour symbols.  The black for mourning is conventional (as are the black blotches left on the soul by sin), but the use of red for both repentance and sin is a conceit and is carried on in the idea of washing in Christ’s blood which by mixing with the red of sin and shame paradoxically turns red to white.

The Good Morrow

This poem works out the development of love from childish unawareness to mature consciousness, and points out where the difference lies.  It shows what love means to the lovers, its relation to ordinary experience and how its continuance is assured.  It is, in fact, Donne’s concept of true love as a shared experience, a returned love.

The theme may be the unifying of two souls in one, and the conquest by love of all things – even space and time.  But each of the lovers is a person, and the poem flickers between this individualness and union.

Metaphysical poetry is renowned for its striking use of imagery and tone and The Good Morrow is a good example of this.  The poem begins with a realistic description of a morning bedroom.  The poet is waking up beside his mistress and he therefore uses words and images which suggest sleep (“snorted”, “sleepers”, “dream”).  In his initial meditation on love there is a strong emphasis on physical activities (“weaned”, “sucked”, “country pleasures”).  He freely admits that he has had mistresses in the past (“If ever any beauty I did see / Which I desired and got,”) but indicates that the pleasures he experienced with them were inadequate (“pleasures fancies”).  One can see immediately how this stanza with its strong emphasis on sexual fulfilment must have come as something of a shock to Donne’s contemporaries (and  Leaving Cert. Students alike!)  who were used to a completely different, more refined type of love-poetry!

The Good Morrow has always impressed readers with its range and variety of imagery.  From the ordinary activities of breast-feeding and heavy sleeping, Donne passes to the exotic activities of explorers, geographers and philosophers.  However, the sea-discoverers with all their topical glamour and novelty are introduced only to be dismissed as lacking in true exploration compared with the relationship he is describing.  Nevertheless they continue to be present in the poem and lead to the image of ‘sharpe north’ and ‘declining west’.  The image at the beginning of the third stanza is a simple presentation of the fact that people gazing into each other’s eyes can see themselves reflected there.   It is made more complicated  and more meaningful by the line that leads up to it (“And true plain hearts do in the faces rest”).  The titles of Donne’s poems generally suggest the central image around which the poem revolves.  Thus, The Good Morrow deals with awakening and with discovery.

The Good Morrow has always impressed modern critics by the range and variety of his references, as well as by its avoidance of ornamental language.  Throughout the poem Donne refers to the familiar processes of suckling and weaning, snoring, dreaming and waking, but also to voyages, maps and hemispheres, scholarly theories about the nature of matter (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”) and general philosophical speculations about our experience of space (“and makes one little room an everywhere”).

Donne’s use of concentration is very evident in The Good Morrow where references to his own life are combined with geographical discoveries and with contemporary developments in science and astronomy.  In The Good Morrow, therefore, we see not only Donne’s love of learning, but also his inclination for using it out of context, applying many references to serve his own purposes in the poem.  The greatest concentration of language is confined to the second stanza.  Man, Donne suggests, is concerned with broadening his physical horizons, but is neglecting to expand his knowledge in a spiritual direction.  Love, in the end, binds all things together and allows man to attain his true destiny.  Suggested in this poem is the idea of the fundamental, and not accidental, limitations of our knowledge.  Science can explain the physical, but not the spiritual universe.  Astronomers may spend their lives studying the heavens but they are always fearful of what they might find.  Similarly, geographical discoveries have brought to man’s attention objects of experience that are not always pleasant (“sharp north”, “declining west”), and the progress of science cannot experiment enough to conquer death (“whatever dies, was not mix’d equally”).  Connected to each of these images is the idea of isolation and lack of real purpose: the lonely astronomer forever watchful, the explorer who spends his life going round the world only to arrive back where he started, the scientist alone in his laboratory making many discoveries, none of which effect the real destiny of mankind.  Donne, therefore, sees the world outside as a symbol of man’s weakness and isolation.  In contrast to this he presents his own rational theory which is itself the result of considerable previous study.  The only true art, he suggests, is the art of love which requires knowledge, patience and effort, which overcomes death and prepares man for eternity.

THE ANNIVERSARIE

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This is not unlike The Good Morrow.  There is the same personal approach; no address to love, but directly to his wife – the intimacy and immediacy of the metaphysical poet.

The theme is that their love on earth is unique, but that, since happiness in heaven is shared by all, they must preserve their earthly love as long as they live.  It has been described as a selfish poem – but lovers are traditionally selfish and like to think that their love is unique.

The Anniversarie depends for its success upon our recognising the presence of an individual speaker.  It is a very contemplative poem.  The speaker is not so much intent on displaying the great depth of his knowledge as in arguing his ideas with simple wisdom.  Despite the fact that he sometimes appears to be frivolous and insincere, Donne always wished to express universal truths in his poetry.  Like Shakespeare, when he expresses something profound, Donne often does it quite simply.

The subject of universal destruction is another of the themes of The Anniversarie, and the death of princes is used to symbolise it.  Indeed, the references to princes, kings, and courtly life bring this poem very close to the underlying theme of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all of which “tell sad stories of the death of kings” (Richard II).  The dramatic impact of the opening lines depends upon the emphasis suggested by the word all:

                     All kings and all their favourites,

                             All glory of honours, beauties, wits…

                             All other things to their destruction draw,

The grandeur of princes must inevitably pass away; kings must live in fear of misfortune, treason and death.  It is true to say, therefore, that the major image suggested by The Anniversarie is royal and heraldic: groups of words appear in each stanza which relate to kings, princes and courtly life.

We know by now that concentration of language is an essential characteristic of metaphysical poetry and The Anniversarie is a perfect example of this.  In the opening stanza Donne introduces groups of associated images drawn from the royal courts and palaces to suggest the transience of earthly glory:

All kings, and all their favourites,

                             All glory of honours, beauties, wits,

                             The sun itself, which makes time, as they pass,

                             Is elder by a year now than it was

                             When thou and I first one another saw.

Throughout his poems, as already stated, Donne manifests a curiously ambiguous attitude towards kings, princes and courtly life.  These opening lines refer to this idea.  What need has he of kings and princes when they are inconstant and subject to decay?  Even the sun which appears to measure time, is itself subject to destruction, while love has the power to outlive these mortal things.  Behind this opening stanza, therefore, there is immense personal feeling.  This anniversary represents a permanent moment: it is not an anniversary in the ordinary sense, a looking back on something past.  It is rather an “an everlasting day” which is not affected by the passage of time.  So while man’s world and the world of nature are slowly growing old, the people in the poem enjoy forever the vitality and permanence of love.

Donne’s love poems have as their basic theme the problems of human love in a physical world dominated by change and death.  In The Anniversarie we are treated to a splendid affirmation of the immortality of true love and friendship.  Like all metaphysical poets he makes great use of paradox and these sometimes serve the same purpose as the rhyming couplet of Shakespeare’s sonnets: a sort of clinching device which upholds and strengthens his argument.  The first stanza of The Anniversarie ends with an important paradox which expresses the permanence of love in a world of change:

                             Running it never runs from us away,

                             But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

From the start of his career Donne declared his independence as a poet.  Independence, however, is not the same as isolation, and throughout this love-poetry Donne affirms his belief in the fundamental bond between one person and another.  The nature of true love is that it makes demands, establishes principles, and expresses the totality which man is striving for.  This idea that love unites people in a spiritual bond which even transcends death is expressed throughout The Anniversarie.

A HYMN TO GOD THE FATHER

DONNE- a Hymn to God the Father

Among the many divine poems that Donne composed A Hymn to God the Father stands out as his own particular favourite.  He had it set to music and it was sung during services At St. Paul’s Cathedral where Donne had been Dean.  We can see this from the following excerpt from his prose writings:

The words of this Hymn have restored me to the same thoughts of joy that possessed my soul in my sickness when I composed, ‘And O! the joy and power of Church music!’  That harmony added to it has raised the affections of my heart and quickened my graces of zeal and gratitude; and I observe that I always return from paying this public duty of prayer and praise to God with unexpected tranquillity of mind, and a willingness to leave the world. (The Poems of John Donne, p. 253).

Many points of contrast are immediately evident in this simple but outstanding poem.  In The Anniversarie, and particularly in The Good Morrow, Donne is constantly striving to display his learning by extending his frame of reference over many different subjects.  This leads to a high concentration of language, a marked dependence on unusual contexts, and an extensive use of imagery.  However, what strikes one most forcefully about A Hymn to God the Father is its simple sincerity.  The inspiration for this short poem came from the poet’s personal feelings rather than from his wide learning.  Throughout his Holy Sonnets and his Divine Poems, Donne limits himself to one subject: his own relationship with God.

Though he never doubted the truth of Christianity, his lack of complete conviction  concerning his own salvation persisted.  There is much evidence to suggest that he endured a prolonged religious crisis which he has recorded in a group of sonnets and shorter lyrics which belong to the best group of religious poetry in the English language.  At times the vision of divine punishment comes to his mind more easily than the vision of God’s love.  In A Hymn to God the Father he is striving to reassure himself of this love which, in spite of his own unworthiness, might still be freely given by God.  Throughout the seventeenth-century love poetry and religious poetry sprang from a common basis of inspiration.  In metaphysical poetry particularly, a tradition was soon established whereby ideas taken from Elizabethan love poetry was transferred to poems which expressed love of God.  Donne’s meditation on spiritual love was greatly influenced by this tradition.  In this poem the theme of unrequited love is placed in a spiritual context as a means of discussing the relationship between God and man.

The greatest single characteristic of this poem is its profound tone of sincerity, as the poet confesses at length his own sinfulness. This dependence on sincerity reduces poetic devices to a minimum: a person who is confessing his sins cannot at the same time consider clever things to say to God.  The tone of the poem is both humble and sincere and emphasises the important question of forgiveness, which is repeated at length. (“Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun…?”, “Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I won/Others to sin?”)  In this penitential lyric Donne strives to dramatise the penitent’s position.  He does this by using a ‘plain style’.  The speaker does not wish to cover up in any measure the immensity or frequency of his sins.  He deplores his condition and realises its seriousness.  He expresses himself in direct statements and unadorned language, presenting his simple wisdom with realistic, concrete detail.  His metaphors are few but apt: he has opened the door to sin for other people while wallowing in his own sinfulness.  As the poem progresses, and the stanzas develop greater complexity, the poet continues to concentrate upon the reality of sin in a language of direct statement.  Indeed, throughout the poem Donne insists on simplicity, directness and passionate humility.  There is of course an implied pun on the poet’s name in the interesting paradox that ends the first two stanzas:

                   When Thou has done, Thou hast not done,

                   For I have more.

The third stanza contains the principal request towards which the poem leads.  For the first time in the poem Donne visualises the moment of death in his contemplation of the last voyage:

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

                   My last thread, I shall perish on the shore

The fear and love which are identified as the themes of this Hymn are referred to elsewhere by Donne as essential elements of contrition: “The love of God begins in fear, and the fear of God ends in love; and that love can never end, for God is love,” (Sermons of John Donne, p. 113). His greatest sin is, therefore, his lack of faith in God’s forgiveness.

It may be interesting to note that most scholars agree that this was the last poem Donne wrote before his death.

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Note: You might also like the read on this blog: “An Introduction to Metaphysical Poetry”.

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