‘A Hymn to God the Father’ by John Donne is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, or sestets. From the title it is clear that Donne intended this piece as a hymn. It has a light, musical quality to it which can be found in most of Donne’s work. The perception is in part caused by the rhyme scheme.
The lines follow a consistent pattern of ABABAB, without any alteration in end sounds between the stanzas. Line one of all three stanzas rhymes, and so on through all six lines. Additionally, there is a great deal of repetition in the text. This too adds to the feeling that this is a song with verses and, most importantly in regards to repetition, refrains.
In regards to meter, this piece is mostly structured in iambic pentameter. This means that the majority of the lines contain five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. There are some exceptions though, such as in the last two lines of each stanza. These lines contain, respectively, four and then two sets of two beats per line, known as tetrameter and dimeter. This change makes the parting words of the speaker all the more impactful.
Summary of A Hymn to God the Father
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the world is filled with sin. He might not be responsible for all of humanity’s troubles but he has more than enough of his own to account for. The speaker tells of how he spends most of his life in sin. He runs through it, enjoying almost every moment spent there. This is all part of a confession and the plea to God. The speaker hopes that God will look down on him fondly and take away all the guilt he feels about his life.
If God were to do so, and make the speaker feel as if Jesus is with him all the time, he could live a happy life. He needs God to resolve all of his troubles.
Analysis of A Hymn to God the Father
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
In the first stanza of ‘A Hymn to God the Father’, the speaker begins by asking God an important question. He needs to know whether God is going to be able to “forgive” the sins of the world. These are the things for which all of humanity suffers but which he was not a part of. The speaker makes sure to add that they were “done” before he was born but unfortunately because he’s on earth, he’s a part of it.
The next lines describe how the speaker is not without sin himself. He might be separate from the larger sins of the world but that doesn’t mean he is pure. In fact, he states that over and over he is running “though” sin. His inability to escape his own humanity is reflected in the repetitive lines of verse. The use of the same words at the beginning of lines, such as “Wilt though forgive that sin” in lines one and three is known as anaphora. It is used to unify the text as well as enhance its song-like qualities. The repetition is also reminiscent of the structure of a prayer.
The speaker makes sure that God knows his run through sin is not done because he wants to be a sinner. He “deplore[s]” his own actions but is unable to stop. The last two lines of each stanza are mostly the same. Here, he tells God that when he finishes helping and forgiving sins there will be “more” to do. His sins, and those of the world, go on indefinitely.
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
In the next set of six lines, the speaker begins with the same phrase, “Wilt thou forgive that sin…” This time the question ends with the revelation that the speaker has forced others into sin. It is unclear what kind of sin he means but it was made “their door.” He created the opportunity, or the door, for them to walk through. Making it easier for them to go against God than it had been previously.
The speaker states that he didn’t mean to do harm to anyone’s life by leading them to sin, and the that he’d like to be forgiven for it. Although he is asking to be forgiven, and making himself seem like an okay person, he can’t help admitting the lengths he went to in order to enjoy his own sins. He tells God how he “wallow’d” in the sin for “a score.” This vastly overshadows the meager “year or two” he spent “shun[ing]” his sin.
The stanza concludes with the same two-line refrain informing God that he isn’t finished forgiving sins yet. There are still many more to come.
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 final stanza of ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ tells God of one of the speaker’s most prominent sins. It is that of fear. Specifically, he is afraid that he is going to die before all of his sins are forgiven. They are so numerous that he may “perish on the shore” before God gets to them all. The reference to the “shore” is an important one. He does not end up in heaven or hell but in the space between limbo. This is the worst-case scenario in his mind.
In the next lines the speaker asks God if Jesus, his “Son,” will be able to “shine” on him “now” as he has done “heretofore,” or up until now. Jesus’ presence is a symbol of God’s complete forgiveness. It would allow the speaker to take in some of his shine and stop sinning. The final lines are a bit different from those of the previous two refrains. This time the stanza ends with the speaker stating that he does not fear anymore. With Jesus there to reassure and improve him, his sins are no longer increasing. He is forgiven.