‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ by John Donne is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of five lines, or quintains. Each of these quintains follows a consistent rhyming pattern of ababb, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza.
A reader should also take note of the fact that the poem follows the metrical pattern of iambic pentameter. Each line of verse is separated into five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed and the second stressed. ‘Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness’ is similar in its form to the other religious works Donne crafted throughout his life. The rhyme and rhythm are straight forward and remain consistent throughout.
This piece is generally considered to have been written from Donne’s own perspective. There were two times in his life during which he believed his death to be near. The first was when he contracted a fever in 1623. It is thought now that the fever could actually have been typhus. During this period he wrote a great deal. Additionally the piece might’ve been written while Donne was actually on his deathbed from late 1630 to March 1631.
Summary of Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness
The poem begins with the speaker describing the room in which he is dying. He will soon leave it for the “holy room.” Here he will become a music filled saint, tuned to God’s liking. The words he is speaking are used as preparation for what is to come later. He is bracing himself for his own death and entry to Heaven.
The speaker describes how there are physicians around him mapping out his body as if they are “Cosmographers.” They are seeking out their own answers and he is seeking the discovery of another world. Death is not something he is afraid of. In fact he sees it as being an integral part of life, just as the crucifixion was a part of the resurrection.
In the last stanzas he asks that God recognize his goodness and the good he has done on earth through his written works. If God can do this, perhaps he will enter into Heaven just like Christ.
Analysis of Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness
Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
I tune the instrument here at the door,
And what I must do then, think here before.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by conceding the fact that he is “coming to that holy room,” meaning heaven. It is his ultimate destination to be entered into sooner than he might like. He continues on to describe the “room” in greater detail. It is wonderful in that there is the “choir of saints for evermore.” All who enter heaven, like the speaker himself, are “made [God’s] music.” He will be like an “instrument” which he tunes himself, hoping to be as pleasing as possible.
These line serve as an introduction to the poem and to the process of dying. The speaker is preparing himself “here before” for what he “must do then.”
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
That this is my south-west discovery,
Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,
In the next quintain the speaker refers abstractly to his “physicians.” They do not seem to be doing much to improve his condition. Their actions are represented physically as “cosmographers” who look over his body like a map. They are observing, charting and taking notes of what they see. It is as if his body is there in his “south-west discovery” so that they can see the process of dying.
In the last two lines of this section he speaks of the “Per fretum febris,” or the straits of fever. These “straits” are spoken of geographically, as if they are marked out on his cosmological body map. Donne uses “straits” in two different ways here. He follows the line with the phrase “by these straits to die.” He will die in this form but also due to the “straits” or difficulties of his life.
I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.
The path the Donne’s speaker is on is not all bad. There is some “joy…in these straits.” He is able to see his way “west” to his death and then eventually to Heaven. This is a place that will not harm him or from which he will have to return from. It represents a finality that is appealing.
In the next three lines he speaks of how “west and east” or death and birth, are one in the same. The speaker is clearly unafraid of death. He sees it as being an equal to life. There would not have been a “resurrection” without first death.
Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.
In the fourth stanza the speaker contemplates his life on Earth and where he really belongs. He lists out the “Pacific Sea,” and “Jerusalem” as possible places he could call home. The speaker follows this up by mentioning the straits of “Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar.” He sees these famous (and in the case of Anyan, mythical) bodies of water as access points to the afterlife and God. When one can crosses these straits they enter into a world that was previously unattainable.
The next lines contain references to the sons of Noah, Japheth, Cham (Ham) and Shem. These figures and the lives they represent might be at the end of the “straits.” Their various residences could be where he belongs.
We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
In the fifth quintain the speaker directs his words to God. He wants to make clear to both God and the reader that the blood of both “Adams” is within him. The second Adam, Christ, has filed his soul with faith. The first Adam has given him the “sweat” that “surrounds” his face. He wants to be seen as an embodiment of the grace of God and the inherent goodness of man.
So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”
In the last lines the speaker is describing his own physical death. He is still speaking to God and asking that he be received into heaven in the “purple” shroud he has been “wrapp’d” in. Purple is the color of royalty and has also been associated with Christ. It is his shroud the speaker is within.
He moves on to reference the “thorns” Christ was made to wear. The speaker asks that he be given Christ’s “other crown” and allowed into heaven. This should be done for him as he was a good Christian in his life and a man dedicated to helping others. He “preach’d thy word” while alive.
Now that the speaker is dead, he hopes that these words (contained within the previous five stanzas) can serve as his “sermon” to his own soul. If God accepts him, he can ascend up to heaven as Christ did.