Wilt Thou Forgive My Sin of Fear?

John Donne

Spiritual Sunday

On Friday I held my early British Literature I class in Trinity Chapel, the 18th century Episcopalian church on the edge of our campus where I worship each Sunday.  I’m teaching the poetry of John Donne and George Herbert at the moment and several of their poems have been put to music and appear in our hymnbook.

Two students, pianist Meg Gruen and tenor Ryan Olson, performed Herbert’s “King of Glory” and “Come My Way, My Truth, My Life” (which I posted on recently) and John Donne’s “Hymn to God the Father.”  The class was deeply moved.

[A couple of the class members, incidentally, had only a short walk to class.  That’s because they are living on the cruise ship in our harbor as we scrub out the mold that has taken over two of our residence halls.]

“Hymn to God the Father” is a late Donne poem where he looks over his life and asks God whether he will forgive him for his many sins.  In his first stanza he asks if God will forgive him for original sin and for those sins he continues to commit, even though he knows he shouldn’t.  In the second stanza he asks whether God will forgive him for the way he has led others to sin and for those sins which he wallowed in for years.  And then there is the sin of doubt, which Herbert wrestles with as well.

Will God forgive Donne’s lack of faith that God will forgive him? After his death will God’s Son, Donne asks using a common but still wonderful pun, “shine as he shines now”?  The fact that he doesn’t believe wholeheartedly, that part of him holds back, haunts the poet. In unrelenting honesty, Donne lays it all on the table.

And then there is the final affirmation,” signaling that the poet has found peace at last: I fear no more. Acknowledging his agonizing doubts is a way of working through them.

In the hymn version, the final chord resolves, accenting this feeling of peace.

One other note: Does Donne imagine finding peace as well in the arms of Ann More, the wife that he loved?  In this poem that features puns on his name and possibly hers, it’s a nice thought. I’ve never been able to do anything else with the puns, unless they are there to signal that Donne has been so obsessed with this world (including lust for his wife, whom he impregnated 12 times in 16 years) that he hasn’t turned to God as he should.

Regardless of what one does with the name puns, it’s a lovely poem and makes a great hymn.

A Hymn to God the Father

By John Donne

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.

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 wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

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.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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