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John Donne: Poem analysis » A Hymn to God the Father

A Hymn to God the Father

Like Hymn to God, my God, in my Sicknesse, this was written fairly late in Donne's life. There is an alternative version of it entitled To Christ. It was reputedly set to music and sung to a solemn tune.


Though dealing with a serious topic, one very important to Donne, the poem is also an extended play on words on the poet's name. So ‘done'/Donne must be seen as being pronounced in the same way. The poet is asking God's forgiveness for different types of sins, but feeling as if he will never finish confessing them all. This gives him a fear that when he dies, he will not have received God's forgiveness and will perish ‘on the shore', the point between life and death.

Original sin

The first sin mentioned is what is known as original sin.

More on original sin: Adam and Eve are portrayed in the Bible as the first human beings. They are shown disobeying God and, as a result, are expelled from the Garden of Eden at the Fall. This first or ‘original' sin was believed to have tainted their descendants, predisposing all human beings to disobey God's commandments and making it difficult for them to have a close relationship to him.

This original sin is referred to by Donne as ‘it were done before', and its continuance in himself by ‘I do run still'. He deplores it but cannot help it.The last two lines of the stanza act as a refrain. When God has done (forgiving), there will be more sins in the future to forgive, so God has not in fact done/finished (forgiving). Nor has he Donne (in the sense of possessing Donne's full allegiance), because Donne is still prone to disobey God as a result of his fallen nature and its bias to sin.

Past sins

In stanza two, Donne appears to be referring to particular sins, by which he also caused other people to sin. These may be spiritual or moral. It may be that he is having doubts about his abandonment of Catholicism or he may be thinking of some of his secular love poems and their frank sexuality.

A sin of fear

The final stanza deals with a particular sin, that of fear. Donne is so afraid of sin that he is now in danger of committing the very sin of fear, through doubting God's promises of mercy and grace. Interestingly, he does not use Christian imagery to express this struggle, but imagery drawn from pagan Greek belief in the Fates, the three blind goddesses supposed to determine the course of human life. One Fate spun, one wove, and one cut the thread – which was the moment of death.


Resolution comes through the narrator praying that God should swear by himself to allow his son Jesus to shine like the sun (another play on words as Jesus was called the ‘Son' of God) in mercy and righteousness Malachi 4:2

. If God does this, then he will have Donne and have done! As at the end of some of the Holy Sonnets (This is my Playes Last Scene and At the Round Earths Imagin'd Corners), Donne seems to be expecting a special response from God, although Christianity in fact teaches that God's mercy is extended to everyone who repents.

Investigating Hymn to God the Father
  • Does Donne's sense of sin seem to have grown with age?
    • Look at some of his early poems
    • Compare them with A Hymn to God the Father
  • Is this an over-dramatic re-enactment of guilt feelings or a quiet search for inner peace?
  • Where does the real power of the poem come from?

See Themes and significant ideas > Personal Sinfulness and Unworthiness

  • King James Version
  • Today's New International Version
1For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. 2But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. 3And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet in the day that I shall do this, saith the LORD of hosts. 4Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded unto him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. 5Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: 6And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
1'Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,' says the LORD Almighty. 'Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. 3Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,' says the LORD Almighty. 4'Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. 5'See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.'
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
1. The action of forgiving; pardon of a fault, remission of a debt. 2. Being freed from the burden of guilt, after committing a sin or crime, through being pardoned by the one hurt or offended.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
To admit wrongdoing. In Christian practice, confession often forms part of communal worship; in addition formal confession may be made privately to a priest.
According to Genesis (the first book of the Old Testament), Adam is the first human being, made in the image / likeness of God, placed in the Garden of Eden and given dominion over the earth.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
The place described in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, in which God placed his first human creatures, Adam and Eve.
The disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Bible is known as the Fall of Humankind. Christians believe that humans from then on have had a a predispostion to disobey God.
The technical name for a verse, or a regular repeating unit of so many lines in a poem. Poetry can be stanzaic or non-stanzaic.
Undeserved favour. The Bible uses this term to describe God's gifts to human beings.
Term applied to those who are not Christian, particularly followers of the classical religion of Greece and Rome and of the pre-Christian religions of Europe.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
Morally right, or virtuous - in a Christian sense, made so with God through Jesus' death on the cross.
The act of turning away, or turning around from, one's sins, which includes feeling genuinely sorry for them, asking for the forgiveness of God and being willing to live in a different way in the future.

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 wallow'd 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.