John Donne, famous English poet born in 1572, couldn't decide if he wanted to be a rebel or a priest, so he decided to be both. How baller is that? As a young man, Donne questioned the authority of religion and, since back then there was no separation between church and state, occasionally got in serious trouble (read: thrown in jail) for his behavior. But he was also attracted to the spiritual world and couldn't seem to shun it for too long. Later in life, Donne gave up his rebellious ways just enough to become ordained into the Church of England. He didn't stop questioning it, though. "A Hymn to God the Father," published sometime in the 1630s, reflects this conflict between doubt and devotion.
If you read it alongside some of Donne's more passionate works (which even include a few erotic poems like this one), "A Hymn to God the Father" might at first seem a little… well, dull. Its eighteen rhyming lines would fit right in during a church sermon. But within these lines there is a great deal of angst and turmoil. The poem questions God's forgiveness and man's free will, while coming clean about some of the speaker's darkest sins. And it even secretly names the poet himself as the sinner. Donne was known for this type of wordplay and mystical musing; he's one of the most famous Metaphysical Poets, who often used intricate and clever poems to explore the spiritual world. What answers did he find during his explorations? You'll have to be the judge.
Not too sure why you should care about a hymn addressed to God? Well, here's a little secret: it's actually a poem full of mankind's big, deep questions about the universe and our role in it.
From the age we begin to understand the world, we have a list of questions that don't seem to have any easy answers. Why are we here, and why are things, you know, messed up? We have these questions for good reason; humans are born into a planet full of mistakes, problems, and troubles. There are wars that people way older than us started, issues with the economy that go back decades, and global warming that isn't even our generation's fault. It's hard to make sense of it all, which is why about 80% of the world follows a religious faith (source) with the hope of getting some answers.
John Donne found a religion (Christianity), but instead of just answers, he found even more questions. In "A Hymn to God the Father" he gets specific about a few of them: is man in charge of his own fate, or does God have it already planned out? Are we born already guilty because of the sins of our ancestors? And how exactly do we get ourselves out of this mess that we are born into? Sounds like his search for meaning and identity is one that we can all relate to, no matter our beliefs.
Check out this spot for all things Donne, including scans of the first published versions of the poems.
The Metaphysical Poets
Learn more about those wacky Metaphysical Poets.
Yes, there is a John Donne Society, in case you were looking to join.
His Life and Works
Check out this bio of Donne and the inspirations behind his work.
A (Sung) Hymn to God the Father
Hear the poem put to music.
Donne Done by Kids
We're not sure whether to be impressed, or slightly creeped out, by this rendition.
Spoken Word Hymn
Hear the poem read aloud, sans music.
Sung Word Hymn
Here's a folk-y version with guitar accompaniment.
We just love this reading—deep, rich, serious.
Portrait of Donne
The man himself, lookin' fancy.
Visit the statue of Donne, in Stratford-upon-Avon. Got any questions for him?
Donne as Dead
Here's the poet posing in a burial shroud. Morbid much?
Time-Travelling for Donne
Go back in time to hear Donne preach at the pulpit.
Here's an article devoted to Donne's more risqué side.
The Complete Poems
Want more Donne? Check out his complete works.