When we start talking about how the poem sounds, there's something we can't ignore: there's some major repetition going on here. Just as the speaker keeps turning back to his obsession with forgiveness, Donne turns back to these trusty words and phrases. The first two stanzas repeat "Wilt thou" twice, and both end with the refrain "When thou hast done, thou hast not done, / For I have more."
Donne doesn't just repeat phrases. The word "done" itself is repeated seven times, "sin" is repeated six times, and "more" is repeated three times. That might not seem like much, but for a poem with only eighteen lines, it certainly is noticeable. What, did this guy not own a thesaurus? Likely, it isn't a limited vocab that's causing all this repetition. This is a deliberate technique. But why, you ask?
Well, keep your poetry pants on, Shmoopers, and we'll tell you. For one thing, Donne does call this poem a "hymn." (Check out "What's Up With the Title?" for more on that.) All this repetition, then, gives the poem a musical predictability, a rhythm. That's totally appropriate, since hymns are, you know, meant to be sung. Repetition is also the sonic hallmark of obsession. To put it more directly, our speaker is really hung up on all this sin business. To his thinking, it's impossible to get away from it. He keeps coming back to the same words and phrases, then, as echoes of his anxiety, reminding us readers of his obsessive state of mind.
By titling the poem "A Hymn to God the Father," Donne indicates that it is meant to be sung in a church, which reflects the confessional nature of the poem and the speaker's direct requests to God. You can't get much more straightforward than that. Calling God "the Father" also mirrors his use of "Son" later in the poem; it helps us identify just who that son is (hint: it's Jesus).
The poem exists within the mind of the speaker, who is grappling with some pretty heavy questions. His headspace seems filled with "what-if" scenarios and fears, all based around the idea of sin and redemption within the Christian tradition. It's safe to say the speaker exists in a spiritual world.
As a metaphysical poet, Donne set his poems within this spiritual landscape frequently, and they often address God directly. The Metaphysical Poets were interested in the world beyond the physical, so addressing their works to the beings in those spiritual realms was a normal action. But there are no lightning bolts from the sky or burning bushes in this poem. In "A Hymn to God the Father" we don't hear the voice of God answering any of the speaker's questions, but he is still able to come up with the answer himself, which hints that perhaps the answers were there in his mind all along.
Most folks begin their requests to God with a formal address like "Dear Lord," but our speaker just jumps right in with his questions. He seems pretty anxious about getting to the point and getting some answers.
So who is this guy, and why is he so obsessed with forgiveness? Well, it's never safe to assume that the speaker and the poet are one and the same. With that said, though, Donne himself was a man interested in all matters spiritual, and the tone he adopts in his work is sometimes the same tone we see in "A Hymn to God the Father." He's direct, clever, and maybe even a bit insistent; he repeats "Wilt thou" four times, and then goes on to tell God that, when He's done, the speaker has a few more sins for Him to forgive. Demanding much? (Check out "Batter My Heart: Holy Sonnet 14" to see Donne adopt a similar tone.)
But this consistency doesn't necessarily mean that Donne himself is the speaker, and despite the wordplay with "done" and "Donne," we can't be sure who exactly is meant to be questioning God. In fact, the sins are never made very specific or explicit, so they could represent the sins and doubts of humankind in general. Aren't we all interested in what happens after death?
Our speaker is, that's for sure. In a more general sense, then, it's probably best to think of him as a deeply devout person who turns to God for comfort when contemplating his own fallibility. He seems to be fixated on all the possible avenues for sin that are open to him and is looking to earn forgiveness for any occasion. We think that makes him a bit of a worrywart, really. After all, how thorough can you get when cataloging your possible sins?
Ultimately, he strikes a bargain with God: keep Jesus around and I'll quit worrying. It's the kind of demand only someone who feels a close, personal connection to God can make. He is asking God for a favor, after all. It's not like God's got other things to worry about.
Though the "thous" and "thys" are a bit old-fashioned, and there are a few little-used words like "heretofore" and "score," the poem itself is pretty straightforward. Even the wordplay isn't too tricky: "done" may be a play on "Donne," but then again it may also just be a coincidence. Donne has definitely written some difficult poems in his day, but this isn't one of them.
Donne isn't afraid to ask the big questions, and he isn't afraid to ask the Big Guy in the sky for answers or to make demands of His time. The Metaphysical Poets loved contemplating the cosmic beyond, and Donne's poetry travels through that realm frequently. Check out "Batter my Heart (Holy Sonnet 14)" or "Death Be Not Proud (Holy Sonnet 10)" for more spiritual lines.
Since the poem is a hymn, it probably comes as no surprise that it has a musical quality to it. But how did Donne go about crafting eighteen lines and three stanzas that replicate the feeling of listening to a church choir? Well, for starters he uses iambic pentameter and a regular rhyme scheme. Sound complicated? Fret not, Shmoopernauts. We'll break it down piece-by-piece, starting with rhyme.
Notice that the last words in each stanza follow a specific rhyme pattern. If you give each rhyme sound a letter of the alphabet, the stanzas look something like this:
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, A
Which was my sin, though it were done before? B
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, A
And do run still, though still I do deplore? B
When thou hast done, thou hast not done, A
For I have more. B (1-6)
Since the whole poem follows this exact pattern, it follows an ABABAB rhyme scheme, with every word rhyming with either "done" or "more." He never deviates from this pattern, making it easy for us to follow. Thanks, Donne.
That choice seems logical, when you think about it. As a "hymn," the poem's not going to be some kind of freaky, modern mash-up. Like any form of prayer, the form here is regular and predictable, helping the ritual communication along by providing it with a set and stable framework.
Seem like a piece of cake? Well, that's not all that's going on inside these lines. Donne also uses meter to give each line a particular musical quality. We'll dig into his metrical style next.
Think of meter as the underlying rhythm in each line. For example, try reading the following line aloud:
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, (1)
Notice the daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM sound? Each of those is one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable—better known in the poetry biz as an iamb. Let's break it down a little more, bolding the stressed syllables:
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
There we go. Hear all those iambs in action? You should have caught five of them. And because this line has five iambs, we can say that it's written in iambic pentameter ("penta-" means five). If you check out lines 2-4 as well, you'll hear that this meter is carried forward.
But why? Why did Donne go with this rhythmic pattern? Well, for one thing, it's basically the most common metrical form in all of poetry. It doesn't get any more classic than iambic pentameter, which—in addition to being a hallmark of all "classic" Western poetry—also carries the added benefit of being pretty easy to follow. It sets up a regular daDUM pattern that propels the reader smoothly through the lines.
We do get some speedbumps here, though. Compare the regular iambic pentameter of the first four lines to two lines that come at the end of the stanza:
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more. (5-6)
Because there are only four, then two iambic feet in the last two lines of each stanza, they are written in iambic tetrameter and iambic dimeter, respectively. This shorter pattern gives the lines a blunt, final feeling. They stop the music short and add a real punch to the speaker's contention that he's got plenty more sin where that came from.
Whew—we old ya there was a lot going on behind the scenes.
The poem doesn't shy away from the idea that, because we are born human, we are born already having sinned. This goes back to Genesis in the Old Testament, where the first humans sinned against God by eating some fruit that he explicitly told them not to eat. Hence, the "sin where I begun" reference in the first stanza. The speaker worries that he won't be forgiven for this sin that happened long before he was born. The idea of being already fated to be a sinner is a central concern of the poem.
Donne ends the fifth line of each stanza with "done," a play on his last name. By inserting himself in the poem, the general concept of human sin and anxiety about death become a more personal issue. These aren't just mankind's sins, but perhaps also Donne's specific sins. Is Donne secretly confessing? Maybe, or maybe he just really likes his own name. Either way, if he intended to name himself, it's a clever bit of wordplay (which of course was a calling card of the Metaphysical Poets).
After the speaker sins, other people make his sin "their door" to more sinning. He's using a metaphor. By comparing sin to a doorway by which other sins can be entered, he's saying that he is guilty of holding that door open every time he sins. He thinks it is his fault that others saw him sinning and decided that they, too, should sin… kind of like how seeing a celebrity smoke might make smoking seem cool to their fans.
The speaker uses another metaphor here; this time, he compares Limbo (the place between heaven and hell in some Christian traditions) to the shore (the place between land and sea). Though we here at Shmoop just love a good day on the beach, apparently the speaker wasn't a huge sunbathing fan; he really doesn't want to be stuck on shore between heaven and hell.
In the third and final stanza, Donne uses a pun to reference both the son of God and the actual, physical sun in the sky. As long as the son remains in his life in the constant way that the sun shines, the speaker knows he'll be forgiven. This is an important moment in the poem, as it eases the anxieties the speaker has been having.
It may be a poem about sin, but it never goes into much sinful detail. "A Hymn to God the Father" is about as G-rated as it comes. For a poem meant to be sung in church, that's no surprise.