Playing With Pentameter
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.