Study Guide

A Hymn to God the Father

A Hymn to God the Father Summary

The poem begins with a simple question for God: will He forgive the sin that all humans are born into? The speaker acknowledges that this sin isn't his (the speaker's) fault, and that it happened before he was even born. Then, without waiting for an answer, he asks God another question, this time if He will forgive the sins that the speaker continues to practice. The speaker ends the first stanza by telling God that when God has finished forgiving him for these sins, He isn't quite done yet… there are plenty more sins a-comin'.

In the second stanza, the speaker echoes his earlier questions, but this time he's concerned with the sins he's caused others to participate in, not to mention the sins which he was able to briefly avoid for a while before giving in and enjoying. He again reminds God that this isn't the end of sins that need forgiving. They are starting to pile up, in fact.

The final stanza focuses on the speaker's fear of dying before being forgiven for all these sins. He doesn't want to get stuck in Limbo—the place between heaven and hell—and he considers this fear to be another one of his sins: the sin of doubt. Unlike the first two stanzas, though, the final stanza contains a sort-of answer to the speaker's worries. The speaker decides that, as long as God swears that Jesus will still stand as a buffer between man's sins and God, he'll stop being afraid. Sounds like a deal to us.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
      Which was my sin, though it were done before?

    • Solemn much? Right away, we notice the "Wilt thou," which makes this seem like it's going to be an old-fashioned poem for sure
    • Don't freak out, Shmoopers. Does "old-fashioned" have to mean "boring?" Not necessarily, especially when it involves lots of fun stuff like sinning, judgment, and eternal damnation. 
    • The "thou" is God, and the speaker is wondering if God can forgive the sin of being born a human. 
    • What? That doesn't make sense, does it? How is being born a sin? Babies didn't do anything wrong. 
    • Well… it does make sense if you consider the concept of Original Sin, which is part of the doctrine of some Christian traditions. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Adam and Eve ate some fruit that God had very specifically told them not to eat. This was the first sin, hence the title "Original Sin."
    • The speaker is claiming the sin as his own, even though he (and we're just assuming the speaker's a he at this point) didn't actually do it. He's asking God to forgive him for the sin he didn't do, but is still guilty of because, you know, he's a human. 
    • Notice the particular rhythm going on here? Donne was doing plenty of work behind the scenes to give the poem a musical feel (it is a hymn, after all). Check out the "Form and Meter" guide for more, and keep your eyes peeled for more rhythm throughout the poem.

    Lines 3-4

    Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
      And do run still, though still I do deplore?

    • Now the speaker is breaking out some figurative language to let us know that he's running through the sin (sounds pretty intense).
    • Basically, he's unable to stop being human, so the sin keeps repeating itself (just like the poem does). 
    • He still wants to know if God will forgive him. (Hmm. It looks like this might be a repeating theme of the poem, Shmoopers.) 
    • And he's saying that he'll keep sinning, even though he disapproves of the sin. He can't help it, gang; he's only human after all. 
    • Notice anything else about these first four lines? We bet you did if you were reading them out loud. That's because lines 1 and 3 rhyme ("begun" and "run"), as do lines 2 and 4 ("before" and "deplore"). Check out "Form and Meter" for more on the rhymes going on here.

    Lines 4-5

      When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
       For I have more.

    • Whoa, hold everything now. We have a change in the rhyme scheme. Again, see the "Form and Meter" section for more. For now, let's get back to the content…
    • When God's done with all the forgiving, guess what? He isn't really done. The speaker is planning to sin some more. (Ain't he just the worst?) 
    • He seems helpless to stop his own sin, actually. And, well, that's what Original Sin is all about; it's the idea that we can't stop our sinful human nature. No matter what we do, we're always guilty; we've basically been tainted by Adam and Eve's actions. (Way to go, guys.)
    • Notice how these two lines are indented even farther back than the four lines before them. Is the spacing just meant to look cool, or does it make you pause a little before certain lines? Does it add a sense of rhythm? 
    • As you continue on, consider how Donne's spacing and line breaks affect your reading of the poem.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 7-8

    Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
      Others to sin, and made my sin their door?

    • Yikes, now he's making other people sin. What's with this guy? And how's he even doing that? 
    • Well, by sinning himself, he's making a kind of "door" for others to walk through and sin in the same manner. Once a door is open, it's a lot easier to walk through. (Oh, and he's using a metaphor here; he doesn't mean an actual sin door. That'd be just… weird.)
    • This sounds kind of like peer pressure, right? Or, maybe other people just thought the speaker's sin looked really fun and decided to copy him.
    • Whatever the case, the speaker still wants forgiveness for encouraging these sins, even if he didn't mean to.

    Lines 9-10

    Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
      A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score?

    • He also wants forgiveness for the sins that he resisted for a few years. Man, this guy is thorough
    • Ultimately, he indulged in these sins, "wallowing" in them for much longer than he resisted them. 
    • A "score" means twenty years, though the speaker probably isn't being literal about the amount of time he spent sinning. He's contrasting the time he spent resisting the sin to the time he spent enjoying it.
    • As for the form so far, we're back to the same rhythm and rhyme we saw in the first stanza. Donne isn't changing it up much.
    • Check out the "Form and Meter" to see the full break-down of his lines.

    Lines 11-12

       When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
      For I have more.

    • Welp, here we go again. Just when God thinks He is done forgiving, the speaker has more sins planned out. He's like the Energizer Bunny of sinning.
    • Notice anything familiar? You should. These lines are the exact same as the two lines that end the first stanza. That's what we call in the poetry biz a refrain.
    • This repetition has a particular effect: it reminds us that, no matter the amount of forgiving God can do, there's always going to be more sin. It all goes back to human nature, which Donne emphasized in the first stanza. 
    • Notice that the word "done" is similar to Donne. Coincidence? We aren't sure, but Donne was a meticulous poet, so we are betting not.
    • In fact, Donne is considered one of the Metaphysical Poets; they were famous for using puns and wordplay to make their poems intricate (and often a little mysterious). 
    • Perhaps, then, in naming himself in the poem, he is equating himself with the speaker. While it's always iffy to confuse the speaker of a poem with the poet his- or herself, if you try replacing every "done" with "Donne" in the poem, it quickly becomes a poem about Donne's mortality.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 13-14

    I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
      My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;

    • Now we're talking about a very specific sin, unlike the general sins of the stanza before. This sin is the sin of fear.
    • So, what's our speaker afraid of? It looks like it's dying, a.k.a. spinning his "last thread." He's using a metaphor to compare running out of life to running out of thread while spinning yarn (both are major bummers). When it's gone, it's gone.
    • He's not just afraid of death, either; he's just afraid he'll die "on the shore" between heaven and hell. 
    • Yep, that's another metaphor. This time, the area between land and water is a metaphor for Limbo, the place some religious traditions believe exists for people not ready for heaven but not quite fit for hell, either.
    • Donne's speaker wants to get to heaven, that's for sure. And in order to get there, he needs forgiveness. That's why he keeps asking for it.
    • Notice that we've abandoned the "Wilt thou" that began the 1st and 3rd lines of the previous stanzas. This stanza is meant to read as a departure from those requests; something different is going on here.

    Lines 15-16

    But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
      Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;

    • Ah yes, the speaker's finally got a new request for God: he wants Him to swear (by Himself, no less) that Jesus will continue to "shine" on his life, the way he has "heretofore" (before now).
    • Er, so what's that all about? In Christian tradition, Jesus's death on the cross represents ultimate forgiveness for those who accept Him. Jesus is kind of like an intermediary between God and man.
    • If Jesus stays in his life, then, the speaker won't wind up in Limbo. He believes he'll be forgiven of his sins and thus let into Heaven.
    • Notice the wordplay going on here. By having the "Son" shine, he's connecting God's "Son" to the actual sun with a pun. Tricky guy.
    • What's not tricky, though, is the rhyme scheme in this stanza, which seems to be keeping in line with the pattern of the previous two stanzas. Check out "Form and Meter" for more.

    Lines 17-18

       And, having done that, thou hast done;
      I fear no more.

    • The poem began with the speaker questioning God and worrying about sinning. Now, in the final line of the poem, the speaker says he "fear[s] no more." So what caused this change?
    • The short answer is God's forgiveness, via Jesus. The speaker believes that this Jesus is his only chance to get off the "shore" and into heaven. 
    • Notice that everything is in God's hands; the speaker seems helpless to save himself from Limbo. He calls out to God to have His son save him. Does the speaker have no power in the situation? Is he saying that humans have no power over their own fate?
    • Big questions, Shmoopers, big questions… which is why (shameless plug alert) you should check out the rest of our analysis…