This hymn is by the famous and prolific metaphysical poet John Donne (1573-1631). John Donne, the poet, is well known. It is perhaps less well known that he was an Anglican priest who enjoyed great fame in the latter part of his life as a preacher.
Donne was raised as a Roman Catholic, and, in fact, was denied a degree from Cambridge because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy (swearing allegiance to the King as the Supreme Governor in all things, including spiritual and ecclesiastical matters). However, he later converted to Anglicanism. He was a lawyer, and, at one time, was a member of Parliament. On the urging of King James (of Bible translation fame), he became an Anglican priest. In his later years, he was the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and he is buried there. Cambridge ultimately awarded him an honorary degree.
As the Dean of St. Paul’s for the last ten years of his life, Donne came to enjoy a certain status and financial security, but his younger years were spent in poverty. Donne was headed for a diplomatic career, employed by the Keeper of the Great Seal. But it was not to be. He fell in love with, and secretly married, his employer’s niece, Ann More, against the wishes of Ann’s father (who was Lieutenant of the Tower) and Donne’s employer. Donne lost his job and was put into Fleet Prison. When he wrote to Ann to tell her he had lost his job, he signed his name: John Donne, Ann Donne, Un-done. He was released from prison fairly quickly, and he ultimately reconciled with Ann’s father, but he and Ann lived in poverty most of their married life. When Ann died in 1617 shortly after giving birth to their 12th child, who was still-born, Donne was overcome with grief, and he wrote of his grief in the 17th Holy Sonnet.
Our hymn was written as a poem, not as a hymn. When it first appeared in an edition of his poems, it was called Hymn to God the Father. It seems to follow Psalm 51, which we just sang during the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. In particular, verse 3 of the psalm seems to drive the poem: For I acknowledge my faults, and my sin is ever before me.
Donne wrote this poem in 1623 at a time when he was seriously ill. Death was likely on his mind. It is certainly not the standard hymn of praise to God. Rather, it is a personal confession of sin. But more than that, it is Donne’s side of a very intense discussion with God. On the one hand, he is clearly repentant. Yet his boldness in speaking to God is jarring, almost cheeky. Such candor suggests he had a very close relationship with God.
At the outset, note that Donne makes a pun on his own name, and on the name of his wife, Ann More, at the end of every stanza.
Throughout, he takes full responsibility for his sins [which is my sin], and declares his tendency toward recidivism, despite his best efforts. Yet in the first stanza, his reference to original sin [though it were done before] seems almost like a child reminding a parent that he is not the only one who has sinned. In that same vein, it being predetermined (already done) that mortals will sin, it seems that, without actually saying it, Donne may be asking God what more he expects from a mere mortal.
In the third stanza, he alludes to mythical images of the Fates who spin, measure, and cut the thread of human life. He flips the notion of fear of sin, which has been the subject of the two preceding stanzas, and talks instead of the sin of fear. His description suggests he is talking of doubt, the fear that when he dies, there will be nothing there. Then he asks God for a promise. “Swear by thyself” seems at first a strange thing to ask. Donne was surely basing this on Genesis 22:16-18, where God made his promise to Abraham: By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. Moreover, what higher authority should God swear by? Paul answers that question in Hebrews 6:13: For when God made the promise to Abraham, because he could swear by no greater, he sware by himself.
This calls to mind another hymn, which we sang on the second Sunday in Lent, The God of Abraham Praise (H1982 No. 401). The second stanza begins: He by himself hath sworn: we on his oath depend; we shall, on eagle wings upborne, to heaven ascend. This hymn, written more than a hundred years after Donne’s death, would surely reassure him. Finally, in the third stanza, do not miss out on the pun on the Son/sun of God.
Donne commissioned his poem to be set to music, and it was was often sung at Evensong at St. Paul’s during his tenure there. It is possible that the tune DONNE (H1982 No. 140), by John Hilton (1599-1657) is the tune Donne commissioned. It has the feel of a Renaissance tune that would have been sung with a lute. The second tune for this hymn in our hymnbook is the German hymn tune , SO GIEBST DU NUN (H1982 No. 141), harmonized by J. S. Bach (1685-1750). Ralph Vaughan Williams paired this text with the Bach setting when he was editor of The English Hymnal. We will sing both tunes during the month before we are done.
— Carolyn Parmenter, Music Director