A Hymn to God the Father
originally for tenor and piano
to the memory of Timothy Jenkins of the Metropolitan Opera,
a friend, colleague, fine tenor and a gentleman
Wilt Thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do
hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin, and made my sin their
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a
hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and
done that, Thou hast done ;
I fear no more.
from Poems of John Donne, vol I., E. K. Chambers, ed. London, Lawrence &
pages, circa 3' 00" ]
Donne (1572-1631) was an English poet of the Metaphysical school and dean of
St. Paul's Cathedral, London, from 1621-31. He is considered among the
greatest love poets in the English language, and is noted as well for his
religious verse, treatises and for sermons, which rank among the best of the
17th century. Born of Roman Catholic parents, Donne's mother was a lineal
descendant of Sir Thomas More and the daughter of playwright John Heywood.
At age 12 Donne studied at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, though
he took no degree from either university because as a Roman Catholic he
could not swear the required oath of allegiance to the Protestant queen,
Elizabeth. Following his studies Donne probably traveled in Spain and Italy
and then returned to London to study law (1591-1594). Then he turned to a
comparative examination of Roman Catholic and Protestant theology.
In 1596 he enlisted as a gentleman with the Earl of Essex's successful
military expedition against Cádiz, and the following year he sailed with Sir
Walter Raleigh and Essex in the near-disastrous Islands expedition, hunting
for Spanish treasure ships in the Azores. Returning to London in 1597, Donne
became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper of the great seal, in
whose employ Donne remained for almost five years. The appointment itself
makes it probable that Donne had become an Anglican by this time. During his
tenure with the lord keeper, Donne lived, according to Walton, more as a
friend than as a servant in the Egerton household, where Sir Thomas
appointed him "a place at his own table, to which he esteemed [Donne's]
company and discourse to be a great ornament." While in Egerton's service,
Donne met and fell in love with Anne More, niece of Egerton's second wife
and the daughter of Sir George More, who was chancellor of the garter.
Knowing there was no chance of obtaining Sir George's blessing on their
union, the two married secretly, in 1601. For this offense Sir George had
Donne briefly imprisoned and dismissed from his post with Egerton as well,
denying Anne's dowry to Donne. Because of the marriage, moreover, all
possibilities of a career in public service were dashed, and Donne found
himself at age 30 with neither prospects for employment nor adequate funds
with which to support his household.
During the next 10 years Donne lived in poverty, first on the charity of
Anne's cousin in Surrey, then at a house in Mitcham near London, and
sometimes in a London apartment, relying on the support of noble patrons.
During this time he failed to find employment. Anne bore 12 children, 5 of
whom died before they reached maturity. During these years, Donne wrote
prose works on theology, canon law, anti-Catholic polemics, love lyrics,
religious poetry, and complimentary and funerary verse for his patrons. In
1611-12 he traveled through France and the Low Countries with a newfound
patron, Sir Robert Drury. Returning from the continent, Drury provided his
family with a house in London.
In 1614 King James I refused Donne's last attempt to win a post at court,
but would appoint him to a vocation in the church, and he finally agreed to
take holy orders, being ordained deacon and priest in 1615. He was made a
royal chaplain and received a doctor of divinity from Cambridge. Two years
after his ordination, in 1617, Anne Donne died at the age of 33 after giving
birth to a stillborn child. Donne vowed never to marry again, and his
bereavement turned him fully to his vocation as an Anglican divine. In 1621,
Donne was installed as dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. The power and eloquence
of Donne's sermons soon secured for him a reputation as the foremost
preacher in the England of his day, and he became a favorite of both Kings
James I and Charles I.
In 1623 Donne fell seriously ill, and reflected on the parallels between his
physical and spiritual illnesses -- reflections that culminated during his
recovery in the prose Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, published in 1624.
In 1631, Donne fell fatally ill with stomach cancer, but left his sickbed to
preach a final sermon at court. Published posthumously as "Death's Duell" it
is considered to be his own funeral sermon.
Almost none of Donne's poetry was published during his lifetime. Most of his
poems were preserved in manuscript copies made by and passed among a
relatively small circle of poetry lovers. He composed the hymns late in his
life, in the 1620s. Donne's Anniversaries were published in 1611-12 and were
the only important poetic works by him published in his lifetime. Donne's
poetry is marked by strikingly original departures from the conventions of
16th-century English verse. Donne's devotional lyrics and the hymns explore
his love for God, sometimes through sexual metaphors, and depict doubts,
fears, and a sense of spiritual unworthiness.
The pun in the poem is on John Donne's name itself, as he addresses God to
say, " When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done, For I have more." More sin
to come, for that is the nature of man, confesses Donne. But his belief in
the promise of his religion says boldly that when God has Donne, he shall
fear no more. The hymn is therefore a confession and a testament together.