821 Dissecting John Donne

A Hymne To God The Father

Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begun,
Which was my sinne, though it were donne before?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When thou hast donne, thou hast not donne,
For I have moore.

Wilt thou forgive that sinne by which I won
Others to sinne, and made my sinne their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I did shun
A year or two, but wallow’d in, a score?
When thou hast donne, thou hast not donne,
For I have moore.

I have a sinne of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofoore;
And, having donne that, thou hast donne;
I fear no moore.

Across an abyss of 400 years, John Donne launches puns at us from beyond the grave. Perhaps in doing so he is reminding us of the style of his misspent youth; for this is one of his Holy Sonnets (not that this one is any kind of sonnet), written at a time of great spiritual anguish.

I met this poem not through reading it, but by hearing it sung, in a fine recording by John Shirley-Quirk, in Pelham Humfrey’s setting. In fact, when I downloaded the text to write this, it was the first time I had seen it written down. The text seems slightly different from what I heard sung; the recording was part of an ultra-bargain LP (Saga Records, 10 shillings (£0.50)), which I bought shortly before going up to University (1965-1968). It didn’t take me long to notice the pun on “Donne”, but I thought little of it at the time.

I discovered the rest through a University friend, one Matthew Taylor, who was, like me, studying French. In the same student house there was a French student (that is, a real French person, who was – obviously – studying something else). We were both on quite friendly terms with him, though strangely it never occurred to us to practise our French on him.

Said Matthew Taylor found our French colleague reading Donne’s poem, quite oblivious of the name-dropping contained in it, and explained to him the “donne/Donne” bit, and also the pun on “Son/sun”; and finally, as he also told me, that John Donne’s wife’s maiden name was Moore. In all the wordplay it’s still not easy to make out what Donne intended; there must be other hidden references, as, from the text itself, it’s not clear why the Son/sunne of God the Father continuing to shine would banish fear of Ann Moore, or why Donne might otherwise fear her. Likewise the mixed metaphor (“When I have spun my last thread I shall perish on the shore”) is puzzling, to say the least. Yet if you discount the name references, the poem makes less sense not more. As a last resort, you could blame strict ABABAB rhyming, but Donne could surely get the better of that.

Since then I have not pursued my reading of Donne any further, nor for that matter any other music by Pelham Humfrey; but at least I do now know why Humfrey made the words “donne” and “moore” so prominent in his setting. Clearly more study is needed; and, having donne that, I shall have Donne.

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