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A hymn to God, in Sickness- john Donne

About the poet,

John Donne was born in 1572 in London, England. He is known as the founder of the Metaphysical
Poets, a term created by Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth-century English essayist, poet, and philosopher.
The Metaphysical Poets are known for their ability to amaze the reader and persuade new perspective
through impossible images, delicate argument, inventive, and imagery from art, philosophy, and religion
using an extended metaphor known as a superiority. Donne reached beyond the sensible and
hierarchical structures of the seventeenth century with his challenging and ingenious superiorities,
advancing the exploratory spirit of his time.

Donne entered the world during a period of theological and political unrest for both England and
France;. Born into a Roman Catholic family, Donne's personal relationship with religion was tumultuous
and passionate, and at the center of much of his poetry. He studied at both Oxford and Cambridge
Universities in his early teen years. He did not take a degree at either school, because to do so would
have meant subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles, the doctrine that defined Anglicanism. At age twenty
he studied law at Lincoln's Inn. Two years later he succumbed to religious pressure and joined the
Anglican Church after his younger brother, convicted for his Catholic loyalties, died in prison. Donne
wrote most of his love lyrics, erotic verse, and some sacred poems in the 1590s, creating two major
volumes of work: Satires and Songs and Sonnets.

In 1598, after returning from a two-year naval expedition against Spain, Donne was appointed private
secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton. While sitting in Queen Elizabeth's last Parliament in 1601, Donne
secretly married Anne More, the sixteen-year-old niece of Lady Egerton. Donne's father-in-law
disapproved of the marriage. As punishment, he did not provide a dowry for the couple and had Donne
briefly imprisoned.

This left the couple isolated and dependent on friends, relatives, and supporters. Donne suffered social
and financial instability in the years following his marriage, exacerbated by the birth of many children.
He continued to write and published the Divine Poems in 1607. In Pseudo-Martyr, published in 1610,
Donne displayed his extensive knowledge of the laws of the Church and state, arguing that Roman
Catholics could support James I without compromising their faith. In 1615, James I pressured him to
enter the Anglican Ministry by declaring that Donne could not be employed outside of the Church. He
was appointed Royal Chaplain later that year. His wife died in 1617 at thirty-three years old shortly after
giving birth to their twelfth child, who was stillborn. The Holy Sonnets are also attributed to this phase of
his life.

In 1621, he became dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral. In his later years, Donne's writing reflected his fear of
his inevitable death. He wrote his private prayers, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, during a period
of severe illness and published them in 1624., John Donne died in London on March 31, 1631.
Background of poem

This piece is generally considered to have been written from Donne’s own perspective. There were two
times in his life during which he believed his death to be near. The first was when he contracted a fever
in 1623. It is thought now that the fever could actually have been typhus. During this period he wrote a
great deal. Additionally the piece might’ve been written while Donne was actually on his deathbed from
late 1630 to March 1631. The poem represents Donne’s attempt to come to terms with himself while
facing death. He does this by offering, as he put it, ‘a sermon to his soul’, just as he would, as an bound
priest, preach sermons to his church goers. Even on his death bed he couldn’t fight back planning
difficult, imaginative philosophical conceits (self-importance) to form a beautiful, lyrical poem

Explanation of Stanza’s wise

Since I am coming to that holy room,

Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,

I shall be made thy music; as I come

I tune the instrument here at the door,

And what I must do then, think here before

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by admitting the fact that he is “coming to that holy
room,” meaning heaven. It is his ultimate destination to be entered into sooner than he might like. He
continues on to describe the “room” in greater detail. It is wonderful in that there is the “choir of saints
for evermore (forever).” All who enter heaven, like the speaker himself, are “made [God’s] music.” He
will be like an “instrument” which he tunes himself, hoping to be as pleasing as possible. These line
serve as an introduction to the poem and to the process of dying. The speaker is preparing himself “here
before” for what he “must do then.”

Stanza Two

Whilst (although) my physicians by their love are grown

Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie

Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown

That this is my south-west discovery,

Per fretum febris, by these straits (passages) to die,

In the next stanza the speaker refers abstractly to his “physicians.” They do not seem to be doing much
to improve his condition. Their actions are represented physically as “cosmographers” (here he is
referring to earth and heaven) who look over his body like a map. They are observing, monitoring and
taking notes of what they see. It is as if his body is there in his “south-west discovery” so that they can
see the process of dying.
In the last two lines of this section he speaks of the “Per fretum febris,” or the straits of fever. These
“straits” are spoken of geographically, as if they are marked out on his cosmological body map. Donne
uses “straits” in two different ways here. He follows the line with the phrase “by these straits to die.” He
will die in this form but also due to the “straits” or difficulties of his life.

Stanza Three

I joy, that in these straits I see my west;

For, though their currents yield return to none,

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east

In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,

So death doth touch the resurrection.

The path the Donne’s speaker is on is not all bad. There is some “joy…in these straits.” He is able to see
his way “west” to his death and then eventually to Heaven. This is a place that will not harm him or from
which he will have to return from. It represents a finality that is appealing.

In the next three lines he speaks of how “west and east” or death and birth, are one in the same. The
speaker is clearly unafraid of death. He sees it as being an equal to life. There would not have been a
“resurrection”(rebirth) without first death.

Stanza Four

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are

The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?

Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,

All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,

Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

In the fourth stanza the speaker contemplates his life on Earth and where he really belongs. He lists out
the “Pacific Sea,” and “Jerusalem” as possible places he could call home. The speaker follows this up by
mentioning the straits of “Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar.” He sees these famous (and in the case of
Anyan, mythical) bodies of water as access points to the afterlife and God. When one can crosses these
straits they enter into a world that was previously unattainable.

The next lines contain references to the sons of Noah, Japheth, Cham (Ham) and Shem. These figures
and the lives they represent might be at the end of the “straits.” Their various residences could be
where he belongs.

Stanza Five

We think that Paradise and Calvary,

Christ’s cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place;

Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;

As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,

May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.(hold)

In the fifth stanza the speaker directs his words to God. He wants to make clear to both God and the
reader that the blood of both “Adams” is within him. The second Adam, Christ, has filled his soul with
faith. The first Adam has given him the “sweat” that “surrounds” his face. He wants to be seen as an
example of the grace of God and the natural goodness of man.

Stanza Six

So, in his purple wrapp’d, receive me, Lord;

By these his thorns, give me his other crown;

And as to others’ souls I preach’d thy word,

Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:

“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”

In the last lines the speaker is describing his own physical death. He is still speaking to God and asking
that he be received into heaven in the “purple” burial garment he has been “wrapp’d” in. Purple is the
color of royalty and has also been associated with Christ. It is his shroud the speaker is within.

He moves on to reference the “thorns” Christ was made to wear. The speaker asks that he be given
Christ’s “other crown” and allowed into heaven. This should be done for him as he was a good Christian
in his life and a man dedicated to helping others. He “preach’d thy word” while alive.

Now that the speaker is dead, he hopes that these words (contained within the previous five stanzas)
can serve as his “sermon” to his own soul. If God accepts him, he can ascend up to heaven as Christ did.

Scholars are divided over the question of whether this poem was written on Donne’s deathbed
in 1630 or during the life-threatening fever he contracted in 1623. In either case, the “Hymn to God my
God” was certainly written at a time when Donne believed he was likely to die. This beautiful, lyrical,
and complicated poem represents his mind’s attempt to summarize itself, and his attempt to offer, as
he says, a address to his soul. In the first stanza, the speaker looks forward to the time when he will be
in “that holy room” where he will be made into God’s music—an extraordinary image—with His choir of
saints. In preparation for that time, he says, he will “tune the instrument” (his soul) by writing this

The next several stanzas, devoted to the outstanding image of Donne’s body as a map looked over by his
navigator-doctors, develop an elaborate geographical symbolism with which to explain his condition. He
is entering, he says, his “south-west discovery”—the south being, traditionally, the region of heat (or
fever) and the west being the site of the sunset and, thus, in this poem, the region of death. The speaker
says that his discovery is made Per fretum febris, or by the strait (channels) of fever, and that he will die
“by these straits.”

Donne employs an elaborate the idea of “straits,” a word that denotes the narrow passages of water
that connect oceans, yet which also refers to forbidding personal difficulties (as in “dire straights”):
Donne’s personal struggles with his illness are like the straits that will connect him to the paradise of the
Pacific Sea, Jerusalem, and the eastern riches; no matter where one is in the world—in the region of
Japhet, Cham, or Shem—such treasures can only be reached through straits. (Japhet, Cham, and Shem
were the sons of Noah, who divided the world between them after the ark came to rest: Japhet lived in
Europe, Cham lived in Africa, and Shem lived in Asia.) Essentially, all of this word play and reference is
merely another way of saying that Donne expects his fever to lead him to heaven (even on his deathbed,
his mind delighted in spinning metaphysical difficulties). The speaker says that on maps, west and east
are one—if one travels far enough in either direction, one ends up on the other side of the map—and,
therefore, his death in the “west” will lead to his “eastern” resurrection.

He then shifts to a dramatically different set of images, claiming that Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree
stood physically on the same place, and that by the same token, both the characteristics of Adam (sin
and hard work) and of Christ (resurrection and purity) are present in Donne himself: The phrase “Look
Lord, and find both Adams met in me” is Donne’s most perfect statement of the different stresses of
spirituality that run through his poems and ran through his life. As the sweat of the first Adam (who was
cursed to work after exclusion from Eden) surrounds his face in his fever, he hopes the blood of Christ,
the second Adam, will embrace and purify his soul.

Donne concludes by charting his actual entry into heaven, saying that he hopes to be received by God
wrapped in the purple garment of Christ—purple with blood and with triumph—and to obtain his
crown. As his final poetic act, he writes a sermon for his own soul, just as he preached addresses to the
souls of others during his years as a priest. The Lord, he says, throws down that he may raise up; Donne,
thrown down by the fever, will be lifted up to heaven, where his soul, having been “tuned” now on
Earth, may be used to make the music of God.