Commentary on Hymn to God, my God

Heavenly music

The poem is a series of three images or conceits, the main one being a symbolic geography that occupies the central stanzas, 2-5. The title ‘hymn' suggests church music, and this is the source of the opening conceit. The speaker needs to prepare himself before he finally enters ‘thy Quire of Saints', that is to say, heaven.

Map making

Map of the worldThe symbolic geography takes the idea of the microcosm: his body is a world, and his physicians are mapping it. He plays with various map-making ideas:

  • In flat maps of the world, the right hand edge is the same as the left hand edge

  • He also plays with the word ‘straights'. In geography this can denote a narrow and often turbulent channel of water (or strait) between two land masses, leading from one sea to another. In general usage it can also mean a period of difficulty and could certainly symbolise death. ‘Per fretum febris' is Latin for ‘through the straights of fever'.

Symbolic geography

Donne then uses traditional symbolic geography based on the Bible:

  • Medieval geographers believed that Paradise (the garden of Eden) was located where Jerusalem now stands. Thus the tree from which Adam ate the forbidden fruit Genesis 2:17 and first sinned, is seen as having occupied the same spot as the cross on which Christ died so that humankind could be forgiven

  • This leads on to the thought that Christ is the Second Adam, who made forgiveness possible to sinful humankind. In Donne himself the first Adam and the ‘Second Adam' are seen to be brought together (see a fuller discussion under Imagery and symbolism). As a human being, Donne suffers the consequences of Adam's sin, including the need to work hard to earn food ‘by the sweat of his brow', part of Adam's punishment for his disobedience Genesis 3:19. Yet he has also been forgiven through Christ's death.

Heavenly clothing

The final conceit is that he will be received by God because symbolically he wears Christ's clothes and crown of thorns. Donne regularly preached on the text of 2 Corinthians 4:11-14, that we are often afflicted in this life by God but will be raised up after death to a new life. Now it is happening to him.

Investigating Hymn to God, my God
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.