Imagery and symbolism in Hymn to God, my God

Thy Musique

The first conceit, as we have seen, relates to church music, but also includes the idea of sacred space. Donne, as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, would have experienced such space every day being filled with music from the choir. The space is now heaven itself; the choir, those who have departed in death already; and Donne will join them to provide ‘thy Musique'. He is at the doorway, waiting to process in. This illness is therefore the waiting time, a time to tune his instrument so that it can play in harmony with the harmonies of heaven. Very few churches had organs at this time; the music usually came from instrumentalists. The Book of Revelation in the New Testament is full of references to singing in heaven (e.g. Revelation 15:2-3.)

Their Mapp

Strait of MagellanThe symbolic geography contains references to fairly recent discoveries, for instance the ‘South-west discoverie', alluding to efforts to sail round the tip of South America. Cape Horn was a dreadfully stormy place, so the effort had been made to find a more sheltered route, which finally succeeded in the discovery of the Strait of Magellan.

East and west

This strait was the entry to the Pacific Ocean, the ocean lying along the sides of flat maps, both east and west. In Christian symbolism, the east is the place of resurrection, of rising, the orient (Donne's Good Friday 1613. Riding Westward also uses this symbolic geography). The west is, conversely, the place of dying, the occident. In Christian teaching, however, the moment of dying is also the moment of entering into a new life. The flat map analogy is therefore a very apt one: the processes and direction seem totally different, but are, in fact, the same.

My home?

Donne asks, ‘Where is my home?'

  • Is it the Pacific, which symbolically means ‘peaceful' and therefore heaven, the place of peace?
  • ‘Jerusalem' in the sense of ‘the new Jerusalem' of the Book of Revelation (Revelation 21:2), or ‘The Eastern riches' could also symbolise his heavenly home.


Whichever way, he has to go through straits. Besides that of Magellan, he names

  • ‘Anyan' or the Bering Strait, between Russia and Alaska. This, too, leads into the Pacific this time from the north
  • The Strait of Gibraltar leading into the Mediterranean, the route to Jerusalem and ‘the Eastern riches'.

The sons of Noah

‘Iaphet ... Cham or Sem' refer to the three sons of Noah (Genesis 9:18) who were symbolically the ancestors of some of the main racial groups of the earth:

  • Japhet of the Indo-Eurpoean races
  • Shem of the Arabs and Jews
  • Ham of the African groups.

The first and second Adam

We have already commented on the geographical symbolism of stanza five. Donne takes this now and applies it microcosmically to himself:

  • He shares the nature of Adam (as a human being)
  • He also shares the nature of Christ (as someone who has been forgiven and given new life by God). The idea of Christ being the second or last Adam is to be found in 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 1 Corinthians 15:44-49.

In his purple wrapp'd

Donne's final conceit in Hymn to God, my God is that he is wrapped in the clothes of the dying Christ. Mark 15:17 and John 19:5 record Christ's having, at his crucifixion, a purple robe put on him, a symbol of royalty.

  • ‘His purple' becomes a metonymy for Christ's salvation obtained through his death
  • ‘His thornes' are a metonymy of his suffering to achieve that death
  • The crown of thorns (as recorded in John 19:5 and seen in crucifixes now becomes transformed into a crown of glory (Hebrews 2:9) The final image is one of victory. We have the same assertion as in his Death be not Proud, but on a quieter, more assured note.
Investigating Hymn to God, my God
  • Look at the imagery of Hymn to God, my God and the explanatory notes
    • In what other sense is Donne a ‘flat' map?
    • Explain the line ‘though their currents yeeld return to none' (l.12)
    • Explain the significance of ‘sweat' and ‘blood' in ll.24-25.
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