Thursday, June 29, 2017

All is Donne

English Poet John Donne first entered my life as an awkward student of English Language at High School.  Donne’s poetry was a real stretch to comprehend. Yet, amongst the poetry selected by the class teacher were some pieces that were intimate enough to stir testosterone-charged teenage boys.   Take for example one of his most famous poems that opens with a chastisement to the sun.  Donne’s chastisement is in response to the sun’s disturbance of him and his lover:



 The Sun Rising
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?

When I re-discovered John Donne he was no longer just a poet, but now also a preacher.  Donne was called later in his life to be a Priest in the Church of England.  Donne took an appointment in St Paul’s Cathedral, London in 1621.  He would conclude his days as a Priest in 1630.



It was as a Priest that Donne wrote a most wonderful Christian poem.  The poem is short.  The three stanzas serve as a neat summary of mankind’s twin life under both sin and grace.  It is well worth pushing past the old English expression to grasp the poem's meaning.  In a world that is want to deny or diminish sin; or of cheap grace, the poem is a real eye-opener.



A Hymn to God the Father
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun, 
         Which was my sin, though it were done before? 
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run, 
         And do run still, though still I do deplore? 
                When thou 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 door? 
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun 
         A year or two, but wallow'd in, a score? 
                When thou 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 shore; 
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son 
         Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore; 
                And, having done that, thou hast done; 
                        I fear no more. 
Copied from: Poetry Foundation

In the first stanza, Donne recognises that as a member of the human race he is seen by God as under original sin – the sin of Adam and Eve.  It is Donne’s sin even “though it were done before”.  Donne begs that God will forgive him that sin.  The first stanza then draws attention to how Donne continues to sin in his own right.  The first stanza then concludes that there is even more sin.



Things look grim at this point.  Donne is acknowledging his stain of both original sin and ongoing sin.  Yet, he still begs God to hear him more for other sin.

In the second stanza, Donne acknowledges that he has caused others to stumble and has admitted unconfessed or unacknowledged sin (sin in which he wallows).  Incredibly, that stanza also ends with recognition that Donne has even more sin!  It was Donne’s acknowledgement of the sin that caused others to stumble that most drew me to the poem. I had cause recently to examine Matthew 18:6 in this linked post.  As a Priest it was likely that Donne was astutely aware of his role of laying a straight path for all his flock.  How easy is it for a Priest through laziness or omission to cause upset or disorder?  In respect wallowing in sin, I suspect that Donne recognised that like all people he had a tendency to self-justify some of his behaviour.  I’ve examined that nature in this linked post.



In the third stanza, Donne displays a sin of doubt.  In his old age he recognises it wrong to have had a life in Christ and yet still doubt he’s own eternity in Christ.  He recognises that his boast is in God’s Son who shines now and forever more.  This is Donne’s unmistakeable answer to his sin – God’s abundant grace.



The poem reminds me of King David’s confession of sin in Psalm 51.  It is similar in that David and Donne both are acknowledging that sin is always before them Psalm 51:3.  The first stanza’s acknowledgement of original sin is equivalent to David’s cry in Psalm 51:5:



“Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

Psalm 51:5 NIV



There is much to gain from aged Christian literature.  It can aid our understanding of both sin and grace.



Note 1: Donne's poem and a summary of his life is included in Philip Yancey’s novel Soul Survivor.  That novel has provided me much comfort and other recent blog posts have sprung from it.  Yancey points to Donne's word play in the poem.  There is a neat collision of the use of "done" and the poet's surname; Donne.

Note 2: all links good as at 29 June 2017.

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