April 1, 2012

"A Hymn to God the Father"

Back in January, I joined a choir, mostly made up of alumni from a Lutheran college. I've been enjoying it for the most part, though I still cringe through some of our material. We had our final performance last night. Each one of our songs was introduced by a different member of the choir. While one might expect such introductions to give some background to our repertoire, they all tended to focus on aspects of personal salvation. Rather than providing the audience with insight into our selections, each introductory description drew on themes of atonement (as penal substitution), sinful depravity, and God's infallible Word. It all put me in a bad mood.

It was my job to give the introduction to John Ness Beck's "A Hymn to God the Father." I'm not really a fan of the arrangement, but, as it uses John Donne's original text, I couldn't resist the opportunity to expound on the work of one of my favorite poets. To my mind, Donne's hymn actually resists the triumphant narrative of individual salvation that came to define the evening's program.
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 wallowed 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.
Written during a time of serious illness in the winter of 1623, this text is at once a work of praise and confession. According to the early biographer Thomas Watton, Donne "caused it to be set to a most grave and solemn tune and to be often sung to the organ by the choristers at St. Paul's church in his own hearing, especially at the evening service."

In the hymn, the speaker is driven to confession by his fear of an outstanding sin. You'll notice that at the end of each stanza, Donne puns on his name repeatedly, suggesting that God's work of forgiveness is not yet finished because of his impulse to sin. By punning on his name Donne joins together his identity with the worst kind of spiritual anxiety. Sin initially assumes a kind of infinity (it defines past, present, and future, overflowing God's sacrificial act); in this way, becomes an idol. As the poem continues, such fear is revealed as a mark of pride, for in despairing over his outstanding sins, the speaker forgets the infinite mercy of God and remains focused on himself.

Each stanza ends by suspending God's forgiveness and with it, the poet's identity remains undone and unsettled. In the final stanza, this cycle is subverted. Both tropes--the closure of self marked by pride and the opening of self marked by fear--are subtly transformed by the Son's radiance. When the speaker finally orients himself to the Son's sacrifice, he forgets his own sinfulness and accepts his identity as remembered by God.

Like most church liturgies, Donne's hymn moves from confession to praise. What makes it so compelling, however, is how successfully (and affectively) it demonstrates the danger of confession: a necessary posture for the believer, but one that remains precarious because of the prominence it can give to the individual subject. Rather than receiving easy absolution, Donne's speaker passes through his sinfulness, moving from its logical end in despair and isolation to grace.

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