Sunday, February 13, 2011

I tune my instrument at the door

Just thought of this poem today and wanted to post it. (This does not mean that I am ill. The line "I tune my instrument at the door" was just in my mind.)

John Donne, "Hymn to God, my God, in My Sickness"

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 ;

Whilst 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 to die ;

I joy, that in these straits I see my west ;
For, though those 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.

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.

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.

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.”


Alex said...

According to Izzak Walton, the Hymne to God my God in My Sicknesse and its companion poem A Hymne to God the Father, were both composed during Donne's great sickness in 1623. One of them or perhaps both (Walton doesn't make this clear) was set to music and sung by the choristers of St Paul's in Donne's own hearing. At his return from his customary devotions in that place, he occasionally said to a friend, "The words of that hymn have restored me to the same thoughts of joy that possessed my soul in my sickness when I composed it."

Herbert Grierson remarked that Donne's devotional poetry reveals a man who was a strange blend of voluptuary and ascetic with a sense of detachment from the world. He was ever conscious of life as a thing he could lightly lay aside, though controlled in its operation by the faith to which he clung.

Have you seen the melancholy monument to John Donne in St Paul's Cathedral? It is said that it was slightly damaged in the Great Fire of London. The urn is supposed to have traces of scorching that are still visible, but I couldn't see any.

(As you may have guessed, I love Donne's poetry - well, many of his poems anyway)

Lydia McGrew said...

I love the poem but must say I find it difficult to imagine its making a good song. The metaphysical conceits themselves make it difficult and obscure (which is why Dr. Johnson disliked metaphysical poetry so much), and I don't think songs should be like that. So I probably wouldn't try to set it to music--or at the most, perhaps only the first stanza.

I've never been to England, so I have not seen his stone shroud with my own eyes, but I read all about it in those odd little 1970's books by Helene Hanff. She gets to see the shroud in "The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street" and describes it vividly.

Someone recently asked me what to read to get in touch with his "Anglican heritage." I recommended selections from the sermons of Donne. But I have to admit that Donne is an odd fellow and that even 17th century Anglicanism should not be identified entirely with Donne. Herbert, though also considered a metaphysical poet, is in some ways a corrective, being so much simpler and less baroque in his approach both to poetry and to religion. And the 1662 Book of Common Prayer the best of all, having both the Tudor simplicity of Cranmer and the Restoration genius of Cosin. Quintessentially English.

Alex said...

There's an amusing scene in the movie, 84 Charing Cross Road, where Helene is disappointed to receive from the English bookshop, a mere "selected sermons" of John Donne. She's an all or nothing woman and wants the entire collection. (I haven't read any of her books.)

Yes, the Book of Common Prayer 1662 is ,or perhaps used to be, the quintessential devotional text in the Church of England.

Lydia McGrew said...

I know the book extremely well but haven't seen the movie. I assume it's the same here: She already owns several books of excerpts from Donne, which she may or may not have bought from 84 Charing Cross Road. Anyway, she can't find the full text that she is looking for in any of something like three different excerpt books. It is very funny.

I'm in favor of excerpts from Donne's sermons anyway, though, because otherwise you would just get lost in the sheer quantity. Nobody is going to read through all the volumes of his sermons, and there's a reason that the famous passages are famous.