John Donne’s Last Poem

John Donne (1572-1631)

The last poem by John Donne, written while he was dying, is one I have read and analyzed many times since I first encountered in college. It’s rather somber, but also magnificent. I have included notes at the end.

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 southwest discovery [1]
Per fretum febris [2], by these straits to die [3].

I joy that in these straits [4] I see my west [5];
For though their 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 resurrectión.

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anian [6] and Magellan and Gibraltar,
All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham or Shem [7].

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 [8] surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.

So in his purple wrapped, receive me, Lord,
By these his thorns give me his other crown;
And as to others’ souls I preached thy word [9],
Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.

[1] The southwest discovery is the passage to the Pacific through the Straits of Magellan.
[2] Literally, “through the straits of fever.”
[3] After passing through the straits named after him, Ferdinand Magellan died in the Philippines.
[4] Note how Donne uses the word not only in its literal geographic sense, but also meaning a difficult passage.
[5] West is the direction of the sunset and south the direction of fever.
[6] The Bering Strait.
[7] The sons of Noah, referring to Europe, Africa, and Asia respectively.
[8] Part of his punishment for his disobedience.
[9] Donne was Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral.