The speaker says that since he will soon die and come to “that holy room” where he will be made into the music of God as sung by a choir of saints, he tunes “the instrument” now and thinks what he will do when the final moment comes. He likens his doctors to cosmographers and himself to a map, lying flat on the bed to be shown “that this is my south-west discovery / Per fretum febris, by these straits to die.” He rejoices, for in those straits he sees his “west,” his death, whose currents “yield return to none,” yet which will not harm him. West and east meet and join in all flat maps (the speaker says again that he is a flat map), and in the same way, death is one with the resurrection.
The speaker asks whether his home is the Pacific Sea, or the eastern riches, or Jerusalem. He lists the straights of Anyan, Magellan, and Gibraltar, and says that only straits can offer access to paradise, whether it lies “where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.” The speaker says that “Paradise and Calvary, / Christ’s Cross, and Adam’s tree” stood in the same place. He asks God to look and to note that both Adams (Christ being the second Adam) are unified in him; as the first Adam’s sweat surrounds his face, he says, may the second Adam’s blood embrace his soul. He asks God to receive him wrapped in the purple of Christ, and, “by these his thorns,” to give him Christ’s other crown. As he preached the word of God to others’ souls, he says, let this be his sermon to his own soul: “Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down.”
Like many of Donne’s religious poems, the “Hymn to God my God” is formally somewhat simpler than many of his metaphysical secular poems. Each of the six five-line stanzas follows an ABABB rhyme scheme, and the poem is metered throughout in iambic pentameter.
Scholars are divided over the question of whether this poem was written on Donne’s deathbed in 1630 or during the life-threatening fever he contracted in 1623. In either case, the “Hymn to God my God” was certainly written at a time when Donne believed he was likely to die. This beautiful, lyrical, and complicated poem represents his mind’s attempt to summarize itself, and his attempt to offer, as he says, a sermon to his soul. In the first stanza, the speaker looks forward to the time when he will be in “that holy room” where he will be made into God’s music—an extraordinary image—with His choir of saints. In preparation for that time, he says, he will “tune the instrument” (his soul) by writing this poem.
The next several stanzas, devoted to the striking image of Donne’s body as a map looked over by his navigator-doctors, develop an elaborate geographical symbolism with which to explain his condition. He is entering, he says, his “south-west discovery”—the south being, traditionally, the region of heat (or fever) and the west being the site of the sunset and, thus, in this poem, the region of death. (A key to this geographical symbolism can be found in A.J. Smith’s concise notation in the Penguin Classics edition of Donne’s Complete English Poems.) The speaker says that his discovery is made Per fretum febris, or by the strait of fever, and that he will die “by these straits.”
Donne employs an elaborate pun on the idea of “straits,” a word that denotes the narrow passages of water that connect oceans, yet which also refers to grim personal difficulties (as in “dire straights”): Donne’s personal struggles with his illness are like the straits that will connect him to the paradise of the Pacific Sea, Jerusalem, and the eastern riches; no matter where one is in the world—in the region of Japhet, Cham, or Shem—such treasures can only be reached through straits. (Japhet, Cham, and Shem were the sons of Noah, who divided the world between them after the ark came to rest: Japhet lived in Europe, Cham lived in Africa, and Shem lived in Asia.) Essentially, all of this word play and allusion is merely another way of saying that Donne expects his fever to lead him to heaven (even on his deathbed, his mind delighted in spinning metaphysical complexities). The speaker says that on maps, west and east are one—if one travels far enough in either direction, one ends up on the other side of the map—and, therefore, his death in the “west” will lead to his “eastern” resurrection.