The speaker faces the possibility of his own death by focusing on his preparation for Heaven. He must tune himself in order to become God’s musical instrument. Or, he is like a map, and as he struggles through his own life’s map to the west, he realizes that on a map the westernmost and easternmost points are the same. Death is thus resurrection; original sin by the tree in the Garden of Eden has its parallel in the Cross where sin was redeemed. The poet’s life can be used as a sermon to preach that suffering and death are natural on the route to salvation.
Donne likely wrote “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness” sometime between 1623 and 1635. The exact date of its composition, and therefore the date of his life-threatening illness (if this poem is autobiographical), remain uncertain. This “Hymn” is a six-stanza poem each made up of five lines of ababb iambic pentameter.
In the first stanza the poet compares himself to music to be used by or for God: “I shall be made Thy music” (line 3). As he awaits entry into the holy room, he “tunes” himself as an instrument. In order to prepare himself for his personal translation into sacred song among the “choir of saints,” he considers what he still ought to do on Earth. This theme follows the traditional Christian doctrine of becoming purified on Earth so as to be ready for the afterlife.
In the second stanza, Donne shifts the conceit and calls himself a map. If he is the map, his doctors are the “cosmographers” (line 7) who draw his features and interpret the signs they see on him in an effort to aid him in recovery, via “their love” (line 6). However, they can see from his condition that as he journeys across his own map, his path is not likely to include a return trip. They conclude that he is heading per fretum febris (“through the strait of fever”) in order to die (line 10).
The poet takes the news with “joy” (line 11) because he sees he will be heading inexorably west, signifying the end of his life, where he will meet the east and new life. This is because of the paradox of a flat map in which the western and eastern extremes actually identify the same longitude, since the world is actually round. Thus, he looks forward to this journey’s conclusion because it means a transition into a new form of existence, his resurrection: “death doth touch the resurrection” (line 15). This line marks the halfway point of the 30-line poem.
The fourth stanza uses rhetorical questions to ask whether a geographical location could be his final destination. The places he lists are of either historical or spiritual significance, but he notes that for all of them, “All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them” (line 19). That is, as desirable as these places are, they can be reached only through the straits of suffering or hardship. Of course, none of these places will be his true place of rest, since he will be translated to Heaven.
In the fifth stanza, Donne identifies another place in which west (death) meets east (resurrection). It may well be that Adam’s tree—the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, from which Adam ate and brought sin and suffering into the world—stood in the exact location as the cross of Calvary—often poetically called the “tree,” upon which Jesus Christ was killed as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. In Christianity, Jesus is also the “last Adam,” representing mankind as he dies for their sins, which originated with the “first Adam” in Eden. Thus the poet finds himself marked by the first Adams, with the sweat of his sickness suggesting Adam’s curse of hard work, while he looks ahead to being embraced with the sacrificial blood of Jesus ahead (the language also suggests the poet’s own blood as he proceeds toward death).
The final stanza focuses on the imagery of Christ’s crucifixion. Just as Jesus’ Crown of Thorns leads the way to his new crowns as the King of Kings (note the royal purple in line 26), the poet hopes that his own suffering will prepare him to be embraced by God in Heaven. Donne also seems to be suggesting that he has a spiritual role on Earth as well, considering his vocation as dean of St. Paul’s, in which he was responsible for preaching sermons to the congregation. Accordingly, he wants his own situation, sickness and all, to be usable as a sermon about suffering. The topic of sermon would be, “Therefore that He may raise, the Lord throws down” (line 30). In this paradox, he who is to be raised to eternal life by God in almost all cases will first suffer and die. Thus, Donne sums up the reason for his joy in the second stanza, seeing how the end of life will teach others (compare Meditation 17) and lead to resurrection.