Forgive and Forget

Forgive and Forget

This week’s poems are about remembering, forgetting and forgiving.

John Donne starts with a heartfelt plea to his Creator for forgiveness in “A Hymn to God the Father”, Christina Rossetti entreats us wistfully with her “Song”, and Thomas Hood harks back to his youth in “I Remember, I Remember”.

A reminder that National Poetry Day falls on 1 October this year (next Thursday) and the theme is to share a poem with a friend, neighbour, family member or work colleague.

I have written a little more on the obscure parts of the poems because I want to help my Portuguese friend Paolo to enjoy them.

Poem 76. A Hymn to God the Father

When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

John Donne (1572—1631)
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 wallow'd 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.

This poem seems as if Donne is desperate for his God to forgive him his sins; this agonised plea is much more than the simple “Forgive us our trespasses” of the Lord’s Prayer.

The first stanza asks God to forgive the sins committed before the petitioner’s birth (the original sin of Adam and Eve): “that sin where I begun, which was my sin, though it were done before” and those which he continues to commit, “though still I do deplore”.

In the second stanza, he admits that he has tempted others to sin through his own weakness, and has fallen back into his bad ways despite reforming “a year or two”.

In the final stanza, he fears that he will be lost to sin at his death unless God will assure him that forgiveness will come when he dies.

The line, “When thou hast done, thou hast not done, for I have more” underlines the depth of the sins committed. I hadn’t picked up on it before researching the poem, but it also puns on Donne’s name which is pronounced “Dun”, suggesting that when God has Donne, He hast not Donne until He reassures the sinner of his forgiveness.

This line is also one of the poetic weapons in the arsenal of Primrose Larkin, the daughter of Pop and Ma, who uses it (and some of Blake’s poetry) to seduce the Reverend Candy in “A Little of What You Fancy”, H.E. Bates’s fifth book about the riotous family introduced in “The Darling Buds of May”.


Poem 77. Song

And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

Christina Rossetti (1830—1894)
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

This poem is wistful and a kind of gentle regret permeates it, as if Rossetti was trying to express that the dead do not feel the sorrow that we do. It reminds me of the other poem often read at funerals, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep”.

In the first stanza, the dying person wants no dirges sung, no flowers or trees planted for them, preferring their grave to be watered by the rain and the dew, and for their beloved to remember or forget them as they will.

In the second stanza, their beloved is told that the dead see, feel and hear nothing, only dreaming in some kind of obscure limbo; the last line uses the word ‘haply’ which despite its similarity to “happily”, actually means “perhaps”, so “perhaps I may remember, and perhaps I may forget”.

The poem attempts to comfort the bereaved with the suggestion that the dead have no further connection with the world and do not feel the pain of those who are left behind, and so we should remember them but not mourn them at length. This is not an idea I can altogether get behind, but my feelings on the subject are, I confess, confused.

Poem 78. I Remember, I Remember

I remember, I remember,
The roses, red and white,
The violets, and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!

Thomas Hood (1799—1845)
I remember, I remember,
The house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day,
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away!
I remember, I remember,
The roses, red and white,
The violets, and the lily-cups,
Those flowers made of light!
The lilacs where the robin built,
And where my brother set
The laburnum on his birthday, —
The tree is living yet!
I remember, I remember,
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing;
My spirit flew in feathers then,
That is so heavy now,
And summer pools could hardly cool
The fever on my brow!
I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now 'tis little joy
To know I'm farther off from Heav'n
Than when I was a boy.

This poem seems full of regrets, as if Hood is looking back on his childhood with real nostalgia, wishing that he could return to those simpler days from the present time, which is a sentiment that we can all understand in the age of lockdowns and coronavirus. He expertly describes the scenes of childhood: the house with its tiny window, the flowers and trees in the garden, the sensations of sitting on a swing in the garden, and the awe instilled in a small child by a stand of tall fir trees.

I’m left wondering why the subject of the poem feels so bad, as nearly all the stanzas carry the impression of sadness or sickness: “now, I often wish the night had borne my breath away!” suggests that the author is continually low-spirited, wishing that death had come while they slept; “my spirit flew in feathers then, that is so heavy now” compares the lightness of heart of a child with the heaviness felt by an adult in the depths of dejection; and the whole second half of the last stanza says that the knowledge that these tall trees do not touch the sky, and that he is therefore further from heaven than he thought as a boy, does not console him.