Batter my Heart (Holy Sonnet 14) by John Donne

Batter my Heart, Sonnet XIV, is part of a series of nineteen poems, which are most commonly referred as Divine Meditations, Divine Sonnets, or Holy Sonnets. Holy Sonnets were published two years after Donne’s death. John Donne wrote Holy Sonnet XIV in 1609, and it is found in the Westmoreland Manuscript and, later, in Divine Meditations (1935). Holy Sonnets focus on religious matters, and, particularly, on themes such as mortality, divine love, and divine judgment.

In Holy Sonnets, John Donne writes his poems in the traditional Italian sonnet form. This traditional form and style, introduced by Petrarch, consists of an octet and a sestet. Nevertheless, there are certain modifications, such as rhythm and structural patters that are a consequence of the influence of the Shakespearean sonnet form. Consequently, Holy Sonnet XIV has an ABBAABBACDCDEE rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter. Although it is written in one big block, the poem follows, as previously mentioned, the form and style of the Italian sonnet.

Batter my Heart expresses the lyrical voice’s call upon God to take hold of him, while using deeply spiritual and physical arresting images. The main themes of the poem are love, religion, and violence.

 

Batter my Heart (Holy Sonnet 14) Analysis

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,

Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.

The octet depicts the lyrical voice’s demands towards God. The poem start with the lyrical voice asking the “three-personed God” (God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost) to attack his/heart, as it were gates belonging to a fortress (“batter” comes from “battering ram” the element used in medieval times to break down the door of a fortress). The lyrical voice asks for this, as previously God had “knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend”. This follows the scriptural idea that God “knocks” on a person’s door and he/she must let him in. Nevertheless, this isn’t working for the lyrical voice, as he/she want to be taken by God’s force: “That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend/Your force to break, blow, burn”. Notice the alliteration on line 4 and the emphasis on this strong and violent verbs. The lyrical voice wants to go through all of this because he/she wants to be made “new”. His/her soul is probably badly damaged, and, in order to take all the sin out of it, it must be recreated.

The lyrical voice is, again, compared with a town; a town that is “usurped”. He/she wants to let God in, but he/she has been unsuccessful: “Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end”. The lyrical voice is having trouble showing his/her faith because his/her thoughts, reason, have turned on God (“Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,/But is captived, and proves weak or untrue”).

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,

But am betrothed unto your enemy:

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The sestet presets the volta, turn, and the tone of the poem shifts. The lyrical voice gets more sentimental and calm. The simile of the fortress ends, and the lyrical voice talks about his/ her feelings towards God: “Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain”. Nevertheless, the lyrical voice feels engaged to Satan, “But am betrothed unto your enemy”, and asks God to take him out of their arrangement, “Divorce me, untie or break that knot again”. The word “again” makes direct reference to Genesis and the fall of men. Once again, the lyrical voice asks God to take him/her: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I,/Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me”. Notice the emphasis and the intensity in the lyrical voice’s wish. He/she asks to be taken over by using violent verbs, such as “imprision” and “ravish”. These final lines depict the paradox of the faith.

 

About John Donne

John Donne was born in 1572 and died in 1631. He was an English poet, lawyer, and Cleric. John Donne is considered to be one of the main representatives of the metaphysical poets. His poems are known for their vibrant language, powerful images, abrupt openings and paradoxes. Donne’s poetry introduced a more personal tone in the poems and a particular poetic metre, which resembles natural speech. Moreover, John Donne is considered to be the genius of metaphysical conceits and extended metaphors, as his poems combine two concepts into one by using imagery. Apart from poems, Donne also wrote translations, epigrams, elegies, satires, among others.

John Donne converted to Anglicanism later in his life. By 1615 he became a priest because King James I ordered him to do so. Donne was a member of Parliament in 1601 and in 1614. He also spent a short time in prison because he married his wife, Anne More, without permission. They had twelve children.

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