Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne

Painting of the young Donne, c. 1595. Artist unknown.

It seems remiss on my part that I’ve written nine poem essays for this site so far and not one of them has been about John Donne. After all, Donne is one of my favorite poets, and one of the writers who got me interested in poetry in the first place.

It’s almost as if there are two John Donnes: there’s the—ahem—eager young poet who wrote racy seduction ballads and there’s the sober old minister examining himself and his conscience before a terrifying though merciful God. Even more fascinating than the fact that this contrast exists in the same poet is when the two personalities overlap, as they do in Holy Sonnet XIV, otherwise known as “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”:

Batter my heart, three-person’d 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 usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d 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.

From the very first word, this poem already has a loud, brash sound that distinguishes it from most of the other Holy Sonnets, and from most sonnets in general: “BATT-er my HEART three-PERson’d GOD.” Not only is he changing the traditional sonnet meter, but the particular word he uses is almost onomatopoeic—itΒ sounds like something or someone being hit.

In an essay on Holy Sonnet XIV, Professor John Alba Cutler notes that the words “knock, breathe, shine” could be viewed as references to all three persons of the Trinity: “the Father knocks at the door, the Holy Spirit is the breath of life, and the Son (pun on ‘sun’) shines.” This sounds like a valid interpretation to me, though my first impression was that “knock” referred to the Son, while “shine” referred to the Father. “Knock,” for me, calls to mind Christ’s words to the backslidden church of Laodicea in the Book of Revelation, chapter 3: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (English Standard Version). As for “shine,” the Old Testament is full of passages which describe the face of God as “shining.” To this day, one of the traditional Jewish blessings begins “May the Lord bless and keep you, may the Lord make his face to shine upon you,” repeating the words of Numbers chapter 6. That said, the Son/sun pun does seem like something Donne would write. I do think that either interpretation is valid. The main point that Donne wants to emphasize is that so far the whole power of the Trinity has tried to win him back to God, but through the gentlest means possible.

In line 4, the same operations appear again, but in a more intense form: “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Don’t just knock on my door, he says to God, break it down. Don’t just caress me with your wind, blow me over. Don’t just shine on me, burn me with your ferocity. He cries out for a more intense experience of God, even if that experience destroys him.

In his later years, Donne identified strongly with St. Augustine, another writer who repented of his misspent youth and wrote passionately about his relationship to God. (Artist: Fra Angelico)

The next two lines are a little odd in that they combine some unlike imagery: “I, like a usurp’d town to another due, / Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end.” “Usurp’d town” describes Donne’s struggle against sin in terms of war, picturing his soul as a city that the enemy has invaded and occupied. The next line, however, brings to my mind ideas of childbirth: “Labour to admit you.” The new man, the new, holy John Donne, is trying to be born, but cannot while sin oppresses him. Here, the first of many times in this poem, Donne casts himself as a helpless woman and God as the strong man who protects her.

King James I, the Protestant monarch who encouraged Donne to enter the ministry after he converted. (Artist: John de Critz)

In lines 7 and 8: “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend / But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.” Here, I think we can see some influence of the Protestant Reformation on John Donne. Donne had been raised in a Catholic family, but by the time he wrote the Holy Sonnets in the early 1600s, he was in the process of converting to the Anglican church, where he would eventually serve as a minister until his death in 1631. One of the main issues that divided Catholics and Protestants was the issue of church authority. To give a very brief summary, the Catholic Church believed that the responsibility for interpreting Scripture and setting church doctrine and practices laid in a combination of the Bible, church tradition, and a rigid hierarchy of priests, deacons, bishops, and archbishops. The Reformers disagreed. According to Reformation scholar Steven Lawson, the Reformers taught that “There are only three possible forms of spiritual authority. First, there is the authority of the Lord and His written revelation. Second, there is the authority of the church and its leaders. Third, there is the authority of human reason.” The Reformers believed that reason was given to men by God so that they could rightly discern his will and learn his commandments. However, they did not discount the possibility that reason too could be corrupted by sin and lead the Christian astray, as Donne writes about here.

Returning to the war imagery of a few lines ago, Donne writes that he is “betroth’d unto your enemy.” Once again, Donne is the helpless woman, carried away like a prize and in need of a rescuer. The last four lines, easily the most famous in the poem, make up a sort of wild, desperate plea to have God take total possession of him, to “imprison” him if need be, and even to “ravish” him:

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.

It’s a bold choice to write about the Lord Almighty that way, but Donne had his reasons. Pointing to the examples of love poetry found in the Bible’s Song of Songs, he once preached in a sermon, “Solomon, whose disposition was amorous, and excessive in the love of women, when he turn’d to God, he departed not utterly from his old phrase and language, but having put a new, and a spiritual tincture, and form and habit into all his thoughts, and words, he conveys all his loving approaches to God, and all God’s answers to his amorous soul….” Donne believed, like King Solomon, that effusive, even erotic, language was not for the domain of worldly poetry only, but could even be applied to God Himself. If we truly love God beyond all other people and things, then we should not be afraid to express that love in the strongest and most passionate language possible.

Donne’s “funeral portrait.” He supposedly posed for this engraving wearing only his funeral shroud and kept the portrait on his bedside table for the remainder of his life. (Artist: Martin Droeshout)

And that gets to the heart of one of the main reasons why I love this poem, and Donne’s poetry overall: there is an absolute fearlessness in the way Donne writes. There’s a sense of daring in his form, language, and even in the subject matter. Where other writers may hold the reader at arm’s length, he instead invites us into his heart, into the center of his struggle to overcome sin and accept grace. There’s a vulnerability to what he writes, but also an endlessly inventive wit that is surprising—and maybe a little bit shocking—even today. There is simply no one else like him.

6 thoughts on “Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne

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