See Poem and talk below:
Sonnet #14 by John Donne (1572-1631)
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 unsurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captive’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be love’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.
Welcome to 12th grade English. We’re going to talk about Holy Sonnet 14 by John Donne, usually titled by it’s first three words: Batter My Heart. There’s a copy in your bulletin.
I have never been (so far anyway) a religious person in the ordinary sense of the word. In all the 38 years I taught, often in schools with religious affiliations, I never went to church or chapel if I didn’t have to (I often had to). I was never anti-religious or scornful of religious persons, but it just wasn’t my thing. If pressed, I would described myself as an agnostic — someone who reserves judgment on most religious topics: maybe there’s a God who takes an interest in humans, and maybe there isn’t; I just don’t know.
However, I could quite honestly tell my students that this poem (along with a couple by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and maybe a few others) helped me to get inside the head of someone who is religious. I don’t mean to say that all religious persons think or feel alike, only that John Donne is one I think I understand. I hope that some of my students came to understand this point of view too.
John Donne wasn’t always a religious person. Au contraire. In fact, in the canon of English literature, there are two John Donnes. The young John Donne was one of the cavalier poets. These were young intellectuals who hung out in coffee houses and taverns, drinking, gambling, and wenching. Donne inherited a considerable fortune and spent it all in a few years of this kind of life. Some of his pals you might recognize: Robert Herrick, Sir John Suckling, Richard Lovelace, Edward Herbert. They wrote very clever, often very racy poems about, mostly, love. Donne wrote some excellent poems in this genre some of which I could even assign my students.
One of the trademarks of the cavalier poets was what is called a “metaphysical conceit.” These were paradoxes comparing things that no would ever think could be compared. For example, imagine a bunch of guys sitting around a tavern and somebody says, “Bet you can’t write a love poem about a flea.” Donne wrote a poem called “The Flea” in which he imagines a flea biting both himself and his mistress, combining in its body both of their bloods, and he says there’s no shame in that union, so . . . .. In another poem, “The Sun Rising,” Donne makes lovers’ bed the whole world. The sun disturbs their lovemaking, and Donne tells the sun to go away and continue on around the world. Come back tomorrow. The poem ends:
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls thy sphere.
I think that’s enough for church, but remember the idea of a “conceit” when we look at Batter My Heart.
The older John Donne was an Anglican minister, ordained in the Church of England and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Later in his life he wrote a series of Meditations. You probably know the one that goes:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Read Batter My Heart
The main idea is in the first four lines. Donne is not satisfied with his religious conversion — and remember he was pretty bad as a young man. So far, God has only tried to mend him. Donne wants a more complete makeover. Look at the metaphor in the second line: “For you / as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.” The image is someone just cleaning up and making minor repairs, perhaps to a piece of jewelry. Not good enough. Look at the metaphor in the fourth line: break, blow, burn, and make me new. This is a blacksmith breaking up an old iron tool, heating it in a forge, and hammering out a new tool. Knock (tap) is compared to break; breathe to a blacksmith’s bellows; shine is compared to burn; and of course mend is compared to “make me new.”
The third line is a lot like the metaphysical conceits I mentioned before. “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me.” I can’t stand up unless you first knock me down. The point is that Donne feels himself helpless to “fix” himself. God has to do that, even if it’s against Donne’s own (weak) human will.
The next stanza is a complicated metaphor in which Donne compare’s himself to a town captured by a foreign invader (the Devil). Donne wants to let the rightful ruler (God) into himself, but he can’t. Reason (logic) which should support God, is weak and working for the Devil. Not to belabor the point, but that’s just the kind of complicated construction the cavalier poets would love (if not the subject).
Next three lines are a new twist on the same kind of idea: Donne loves God, but finds himself married to the Devil. He can’t free himself, and wants God to get him a divorce from the Devil — perhaps rid him of the sinful impulses (not necessarily actions) over which he himself has insufficient control.
The last three lines have three more “conceits.” Donne can’t really be free unless God (1) “imprisons” him, or (2) makes him God’s slave. The last line is pretty harsh. “Ravish” means “rape.” Donne can’t be pure unless God forces his love upon him. A perfect paradox. The cavalier poets would love it.
The common thread in all of this is that the makeover Donne wishes for can’t be done without God’s help. Donne, no matter how much he might wish to be a better person (a better Christian), is powerless to be what he thinks he should be. Remember that this is spoken by an Anglican minister and the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The poem means much more when you understand that young John Donne spent a lot of his life giving in to temptations, and perhaps is still tempted.
We pray, “Lead us not into temptations, but deliver us from evil.” Donne takes the idea step further: “Break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Make me a temptation-proof me.