Critics feel fairly certain that one group of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets was published in 1633, a collection that included “Batter My Heart,” sometimes listed as “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God.” It gained fame as a prime example of the style of Metaphysical Poets and Poetry with markedly unusual figurative language (figure of speech) or comparisons. Victorian readers found Donne’s comparison of God’s effect on his life to the violent act of ravishment, or rape, so disturbing that the poem basically disappeared from publishing until resurrected in the 20th century through the efforts of the poet T. S. Eliot and others. The sonnet’s hysterical tone grows from the tradition of meditation, which may be used as an emotional stimulus. Typical of Donne, he heavily emphasizes the first-person pronouns I and me, enabling readers to visualize the speaker’s involvement and the importance of the experience to him, while the strong but simple language does not distract the reader from the poem’s theme of the importance in the Christian life of total surrender to God. While critics including the Donne expert Helen Gardner insist that a true assessment of Donne’s “spiritual and moral achievement” may be gained only through his sermons, the sonnets best reveal his extreme capacity for passion and ecstasy.
From the opening line, “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” the reader understands the speaker does not seek a Christian God who is gentle or compassionate. The three persons referenced constitute the holy trinity composed of Christ the Son, the Holy Spirit, and God the Father, and the speaker commands that all three attack his heart, the term Batter suggesting repeated blows. That line contains a caesura due to the semicolon that follows the apostrophe to God then continues with enjambment into the second line: “for, you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.” This series of verbs reflects on various biblical characteristics of Christ, with knock representing a polite request to open a door. In Revelation 3:20 Christ states, in part, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him.” Donne will extend this conceit throughout the sonnet.
The speaker does not want his deity to hesitate at the door. He explains, using paradox, that in order for him to “ride, and stand,” God must “o’erthrow” him. As ore undergoing transformative purification into valuable metal, he needs God’s “force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Donne moves into one of his favorite metaphors, expressing a single being as a larger geographic expanse, as the speaker continues, “I, like an usurp’d town, to another due, / Labour to admit you.” He explains that another force has overtaken him, suggesting evil or the devil, and follows up on the previous reference to a knock on the door by stating he works to “admit” the deity, but to no avail: “but O, to no end.” Although logic should move him to act, “Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,” reason has been taken captive by the opposing force, “and proves weak or untrue.” The speaker offers a dual explanation for his incapacity to open the door to God’s gentle prod. His use of logic lacks strength or proves false, causing the speaker to be “betroth’d unto your enemy.” Here Donne compares the promise through law of a woman to a man to his promise to God’s “enemy,” or Satan. The comparison refl ects on the biblical comparison of Christ to a bridegroom, with the church his bride.
In the final four lines Donne builds to a mighty climax, avoiding the problem of a weak concluding couplet that some plagued some poets. He again turns to allusions to violence. Having introduced the idea of romantic love as a conceit, he extends that conceit, insisting that God “Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again.” By Jewish law an engagement proved as strong a bond as a marriage, and the betrothal “knot” that tied two people together could only be broken through a second decree of law, a divorce. The speaker then begins the three lines that depict one of the most violent of attacks, a rape, made clear through the use of “ravish”: “Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except you’enthral me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” What some readers have missed is that Donne produces a double paradox, equating imprisonment with freedom and chastity with the act of sex, quite obviously not making a literal suggestion. In addition to the shocking allusion to violence, that a male would assume the role of the female as an object of attack was even more unusual, a fact of interest to later feminist and psychoanalytic critics.
Such outlandish expression proved a hallmark of metaphysical writing, and Donne would be eventually recognized as the most skillful of those who attempted it. While several centuries had to pass before society embraced his expression as art in its purest form, Donne’s poetry at last received its due.
Gardner, Helen, ed. John Donne: The Divine Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.