Batter my heart, three-personed God

by John Donne

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John Donne's sonnet Batter My Heart has a central violent metaphor or a fight or a rape. Why would that be used to accommodate the religious theme?

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If one is to have any hope of seriously understanding John Donne’s sonnet Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God, one has to be familiar with Donne’s life and the times in which he lived.  Batter My Heart is replete with violent, sexual imagery.  Donne lived during a time of great religious turbulence in his native England, born soon after the reign of Henry VIII, who had, for entirely un-Catholic reasons, ordered the transformation of England from Catholicism to Protestantism.  Raised and educated by Jesuits, an increasingly dangerous background in a brutally anti-Catholic environment, Donne struggled with the theological tenets of religion while pursuing a decidedly actively sexual existence.  His controversial marriage to Anne More, scion of a prominent family – she was Sir Thomas More’s great-niece – further alienated Donne from the powerful forces opposed to Catholicism.  Donne had a reputation for philandering, and conceived 12 children with Anne, many of whom died young or at childbirth, including the twelfth, with Anne dying soon after their final child’s death.  Within this context, one can analyze Donne’s sonnet.

Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God reflects the emotional and intellectual struggles of a man who has suffered – as Donne did, having spent time in a medieval prison for the offence of marrying Anne without permission – and found difficult, as many have, the problem of reconciling Church doctrines with the realities of everyday existence.  Now, the question suggests reference to a “fight or rape.”  Neither of these is probably what Donne intended as his meaning.  Rather, his sonnet is more specific to the internal struggles over his relationship to God.  The “three-personed God” to which he refers (“Batter my heart, three-person'd God”), of course, is the Holy Trinity.  He is appealing to God to help him with his internal battle for redemption and for reconciliation with religion.  The following lines:

“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.”

reflect Donne’s plea to be taken and shaped anew so that he might find the true path and the peace that entails.  The most controversial lines in this poem – controversial because the meaning of “your enemy” is uncertain -- suggest the struggle involves Satan:

“Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,

But am betroth'd unto your enemy;”

That Donne employs, in the poem’s final lines, imagery that can easily be interpreted as sexual and submissive in nature (“Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”) is consistent both with the author’s theological conflicts and with his sexual proclivities.  Donne is almost certainly not referencing sexual violence, but is employing sexual imagery in trying to resolve his personal struggles with religion.

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