Batter my heart, three-personed God

by John Donne

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 710

“Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God” is one of nineteen sonnets that Donne wrote after taking orders in the Anglican Church. Earlier in his life, before his marriage and ordination, he wrote some fifty-five poems published in Songs and Sonnets, but none of these is technically a sonnet. The latter sonnets that he wrote as an Anglican priest, however, are true sonnets, and they display Donne’s continuing love of wit and paradoxes but also his deepening concern about his relationship to God.

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“Batter My Heart, Three-Personed God” is a fairly typical sonnet. It has fourteen lines, and the metrical scheme is iambic pentameter, five feet to a line; each foot contains an unstressed and a stressed syllable. The rhyme scheme is abba, abba, cdcd, ee, not the only sonnet rhyme sequence but a common one. The poem, typical of many sonnets, is made up of an octet: The first eight lines have the same rhyme scheme and develop a single image, in this poem, the image of a city under siege. The last six lines form a sestet, the first four lines having a consistent rhyme scheme and their own image, that of a marital relationship. The last two lines of the sestet form a couplet; they rhyme with each other and bring together the thought of the octet and the sestet.

As Donne matured and as his image changed from that of Jack Donne, man-about-town, to that of John Donne, dean of St. Paul’s, his poetry also changed, as this poem shows. After he took Holy Orders, he directed his love poetry not to women but to God. He tempered the sardonic indifference of some of his earlier poetry with the submissiveness of faith, and the shocking conceits of his earlier writing soften. Yet his intellect remains as vigorous as ever, and his witty imagery and love of paradox still characterize his poetry.

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The seemingly impatient, boundless energy of Donne’s mind continues to erupt in his later poetry. Disdaining connectives and transition, it abruptly expresses itself in verb after strong verb. Thus, Donne complains in this poem that until now God has been content to “knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend,” but Donne desires God to “overthrow, and bend . . . to breake, blowe, burn, and make me new.” These lines record a writer trying in his poetry to keep up with, to describe, somehow, the passionate, scintillating images that tumble from his mind.

The witty imagery of this poem, like much of Donne’s work, is built upon paradox, not a surprising development when one couples Donne’s seemingly innate love of paradox with the emphasis on paradox in the Christian tradition to which Donne turned. Donne’s plea, for example, for God to overthrow him so he may stand, to enthrall him so he may be free, echoes the Christian ideas that the way up to God leads down, that one must lose one’s self in order to find one’s self, and that one must die to live. His appeal to God to ravish him so that he may be chaste recalls the paradox of Mary, the virgin Mother of God. Just as in the sex act the partner may aggressively surrender, so Donne “labors to admit” God. Ultimately, one finds in this poem a passionate yet reasoned attempt to resolve the Christian dilemma articulated by Saint Paul, who found himself doing not the good that he wanted to do but the evil that he did not want to do. Donne wants to be loved by God, but he finds himself “betroth’d” to God’s enemy, Satan.

In this poem, however, unlike earlier poems, the metaphors do not shock; they are fairly standard in Christian writing in the seventeenth century. Nor is it Donne’s argumentative wit, but perhaps the honesty of his depiction of the ongoing struggle between his body and his soul, that attracts. Vividly dramatized is his commitment to faith—his “captiv’d” reason is useless to him. The poem raises the question of whether the poetry of the dean of St. Paul’s is as good as the poetry of Jack Donne, but it settles once and for all Donne’s commitment to religion as a way of life.

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