The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Batter my heart, three-personed God” is a sonnet, a short lyric poem of fourteen lines. In the Renaissance, two kinds of sonnets were popular. The Shakespearean, or English, sonnet has three quatrains, rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, and a final couplet, rhyming gg, which usually contains a short statement of the theme. The Petrarchan, or Italian, sonnet is divided into an octave rhyming abbaabba, and a sestet rhyming cdecde; the sestet moves from the questions, causes, or complaints presented in the octave to answers, effects, or resolutions.

John Donne combines both forms in his Holy Sonnet sequence; his octave uses the abbaabba rhyme scheme of the Italian sonnet, while his sestet rhymes cdcdee, the rhyme scheme of the English sonnet. The couplet usually contains a thematic affirmation of man’s sinfulness and God’s love for humanity.

The poem uses a first-person narrator. This speaker (not necessarily Donne) is a Christian man trying to come to terms with his own unworthiness in the face of God’s never-ending love. In the first four lines, the anguished speaker begs God to make him a new man. He calls God a “three-personed God” and uses a parallel series of verbs to reflect the three persons of the Trinity. “Knock” and “break” belong to God the Father (representing power); “breathe” and “blow” belong to the Holy Spirit (the Latin root of...

(The entire section is 423 words.)