The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

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“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 “spirit” literally means “breathe”; the words also allude to God’s spirit breathing over the waters in Genesis); “shine” and “burn” belong to God the Son (incorporating a pun: Christ is both Son and sun). Each subsequent verb used in the verb pairs likewise adds an urgency to the speaker’s pleas. It is not enough for God to mend the sinner; the sinner needs the more violent approach of total annihilation and remaking.

The next four lines focus on the depraved state of the speaker, who has been taken over by the Devil (the “another” in line 5). Even reason, the manifestation of God’s wisdom in man, is captured by the enemy and unable to lead the sinner back to God.

In lines 9 through 12, the speaker admits his love for God but confesses that he has espoused sin (Satan, God’s enemy). Repeating the trinity of supplicating verbs, “Divorce,” “untie,” and “break,” he begs God to divorce him from his relation with sin and to release him from his pact with the Devil.

The couplet brings his petitions to a violent close; the speaker demands that God rape him so that he can be pure.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

This sonnet employs metaphor and simile, the figurative language of comparison, to illustrate the anguished state of the speaker and his desire to free soul, mind, and body from the captivity of sin. The force of the comparison lies in its power to surprise and instruct by yoking distinctly different ideas or images together.

Donne’s power to startle by pairing disparate ideas and images in his metaphors and similes is one of the hallmarks of his strong poetic voice; his figurative language asks from the reader a bold leap in imagination and involves a mental translation that often brings a deeper understanding of the theme of the particular lines. The metaphors and similes in “Batter my heart” are no exception.

In the first four lines, the Trinity is metaphorically compared with a tinker, or metalsmith, who, instead of trying to patch the kettle (the sinner), is asked to create a new kettle by completely destroying the old.

The comparison in lines 5 through 8, this time a simile, focuses on the sinner himself. He is like a town that has been unlawfully taken (usurped) by the Devil. The reasoning power of his mind, likened to God’s governor, is also captured and unable to break the bonds of captivity. Although God is outside the gate, the sinner is too weak to hear God’s knocking: “Behold I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).

Donne switches back to metaphor in lines 9 through 14, and anchors the relationship of Christ as bridegroom and the Christian as bride in a series of comparisons that are both disturbingly violent and openly sexual. The speaker explains his dilemma: He loves Christ but is engaged to the Devil. He (although a feminine speaker is implied) begs for a release from this relationship. In the last two lines, Donne stretches the tenuous link in the comparison to its breaking point when he asks Christ to rape him so that his soul can be free: “Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

In addition to metaphor and simile, Donne employs paradox (a seemingly contradictory statement) to add compression and precision to the poem. Donne cannot express the religious truths imbedded in the poem any other way without distorting them. Christianity itself is built upon the paradox that Christ died in order to restore life to those who believe, and that believers need to emulate this death: “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 17:25).

Donne echoes this basic paradox, in his own forcible way, when the speaker claims that only by death to sin can he rise with Christ (“That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me”), that only through imprisonment by God can the soul be freed of sin and Satan (“for I/ Except you enthral me, never shall be free”), and that only by using the extreme image of a violent rape by Christ can the sinner obtain a virginal soul.

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