Batter my heart, three-personed God

by John Donne

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What are the paradoxes in lines 13 and 14 of John Donne's "Batter my Heart"? What is God compared to in lines 1-4?

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The paradox of the final two lines of "Batter my Heart" is expressive of the Christian belief that freedom—the spiritual freedom of the soul that goes to heaven—is based on subservience to God. For one to be enthralled (which means "enslaved", at least figuratively) by God is considered a good thing, and to be "ravished" by God is to be made the spiritual equivalent of "chaste." As always, Donne delights in these violent apparent contradictions and in the use of sexual imagery in an unexpected context.

The opening four lines describe God as a kind of attacker already, "battering" Donne's heart relentlessly, and in lines 5-8 this is extended into the metaphor of God as an attacking army and Donne as a town which has been taken over by someone else ("usurped"). The next four lines (9-12) express the even more striking comparison that Donne is "betrothed" to God's "enemy," but that he wishes to be "divorced" and "imprisoned" by God. This then leads to the final couplet we've discussed.

In all of this the massive paradox at the center of Donne's thought is that of his resistance to God and his simultaneous wish to be captured by God. It's expressive of the idea of Original Sin and the concept that all people are inherently sinful and must overcome sin in order to find (or to be possessed, as Donne implies) by God. In one respect it is startlingly honest that Donne portrays a kind of reflexive opposition to God as his, Donne's, basic nature. At the same time one would think a more inherently devout person would not use these violent and sexual images in a religious context. In all of Donne's poems, both religious and secular, there is a kind of impudent defiance of polite norms. By our modern standards, Donne often shows little respect for women, and the metaphor of the speaker being "ravished" in this poem is unsettling, even though meant figuratively. As early as the 1940s, C.S. Lewis, in an essay on Donne, regarded Donne's attitude to women as backward even for the Elizabethan-Jacobean period, but at the same time referred to the "dazzling sublimity" of Donne's religious poems. This sonnet shows that both of Lewis's characterizations are valid.

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Lines 13 and 14 read as follows:

Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free, Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. 

There are two paradoxes here. The first is the impossible linkage of freedom and slavery ("enthrall"). The second is the linkage of sexual virtue and being ravished (raped, taken). You can't have both together in either case, but Donne is saying that the only way to be free and virtuous is to be enslaved and raped (or seduced) by God. The earlier sections are related here. Lines 5-8 discuss political freedom; lines 9-12 are full of vocabulary about sexual /romantic union.

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