Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

The best way to understand Donne’s religious poetry is to consider each poem as part of a series of progressions of a man depraved by sin but relying on the grace of ‘1 16, in her numbering) can be divided into three meditative sequences. The first group of six has...

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The best way to understand Donne’s religious poetry is to consider each poem as part of a series of progressions of a man depraved by sin but relying on the grace of ‘1 16, in her numbering) can be divided into three meditative sequences. The first group of six has as a theme the end of time; the theme of the next six sonnets is the love of God for his creation; and the last four deal with sin and repentance. Gardner places “Batter my heart, three-personed God” as number ten of the series, the central sonnet on the love of God toward His creation, no matter how far man has wandered from the true way. (H. J. C. Grierson, the early compiler of Donne’s poetry, assigns number fourteen to this sonnet.)

The metaphors and similes in this sonnet present a Christian man unable to overcome his sinfulness by his own powers, thus underscoring the Christian tenets that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and that only God’s unlimiting grace suffices to save the sinner: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).

The paradoxes incorporated in the sonnet not only give an immediacy to the speaker’s dilemma but also mirror the paradoxical truths of the Christian faith. All the seeming contradictions testify that true spiritual life is only possible through death with Christ so that the Christian’s faith may grow to maturity: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

The sonnet is centered on the regeneration process, the “making new” of the soul so that God’s image may be restored. The passiveness of the sinner, emphasized by his anguished pleas that God begin the renewal process (“Batter my heart,” “o’erthrow me,” “Divorce me,” “imprison me,” “ravish me”), reinforces the Christian tenet that God’s grace alone can effect this regeneration.

Donne repeats the theme of regeneration through the violent actions of God on the sinful soul at the close of “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward.” In the same anguished but demanding voice, the speaker asks God to make him a new man: “Burn off my rusts, and my deformity,/ Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,/ That thou mayst know me, and I’ll turn my face.”

Although the speakers in Donne’s religious poetry express their depravity and their agony over personal salvation, “Batter my heart, three-personed God” stands as an eloquent and intense witness to the belief that through God’s grace the Christian soul can begin its journey of regeneration that will find its ultimate glorification in heaven.

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