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A Short Analysis of John Donne’s ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’

A reading of a classic Donne poem

‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’: a typically blunt and direct opening for a John Donne poem, from a poet who is renowned for his bluff, attention-grabbing opening lines. This poem, written using the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet form, sees Donne calling upon God to take hold of him and consume him, in a collection of images that are at once deeply spiritual and physically arresting.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

This is a remarkable sonnet because, although it was written after Donne’s confirmation as a priest in the Church of England, it is teeming with the same erotic language we find in his earlier ‘love sonnets’. This is the aspect of Donne which prefigures (and possibly influenced) a poet of 250 years later, the Victorian religious poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who often addresses God in the same breathless, excited way that we see in this sonnet. (Hopkins also favoured the sonnet form, as demonstrated by his most famous poem, ‘The Windhover’, as well as by many of his other best-loved poems.) Donne’s sonnet ends with a very daring declaration of desire that God ‘ravish’ him – much as he had longed for the women in his life to ravish him in his altogether more libertine youth.

Perhaps the best way to summarise and understand is to paraphrase. ‘Beat me into submission, God [who is ‘three-person’d’ because he is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit]; at the moment you merely try to persuade me, gently, to accept you into my heart. But in order to make me rise up and stand before you a new, devout man, use your power to break me and remould me into someone new. I am like a town that has been captured and long to let you, my saviour, in to reclaim me. But it’s no good, for my reason – which should act as your second-in-command within me and make me see sense, has been captured by the other side, and is ineffectual or else has proved a turncoat. Yet I do dearly love you, and would gladly accept your love, but I have been promised to the Devil; sever the ties between me and him, take me to you and lock me up, for [paradoxically] I will never be free unless you take me as your slave – I will never be pure unless you ravish me.’

Strong stuff, this – which, when paraphrased and put into modern-day language (with ‘thee’ replaced by ‘you’), only becomes all the more shocking as a holy poem. God is not only depicted as an almighty force, but is called upon to use his might and force to beat Donne into submission. Here is a man wanting to be treated mean to be kept keen: ‘Batter my heart’, with that opening trochee (in a poem that is largely written in iambic pentameter), sets the trend.

Donne piles on the verbs, especially in that first quatrain:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

This lexical volley – in the plainest possible sense, a verbal attack – conveys both Donne’s sense of urgency to be saved and embraced by God, and the force he acknowledges God to possess. The array of hard plosive sounds too, present in the b-words (batter, breathe, bend, break, blow, burn), as well as the internal rhymes (break/make, o’erthrow/force), half-rhymes (seek/break/make), and assonance (shine/rise) add to the feeling of inundation, of verbal assault, mimicking the hoped-for battering Donne hopes to receive from God.

‘Batter my heart’ is close to ‘break my heart’, but the paradox here – as in that final couplet – is that only through such ‘tough love’ will Donne’s heart be opened to the glory of God in a visceral and tangible way. He may be asking for heartbreak (and, even, to be ravished – suggesting sexual force and also, perhaps, sexual assault), but the irony is that only through such actions will God’s goodness reach Donne. In order for him to be remade, he must first be broken.

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Posted on March 23, 2017, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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