John Donne: Poems Summary and Analysis
by John Donne
Holy Sonnet 14, "Batter my heart"
The speaker asks God to intensify the effort to restore the speaker’s soul. Knocking at the door is not enough; God should overthrow him like a besieged town. His own reason has not been enough either, and he has engaged himself to God’s enemy. He asks God to break the knots holding him back, imprisoning him in order to free him, and taking him by force in order to purify him.
In his holy sonnets, Donne blends elements of the Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet with the English (Shakespearean) sonnet. Here he begins in the Italian form abba abba, but his concluding idea in the third quatrain bleeds over into the rhyming couplet (cdcd cc) that completes the poem.
The poet begins by asking God to increase the strength of divine force to win over the poet’s soul. He requests, “Batter my heart” (line 1), metaphorically indicating that he wants God to use force to assault his heart, like battering down a door. Thus far, God has only knocked, following the scriptural idea that God knocks and each person must let him in, yet this has not worked sufficiently for the poet. Simply to “mend” or “shine” him up is not drastic enough; instead God should take him by “force, to break, blow, burn” in order to help him “stand” and be made “new” (lines 3-4). This request indicates that the speaker considers his soul or heart too badly damaged or too sinful to be reparable; instead, God must re-create him to make him what he needs to be. The paradox is that he must be overthrown like a town in order to rise stronger.
Indeed, the second quatrain begins with that metaphor, with the speaker now an “usurp’d town” that owes its allegiance or “due” to someone else (line 5). He is frustrated that his reason, God’s “viceroy” in the town of his soul, is captive to other forces (such as worldly desire) and is failing to persuade him to leave his sins behind.
The poet then moves from the political to the personal in the last six lines. He loves God, but he is “betroth’d unto [God’s] enemy” (line 9), the Satanic desires of the selfish heart (if not the devil himself). He seeks God’s help to achieve the “divorce” from his sinful nature and break the marriage “knot” (lines 10-11). In the final couplet, he gives voice to the paradox of faith: the speaker can only be free if he is enthralled by God (line 13), and he can only be chaste and pure if God ravishes him (line 14).
The poet uses this dissonance of ideas to point out just how holy—in this case, otherworldly and spiritual in a carnal world—God truly is. In other words, a relationship with God requires being reborn and rebuilt from the ground up, in but not of the world.
Finally, since the speaker here suggests being in the female role of betrothal and ravishment (a city too tends to be coded as female), we once again see that the speaker is putting himself in the position of the Christian church generally. In the New Testament, the church is metaphorically said to be married to God. Can it be that, in Donne’s eyes, the church still needs to be utterly reformed, even after the Reformation?
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