Table of Contents
Batter My Heart or Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne
usurp’d : taken through force or rebellion
viceroy: governor; ruling power
labour: work, energy
betroth’d : promised to marry
chaste: innocent, pure
ravish: seize or rape
to no end: without success
This is one of the most famous poems of Donne. Its theme is bondage to sin. It says that God alone can deliver a person from bondage to sin. The poem is therefore cast as a prayer to the Triune God to enter the battle of the Speaker against Satan and deliver him. At one point, it appears that the speaker is talking about conversion and at another point about sanctification. But the overarching concept of deliverance from
Sin and Satan are large enough to cover both of them. The poem expresses the desire to be free from sin.
This is a vintage Donne poem in the energy of its actions and the fireworks of its figurative language. Donne loved the more intellectual figures of speech like the far-fetched comparison between two ostensibly dissimilar things and paradox (which requires a reader to find truth in an apparent contradiction).
The thought pattern in this sonnet falls into three parts, which largely supersede the units of the sonnet form. Lines 1 – 4 are a petitionary prayer for God to remake the speaker (encapsulated in the final petition of line 4 – “make me new”). Lines 5–10 drop the petitionary mode and declare the speaker’s current state of spiritual bondage; the simile “like an usurped town” (line 5) sums up this movement of the poem. In
lines 11 – 14, the speaker returns to the petitionary mode, with the prayer “take me to you” (line 12) being a summary of these lines.
The image patterns in the poem also override the units of the sonnet format and only partly correspond to the topical units noted above.
The images (e.g. verbs) in the first four lines derive from the work of a metal tinker as it mends pots and pans. The frame of reference in lines 5–8 is military and political, with references to the besieged area, the “viceroy,” the security, the captivity, the “weak” and the “untrue” (transition word to the next unit dealing with love relations). Lines 9 to the middle of line 12 use the imagery of the relationship of marriage: “Dearly I love,” “Would be lovéd,” “Betrothed,” “Divorce,” “Untie, or break the knot,” and “Take me to you.” The next line and a half take their frame of reference from imprisonment, and the last line is erotic in their imagery.
It is in the essence of poetry to speak a language of analogy (metaphor and simile) and, as always, Donne throws himself into the business with zeal.
Paradox is prevalent in the poem. To be able to stand, the speaker needs to be overthrown (line 3). He can not be free unless he is punished by God (lines 12-13). He will never be pure in his devotion to God until he is seized or raped (lines 14). It is, of course, the reader’s job to overcome the obvious inconsistency in these paradoxes.
The model on which Donne builds his striking poem is the biblical psalm of lamentation. As in the psalms of lamentation, the speaker complains that God is not doing enough in the current crisis (e.g. he is attempting to mend a plan that needs to be fully recast). The key part of the psalm of lamentation is the poet’s drawing of an extended picture of the crisis, and this is what Donne does in this poem. The general thrust of the lament psalm is to pray to God to solve a dilemma that the speaker can not solve.
Lines 9 through 11 demand unpacking. The speaker loves God but is married to Satan (the “enemy” of line 10) against his will. The speaker asks God to divorce him from Satan and to break the “knot” of marriage (as in our metaphor of “tying the knot” in marriage).
Questions and Answers
1. What is the irony in the speaker’s request?
The speaker is asking for God to batter and beat him, to break, blow, and burn him, and to rape him in order to make him a better person.
2. What metaphors and similes are used by the speaker in the poem? What effect/purpose do they have on the poem’s tone?
The poem has several comparisons: the speaker compares himself to a “usurp’d town,” a maiden bound to the enemy, and a prisoner. The comparisons create an image of God as an overwhelming, terror-filling conqueror.
3. The fifth line of the poem contains what poetic sound device?
The repetition of the ‘u’ sound in “usurp’d” and “due” is an example of assonance.
4. What are the contradictory feelings that exist within the speaker of this poem?
The speaker loves God and willingly works hard to be worthy of His goodness. However, he is also aware that he is “weak or untrue.” He feels imprisoned by God, since he “never shall be free,” but is simultaneously “enthrall[ed], ” stating “you ravish me.”