Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God
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,
Labor 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 perhaps, the most famous of all the John Donne sonnets to be mentioned in popular culture in the last fifty years or so, because it has been taken over by evangelical Christians in this world of ours, to be something of a special poem, requesting something equally special from God.
Starting with the opening words, we see the request, presumably from the person who sees themselves as a sinner in need of a loving God, who is asking the Lord to do something more than usually happens in their communicative and prayerful lifestyle and relationship. This is a poem about relationship with God, how we can get close to the Lord our God in such a way as to feel the love that is supposed to exist there.
The poet asks, “Batter my heart,” which is suggestive of the fact that the person cannot get close to his belief of who and what God is, someone whose relationship has not been allowed to flourish yet and seeing as how any relationship is a two way affair of the heart, it is only right to think of a relationship with God in the same way. “Batter” is an interesting verb. It is not a soft dealing with God that he is asking for. It is not a tender thing he is asking for. This is a battering, a sense of destruction, where he is asking the Lord to destroy everything that gets in the way of what keeps him from getting that close to his Lord. He wants his heart battering into submission in such a way as to show that he has been changed from within.
As he is requesting this heart battering, itself the most famous line of this poem, he is also asking that God would “knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend” anything that hurts him, or gets in the way. Christians, you see, need to feel that it is God they are placing first in their lives. The first commandment, to love the Lord your God with all you have [Deuteronomy 5: Bible] is the key commandment. It is a case of God first. Others next. Ourselves last. It always has been and always shall be.
So, give my heart a battering, he is saying, and knock, shine and mend my heart. He is asking this so that he can then rise up from the ashes of his spiritual death he is in now, into the radiance that he believes he can and will find in a true and loving relationship with God. He knows the force which is needed to change him is massive. He knows that these words of strength; “break,” and “burn” are power words, the sort that paint a picture in the head of the reader to bring about a feeling of natural strength used in a supernatural way.
“Make me new,” he adds. He feels like he is a “usurped town,” which is an interesting use of the words and means that he feels like a town that has been captured and is in need of being rescued. He wants it that God is the one who does the rescuing. For this writer, this is the only option. When a Christian believer sees the extent of their wrong doing, or their sin as it is called, they then feel worthless in the sight of a holy God. As much as they “labour to admit” to the God that they love that they have done wrong, it never stops. That is the problem with sin and sinning; it keeps on happening, but here, the poet is asking God to mould him, make him, bend him, break him and bring him into something new, something great for God. It is the Christian’s prayer of confession and supplication all rolled into one, which is why, for a believer like me, this poem is oh so special.
Notice too that he uses reason in his poem as a tool, for change and for the better. “Reason,” he argues, is God’s “viceroy” in him, which should defend all things good. A viceroy is someone who runs a country on behalf of someone else and the country in question is Donne’s bruised and weary spirit. So the metaphor here is of the spirit, that he should really defend with regular, daily bible readings, moments of prayer; communing with God more, but he doesn’t, like so many of us, do it enough, so he feels as if he has to summon God to ask him to force him to his knees in fervent repentance [saying sorry for the things you have done wrong].
But his soul, his spirit, is “captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue” so he cannot control it. St. Paul, in the Bible, adds something to this, when he [and this is my paraphrase] says that there is a good that we should do but we do not do and a bad that we enter into that we should avoid. We have all been there; should I do this even though I know it is wrong? This is Donne’s dilemma and ours, so here is a man who is almost on his knees in fervent prayer, saying to God, “Come God, enter my heart and change me from within.” He is asking for the kind of change that he believes, at the time of writing, when Christian beliefs were more accepted than they are now, is permanent and lasting. As a Christian myself, I know how hard it is to keep to the track you feel is the right way in life. Sometimes, that track is narrow and I use the Robert Frost poem to describe my difficult walk, by saying that there are two paths and one is the one “less travelled by” and the other one not. I usually end up on the wrong one and get into bother. It seems Donne is the same.
This is what Donne is saying in this poem. He is stating the obvious, in a way, that we are all the same, that whatever we do, whether or not we know it is right or wrong, we do it and then we regret it.
He dearly loves the Lord his God. He says that plainly when he utters those words: “Yet dearly I love you and would be lov’d fain,” or loved back. But he also feels as if he is “betroth’d unto [God’s] enemy;” the Devil himself. When you think of the things that you do each day, those bad things, they tend to eat at you. This man clearly has a troubled conscience and he is unable to get rid of the fact that he is so bad, or at least, feels as if he is. So he is now asking God to “divorce” him from, or to “untie or break” the bonds that keep them apart from each other.
This is a love poem to God, from a penitent sinner. “Take me to you, imprison me,” he asks, imploring God to take him and do something with him to make him good once again. What he fails to realise at the time, is that biblically, if he has repented, which is what this poem is, then God has forgiven him, because that is what he does, always, but he cannot feel or believe that yet and that is something that at the time, the church would not let their believers feel with the relative ease of today.
The last two lines or so are, for me, extra special, as a believer myself. He says, “I, except you enthrall me, never shall be free” from the snares of the sinful mind. However he tries to turn away, he cannot break free. If only he can find a way, he is thinking, then he will break free from all this bad stuff in his life. He would even be “chaste,” which is an old word, or archaism, for being sexually inactive. But God, he asks, do something with me. “Ravish me,” even, he asks, which is a sexually provocative word in any age or era and one that brings images of love making to the mind of the reader. He wants the throes of passion that can be had in relationship with and in the presence of the holy God. He wants the passion of faith; real faith. He wants the passion in life, to enjoy life more. He wants what it says in John’s gospel, “life in all its abundance.” (John 10:10)
I wonder whether or not he was in a depressive state when he wrote this poem. As sonnets go, it is up there with Sonnet 18 and Rossetti’s’ lovely poems of love and for a believer, it is the best leveled prayer to God to change a person from within that has ever been written, which is why I love this poem so much.