Interpretation of „Holy Sonnet 14 – Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you“
The 14th “Holy Sonnet” by John Donne, who lived from 1572 until 1631, was written around 1609, but it was not until after his death that his son published it in 1633. As one of the most acknowledged metaphysical poets, John Donne especially had a comeback by the publication of T.S Eliot’s essays “The Metaphysical Poets” and “Andrew Marvell” in 1921.
This essay will show how the lyric persona in “Holy Sonnet XIV” fully self-abandons himself with help of various stylistic devices.
The rhyme scheme of the “Holy Sonnet XIV” by John Donne is a Petrarchan sonnet form: abba abba cdcd ee. As it is common with sonnets in general the Sonnet’s rhythm is an iambic pentameter.
The Sonnet is addressed to God. The lyric persona turns to God directly and very intimately by his use of the informal “you” (l. 1) and “your” (l. 4) instead of the more commonly used “thou”, which also John Donne uses for example in the first line of “Holy Sonnet I” “Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?”. Also the lyric persona addresses the “three – person’d God” (l. 1), which includes the idea of trinity as “the union of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God” (“trinity” OED 1639). The lyric persona calls the addressee “three person’d God” (l.1). Due to this comment Lucio P. Ruotolo wrote a widely acknowledged essay “The Trinitarian Framework of Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV“.
In the “Holy Sonnet XIV” John Donne makes use of an overall metaphorical language. The metaphors depict the lyric persona’s willingness to an excessive submission to God’s will and actions. Firstly the lyric persona offers God to “batter (his) heart” (l. 1). As this is the first utterance or even wish expressed in the sonnet, it reveals the lyric persona’s feeling towards God and the impact on himself. The combination of “batter” and “heart”, as a symbol for love, depicts the ambiguity of the lyric persona’s feelings to God. On the one hand love is represented by the symbol of the heart but on the other hand God is allowed to hurt and this love violently by battering. Moreover the lyric persona’s demands God to “knocke, breathe, shine and seeke to mend” (l. 2) him, which points out his desire to be handled like a tool. He demotes himself. His trust in God’s words and “actions” tempt the lyric persona. God is a craftsman in this metaphor. The demand to “bend (his) force, to breake, blowe, burn and make (him) new” (l. 4) points out his hope of God’s impact on him. His demand equals a self-abandonment. The asyndeton “knocke, breathe, shine” (l. 2) and “break, blowe, burn” (l. 4) show the lyric persona’s hectic urgency to become a different person and to be united with God. Both requests “seeke to mend” and “make me new” describe the lyric person’s desire to get a new and his eyes better life. Both expressions indicate a discontentment with his current way of living. In the way of improvement the lyric persona wants to be passive while God actively improves and “mend(s)” him. The word choice describes a mending of a metal pan by a tinker. The lyric persona sees himself subordinate to God. He thinks it is necessary that God controls him. He requests God if he “may rise and stand” to “o’erthrow (him) and bend (his) force” (l. 3) on him. Consequently the lyric persona’s reception of God dwells on mightiness and omnipotence. Moreover he draws the image of a great warrior and dictator. In the simile “like an usurpt towne” (l. 5) the lyric persona continues the image of God as an emperor who occupies the lyric persona’s soul and heart. He is however “to’another due” (l. 5). This applies both to war and an alleged romantic relationship to the devil. In war his loyalty is still with former alliance. In marriage it is the promise to another person that stands for “another due” (l. 5). It does not matter if this one is a marriage - or in his case an engagement - or a military alliance that was consolidated before the lyric persona found to God.
The comparison of love and warfare is a kind of “Discordia concourse” as an implicit comparison of two themes with an opposite context. This conceit is one of the most salient figures of metaphysical poetry. John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet” is addressed to God. However the Sonnet is usually directed to the poet’s mistress. Explicitly the “Holy Sonnets” are a link between secular literature and the Sonnet form. So “John Donne shifte(s) from the hitherto primary subject, sexual love, to a (…) religious theme” (Abrams 336). The wit within the Sonnet identifies the poet John Donne as a metaphysical poet. The witty paradox and the ironic meaning of the whole Sonnet show his metaphysical conceit. The Sonnet is “sharply opposed to the rich mellifluousness and idealized view of human nature and of sexual love which had constituted a central tradition in Elizabethan poetry” (Abrams 192). The anthropology of Elizabethan literature is contrasted by the lyric persona himself whose character is depicted as self destructive and obsequious. Both characteristics counterpoint from the Elizabethan ideal of a Christian man. Nevertheless the lyric persona divulges himself like that to God. This witty comparison shows Donne’s metaphysical conceit. There is irony; the meaning of the Sonnet is opposite to what is said. The lyric persona is willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill his pursuit that God will reciprocate his love as a sacred action. On the other hand God is presented as a potential rapist, at least the offer is made to him: “nor ever chast, except you ravish me” (l. 14).
The use of warfare vocabulary stresses the struggle in which the lyric persona is situated. Furthermore the comparison to war shows his strife with God. To belong to God entirely, obstacles must be overcome. Like a victory in war does not come without a fight, he will not receive God’s love without struggles. Moreover the lyric persona endeavors to fight for God’s love. Doubts and temptation by the opponent, in his case the devil, follow both a warrior and a believing Christian. The lyric persona struggles with the decision he made in the past. Although he is resolute in his love to God, he is still “to another due” (l. 5). He is not certain about his faith to God, as he says he “proves weak and untrue” (l. 8). Nevertheless he is determined to turn to God as he assures in the Sonnet with his wish for divorce from the “enemie”. His love to God is compared to war. There is God on one side and temptation and sin on the other side. The metaphoric engagement to God’s “enemie” (l. 10), the devil, adds a romantic aspect to the delicate relationship of the lyric persona with both God and the devil. This metaphor indicates that in the past the lyric persona gave in to temptation. It stresses the sinfulness of his current way of living but also awareness of his faults. So the lyric persona shows willingness to get a new life: “divorce mee,’ unti, or break that knot againe.” (l. 11). This relationship to the devil however does not give him satisfaction, so he turns to God and confesses his love to him: “Yet dearely ‘I love you’, ‘and would be loved faine.” (l. 9). He desires a reciprocated love. His love to God is greater than his promise to the devil. So he wants God to “divorce (him), ‘untie, or break that knot againe” (l. 11). The rhyming couplet includes a paradox. The lyric persona ensures “for I / except you ‘enthrall mee, never shall be free / nor ever chast, except you ravish me.” (l. 12 ff). As the pursuit of freedom contradicts his offer to God to “enthrall” him, his promise to be “chast” contradicts his offer to God to “ravish” him. His pursuit of freedom and his promise just concern his mundane life. The lyric persona however leaves it to the divine power if his life on earth is worth those promises and pursuits or not. In the lyric persona’s point of view imprisonment by God does not preclude a free and self determined life. The ideal life follows the Words of God. So he is rather enthralled by him, so there is no big distance between them. Just the idea of ravishment by God is a provocative image. It shows how determined the lyric persona is, to be with God and experience his power and especially his love. The lyric persona argues that he cannot be free in his faith except he is captivated and guided by God. Besides the paradox, the order of the two phrases is similar in syntax but the sequence of the corresponding words is altered. This chiasmus reveals that both the lyric persona’s freedom and chastity are equally offered to God.
The Interjection “Oh” (l. 6) shows the lyric persona’s affectionate reasoning. It reveals a longing or even yearning for an eternal love: “to no end” (l. 6). Ironically just after the depiction of affection, the verb “reason” (l. 7) is mentioned. This reveals the ambiguity of the lyric persona’s love to God: in his eyes his desire is both passionate and reasonable.
Though the lyric persona gives examples of what is willing to do to be loved by God, he never states a reason why he loves God so “dearely” (l. 9). The lyric persona points out that God’s “viceroy” (l. 7) in him, is “Reason” (l. 7). Ironically he fails to use his moral reasoning powers given by God, since he is “betroth’d to (God’s) enemie” (l. 10), an engagement as something that does not happen over night.
Also the lyric persona is the only active person within the Sonnet. Neither God nor his “enemie” seem to actively impact the lyric persona’s actions, thoughts nor feelings as there is no active fight over the lyric persona’s love or any try to tempt him. The lyric persona describes himself as “an usurpt towne” (l. 5) and “captiv’d” (l. 8). Following the “fight” occurs within his mind while he tries to suppress his carnal nature. That is why he permits God to “knocke, breathe, shine” (l. 2) and “breake, blowe, burn” (l. 4) him in case he breaks his intention to “admit (him)” (l. 6) into his life.
Considering John Donne’s personal and professional history, “Holy Sonnet XIV” can also be seen as a personal processing with his own struggle with God and religion in general.
“Trinity.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Print.
Ruotolo, Lucio P. The Trinitarian Framework of Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1966), pp. 445-446