John Donne. Religious Poetry
Holy Sonnet (Batter my Heart)
by Ian Mackean
Batter my heart, three person'd God; for you
John Donne (1572-1631) was the main practitioner of Metaphysical poetry. He made his name as a love poet, his imagery often being passionate and sensuous, but later turned his talents to religious poems, hymns and sermons. In his religious verse he used the same techniques he had developed in his love poetry. In this essay I shall examine two of his religious poems, 'Holy Sonnet (Batter my Heart)', and 'A Hymn to God the Father.'
The essential similarity between these poems is that they are both religious, in both the poet is addressing himself directly to God, and in both the address is colloquial in style. The main difference is in the type of feeling expressed by the poet. 'Batter my Heart' is an impassioned, desperate plea for God to make his presence felt. 'A Hymn to God the Father' is a calm, serene, hymn requesting and expecting forgiveness. Both poems imply that Man is a humble inadequate sinner whose duty is to serve an omnipotent God.
Characteristically of Donne, 'Batter my Heart' opens with a dramatic exclamation:
Batter my heart, three person'd God
The force of this opening line is maintained throughout the poem, right to the last line with its 'you ravish mee'. The rhythm is an insistent hammering and the images are nearly all of violent action. The explosive 'B' of the opening word is continued in the alliteration of lines 3 and 4:
. . . and bend
your force, to breake, blowe, burn . . .
The poem is written in the imperative tense, yet the reader does not get the impression that Donne actually has the power to command God. Donne is begging for action to be done against himself, thus implying the superiority of God and maximising the intensity of the plea.
The main idea behind the poem is Donne's desperate struggle to be at one with God; he feels he is losing the battle. He depicts the bonds preventing him from doing God's will through images of war, sex, and marriage.
I, like an usurpt towne . . .
Reason, your viceroy in mee, mee should defend, . . .
But is captived . . .
I . . . am betroth'd unto your enemie
Divorce mee . . .
Donne's imagery conveys the idea that the forces which bind him are not only very powerful but also deeply personal. To be 'betroth'd' to the devil implies a deep involvement. He pleads with God to apply his will with the same dual qualities - intense and personal. He wants to experience God's presence with the intensity of 'break, blow, burn' and with the personal involvement implied by 'imprison', 'enthrall', and 'ravish'.
. . . imprison me, for I
Except you 'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
These lines contain characteristic Donne conceits; he cannot be free until he is imprisoned, or chaste until he is ravished.
'A Hymn to God the Father' is a much more peaceful poem. It has a free-flowing regular rhythm, which reflects the easy acceptance of God's will implied by the poem, and which, as a hymn, would make it easy for the congregation to sing. The rhythm is rigidly repeated throughout the three verses. Words and phrases are also repeated, emphasising the singleness of purpose behind the words. For example the phrase 'wilt thou forgive' occurs four times in the first two verses.
The argument contains a characteristic Donne conceit, in:
When thou hast done, thou hast not done.
This line also contains a pun on 'done' / 'Donne', both the conceit and the pun conveying humility. Another pun occurs in verse three with 'sun' / 'son'. These devices add a characteristic touch of wit to the work.
Despite the personal reference in the pun on 'Donne', and despite also being written as a first-person address, this poem is not so personal as 'Batter my Heart'. Where 'Batter my Heart' expresses a complex agonising personal struggle, 'A Hymn to God the Father' expresses a simpler universal notion which all Christians can share. This is a quality essential for a hymn. The congregation can easily share the sentiments of 'A Hymn to God the Father', but 'Batter my Heart' is appropriate to Donne alone.
'Batter my Heart' follows the typical Metaphysical form of a logical argument. In this case, however, the argument does not really progress but serves to reinforce and explain the demand made in the opening line.
There is Metaphysical logic in 'A Hymn to God the Father' in the repeated line:
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.
Unlike the arguments in most Metaphysical poetry the motive behind the words is not persuasion but self confession, but the logic is brought to a conclusion in the final verse with:
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I have no more.
This conclusion represents a projection into the ultimate state every Christian wants to achieve, peace and forgiveness after death, and should serve as inspiration to the congregation singing the hymn.
The Metaphysical Poets. Ed. Helen Gardner. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1957 (revised 1972)
John Donne. Love Poetry
John Donne. A Valediction: of Weeping and A Valediction: forbidding mourning. Metaphysical Love Poems
John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan: Religious Metaphysical poetry
© Ian Mackean, March 2007