Thursday, 10 October 2013

'Holy Sonnet XIV' - A Brief Interpretation of Donne's Poem



Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knocke, 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,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved 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. 

During the time of composing this sonnet, John Donne was undergoing a particularly turbulent period of his life. He had recently converted from Catholicism to the Orthodox Church, and believed himself to be nearing his demise. As the shadow of death loomed over him, he grew uneasy about his future in the afterlife, and to make matters worse, his faith not only in God, but also his faith in himself, was dwindling.

Many scholars have concluded that, because he was writing these poems for no clear reason (they weren’t published), he was indeed attempting to send a message to God, and that he was being honest in what he wrote. It is unlikely that he would have shown these Holy Sonnets to his friends (as he did with his more witty poems). The poem is in the style of a prayer to God, and involves Donne’s constant pleading with him.

Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV is written in the typical style of a Shakespearean sonnet, with three quatrains, accompanied by a rhyming couplet at the end. Donne has attached a metaphor to each quatrain, and throughout the poem is beseeching God to revive his faith. In the first quatrain, Donne depicts God as a blacksmith. He begins his poem with the word ‘batter’. This trochee is emphatically placed to shock the reader, and it makes the line slightly disjointed. The use of a semi-colon and the comma (‘three person’d God; for, you’) makes the line yet more disjointed, as if his heart is being beaten. Furthermore the iambic metre is slightly lost, because the third foot (‘three pers…’) is not clearly stressed.

The use of asyndeton in the second line (‘knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;’) also implies repetitive, relentless hitting, which highlights God’s role as a blacksmith and his harsh treatment of Donne. Moreover, the syllables of the words ‘knocke, breathe, shine’ are all stressed, making the line more incoherent as a sonnet with an iambic metre. The syntax could suggest his inability to construct a scanning sonnet due to the dejected state he is in. The concept of God being a blacksmith is again hinted at by Donne’s lexical choice and his use of the words ‘knocke’, ‘shine’, and ‘mend’. It indicates that God is maltreating Donne (a piece of shining metal), and causing him pain by rejecting him.

He then goes on to turn the metaphor around, imploring God to help him, and make him new, as a blacksmith would. Donne is begging God to renew his own faith and trust in God, hoping that God will ‘bend’ and ‘burn’ him to change his beliefs. Additionally, the juxtaposition of the words ‘blow’ and ‘burn’ suggest blowing on a fire, thus elucidating the metaphor. Furthermore, the repetition of the ‘b’ sound here could symbolise the repeated pounding of a blacksmith.

The second metaphor begins with the emphatic placement of the word ‘I’, indicating that this metaphor is about himself. He goes on to describe how the devil has captured him by diminishing his faith, and he describes himself as an ‘usurpt towne, to’another due,’ with the other due being the devil. Donne wishes to accept the truth of God (‘Labour to admit you,’) however the devil (or in fact his reason and logic) will not allow him (‘but Oh, to no end’). Moreover, the trochee (‘Labour’) shows Donne’s desperation and want to let God in.

The town metaphor is continued when, using an imperative to emphasize his yearning, he writes ‘Reason your viceroy in mee.’ He is requesting that God appeal to a certain part of his brain to revive his own belief in the deity. However, Donne explains that the part of his brain that once believed in God is either ‘captiv’d’ or ‘proves weake or untrue.’ Ultimately, Donne’s logic is questioning his own beliefs.

The third and final quatrain focuses on marriage, and a huge amount of marital diction (words like ‘betroth’d’ and ‘divorce’) is employed by the writer to highlight this as the metaphor. There is a contrast between love and marriage created by the near juxtaposition of ‘loved’ and ‘betroth’d’ when he explains his dilemma. Although he loves God, he is married to the devil (God’s ‘enemie’), whom he does not love. The imperatives that Donne uses (‘Divorce’ and ‘Take’) are emphatically placed at the beginning of their respective lines. This continues the sense of pleading on the behalf on John Donne, and the melancholy tone causes the reader to feel sympathy for him.

At the crux of the poem, Donne employs a paradox when he writes ‘or break that knot againe;/take me to you, imprison mee.’ He is begging God to set him free from the grip of the devil, and thus imprisoning him in faith and belief in God. This paradox is sustained by Donne’s use of the words ‘never shall be free,’ indicating that unless God captures him and keeps him imprisoned, he will not be free to live his life. This is his ultimate plea to God to grant him faith. The tone of this final paragraph is very miserable, and the mood is made more melancholy by Donne’s view that his attempts are futile – he believes that God has rejected him.

He also, in a way, blackmails God into saving him when he says ‘Nor ever chast.’ He is implying that unless God saves him from the devil, he will forever be committing adultery (by loving God while being ‘betroth’d’ to the Devil), which is against The Decalogue. Finally, Donne ends his sonnet with a peculiar plea to God, begging him to ‘ravish’ him, which although can mean overwhelm or enrapture, can also be synonymous with rape. It is likely that this is not meant in an entirely sexual way, but that he wants to show his passion and emotion. He is asking God to physically overpower him, thus forgiving him for his past misdeeds, and he is begging the deity to come into him (demonstrated by the word ‘ravish’) to replace the devil. He wants God to show him that he does indeed love him.

Throughout the poem Donne is clearly pleading directly to God to set him free from the Devil, who is causing his faith to dwindle, and thus letting him regain his faith. However while he is writing his sonnet it is clear that Donne is also having a mental argument with himself. He wants to believe in God, but his mind and logic are telling him that God does not exist. Perhaps when Donne refers to the Devil, what he really means is his reason. He is therefore, terrified in the shadow of death, begging God to save him and set him free from his reason and logic. This in itself is a paradox: he is beseeching God, whom he is lacking belief in, to help him. This shows his failing health and disconsolate state in which he is in as death looms over him. Moreover, he believes that because of his change from Catholicism to Orthodox, and due to his past sins and misdeeds, God is now rejecting him, and that is the reason for his failing beliefs and capture by the devil. Donne illustrates his poetic expertise by using a number of metaphors and paradoxes in an attempt to be heard by God.

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