Sample Academic Writing
The Tension between Assault and Salvation in John Donne’s
Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God
By Anna Greeley
April 25, 2014
Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person'd God
By John Donne
1 Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
2 As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
3 That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
4 Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
5 I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
6 Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
7 Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
8 But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
9 Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
10 But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
11 Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
12 Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
13 Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
14 Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. (Holy 2014)
The God of the Old Testament seems nasty and vindictive to the modern eye. He appears violent, destructive, and merciless. Even Christians who claim to love God sometimes cling to the Jesus of the New Testament and turn their minds away from the acts of decimation performed in ancient days. But when a soul sinks into despair and sin—when temptation is all he can see and life is lived in complete bondage—a Warrior God is needed. John Donne gives voice to the sinner’s broken impotence and longing in his sonnet, “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” His poem is a master-weaving of figures of speech, word choice, literary device, metric, and passion; in it, Donne uses form and technical matters to create and sustain a tension in the reader that mirrors the tension of the poem’s speaker as he is torn between two suitors: God and Satan.
The most obvious level of tension in the poem is at the level of word choice. Donne peppers his poem with metaphors of battle, linking salvation to images of captivity, seduction, and rape. Nearly every line pummels the reader with words like batter, bend, o’erthrow, divorce,
imprison, and even ravish. Donne presents the speaker  as promised in marriage to Satan or fleshly living (10). The only two lines that do not contain violent words help describe the need for violence in the others. In line 2, Donne shows that God has been gentle to him thus far—entirely too gentle. God has been like a kind and beautiful visitor in his life: one who is greatly longed for, but who does not defend Donne against his other suitors/temptations. Line 9 is perhaps the most striking and important in the whole poem. Though it contains no violence, it shows a deep, wounded longing: Donne loves this Visitor and would willingly, eagerly accept love from Him, but feels trapped in illicit thrall to his own fleshly passions. Line 9 is the turn in the sonnet, and it lives up to its name. Its yearning drives the language from violence into something even more shocking: rape.
Donne’s word choice in line 14, “ravish,” has many denotations. To “seize and carry off” points back to the stated desire to be taken and imprisoned. To “force (a woman or girl) to have sexual intercourse against her will,” takes that imagery further and shows the desperate nature of Donne’s feelings of fleshly weakness. The word can also mean “to fill (someone) with intense delight; enrapture” (Ravish 2002, 1135). This meaning is drawn out by the word “enthrall” in line 13. Because Donne is betrothed to the Enemy (10), extreme measures are needed from his desired Beloved. He wants God to take him as his prisoner, seduce him, and fill him forcibly. These words are not usually used to describe a holy God, and they work to put the reader off-center.
1. Because it is possible that the poem describes Donne’s own feelings in his fight against temptation (Stephen 1899, 600), the speaker will be referred to as Donne himself.
Donne does not leave his attack strategy to the meanings and connotations of words, but also chooses them for the violence they create in the mouth. He picks harsh sounds and places them against each other metrically (with accented syllables touching) to batter the reader. The phrase, “yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend” (2) contains both cacophony (hear the repetition of “t” and “k” sounds) and clusters of stressed sounds (“knock,” “breathe,” and “shine” are all stressed). Cacophony can cause the reader to trip over words, but, in pairing it with alliteration as Donne has here, these devices come together to speed up the pace of the poem. This is one more example of the way Donne uses opposing forces to create a response in the reader that mirrors the message of the poem: a passionate pulling in two directions.
Other tensions arise at the introduction of euphony and assonance. Donne uses these devices sparingly to slow the reader in two places. The first, in lines 7-8, is curious because the content here seems no different from the rest of the poem. Possibly, the slowing of pace exists to give the reader a chance to understand the line itself. Because of the forced rhyme at the end, a slow reading is necessary to perceive the correct meaning (Reason, personified, is evidence of God’s stamp on human life, and he should, like the Warrior God Donne entreats, rise up to defend Donne. However, because Donne’s flesh is weak, this intended protective measure fails). Possibly the slowing is intended to lead up to the incredibly poignant and crushing turn at line 9, which is the only instance of euphony (or may only seem euphonious at the sudden pause in the poem’s onslaught of cacophony). The words at the poem’s turn are simple, unforced, uncreative, and pleasing to the ear. Whatever its cause, the slowing of pace in lines 7-9 creates a lull to allow for the reader to agonize over and identify with the content here: a raw, unadorned, and heart-wrenching pleading. The reader is only given a short break before Donne resumes his attack. Cacophony, quick pacing, and words of violence begin again and carry throughout the remainder of the poem. This coincides with a resumption of the speaker’s desperate pleas to be conquered.
Though the English sonnet was an extremely common poetic form in Donne’s time, Donne uses even the form of his poem to contribute to its tonal desire for submission. The sonnet is rigid and formulaic, but Donne uses rebellious metric choices to build tension in the poem. Because Donne adds trips and shouts (in clusters of unstressed or stressed syllables together), the poem moves along quickly and creates a sense of impassioned spontaneity. He also uses slant rhyme in lines 10 and 12, rhyming “enemy” with “I”. The word “enemy” actually rhymes with the end words in the closing couplet: “free” and “me.” Linking these three words both bends the rules (adding to the tension between rigid formality and perversion that permeates the poem) and shows a connection between the words. It expresses Donne’s desire to be free from the Enemy through the working of his ravishing, enthralling Suitor-Savior.
The tension and passion in Donne’s poem bring to mind the tensions that eventually confront every human being: the pull toward evil, and a countering desire to submit to a powerful Good. Donne presents a considerable moral quandary, but refrains from referring to it in moral tones. In this way, his poem becomes a tuning fork and a lightning rod, resounding powerfully with every reader who has known the despair of bondage, and yet pointing the reader toward the only cure for his condition: a God wild enough to conquer every stronghold, and loving enough to do so.
“Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Accessed April 25, 2014.
“Ravish.” The Oxford College Dictionary. New York: Spark Publishing (2002).
Stephen, Leslie. “John Donne.” The National Review 40, no 202 (1889): 595-613.