A Poetry Lesson: John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’

A close up of the hands of a blacksmith. The picture is black and white except for the glowing end of the iron which is rich with reds, oranges and yellows which contrast with the black of the anvil and hammer and the white of the hand. Dramatic and fiery!

This poem gives me the shivers. I always look forward to teaching it and watching my pupils appreciate John Donne’s brilliance as a poet. They also like its violence and rudeness; two qualities which usually appeal to a teenage audience.

If you look up The Metaphysicals in the poetic dictionary they pretty much define this movement as ‘in the style of John Donne’. George Herbert – whose mother was friends with Donne – was a great admirer, and one can see Donne’s influence in a number of Herbert’s poems.

Metaphysical poetry marked a change from the rather formal, courtly poetry of the Elizabethan court. The key features include: the fusion of intellect with emotion, rhythms which reflect natural speech patterns and often a direct and shocking opening – Donne’s rather startlingly anti-semetic poem which begins ‘Spit in my face, you Jewes’ is an example of this.

The Wikipedia entry on John Donne is good and fairly comprehensive, and you can also find a decent entry on him at the Poetry Foundation.

Born towards the end of the 16th century in 1572 Donne was an exact contemporary of Ben Jonson (satirical dramatist, and poet) whose style couldn’t have been more different.

Jonson was a more formal poet than Donne with a public style. Unlike Donne’s seemingly chaotic and intimate lyrics, Jonson wrote in a simple, unadorned – though highly polished – way. In fact Donne’s style so irritated Jonson he once said, ‘that Donne, for not keeping of accent (formal rhythm), deserved hanging’.

Bit harsh!

When Donne was a lad he wrote the most wonderfully rude, and flamboyant poems. All of them seemed to be designed to get women into bed.

Have a look at the gorgeously erotic ‘Elegy On His Mistress Going to Bed‘ where he urges her to take off all her clothes because ‘what needst thou hast more covering than a man?’

Cheeky!

A sketch of John Donne as a young man taken from a painting. It shows a romantic looking young man with full lips, a long nose and soulful eyes. He is dark with pale skin.

Donne was considered quite a hottie as a young man. By all accounts he spent most of his youth sleeping his way around London. In 1621, following the death of his beloved wife, Donne became Dean of St Paul’s and delivered fiery sermons to which people flocked. Particularly women!

Sonnet 14 is one of the Holy Sonnets Donne wrote later in life, having put his erotic love poetry behind him. Born a Catholic at a time when practising Catholicism was a crime, Donne struggled dreadfully with his faith. He converted to Church of England Protestantism but never shook off a sense of lack of self worth, citing the sins of his misspent youth.

In this sonnet Donne’s speaker is desperate. Crippled with sin, broken and weak, he begs for God to come and subdue him, ‘overthrow’ him, as he recognises he doesn’t have the strength to find God himself. Most striking of all, Donne uses the sonnet form. This would traditionally have been used to woo mistresses. With his use of violent and sexual imagery,  Donne would have shocked his reader rigid. The effect of using erotic vocabulary in a devotional lyric is dramatic and powerful..

Have a look…

Holy Sonnet XIV

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.

 Let’s look at the form to begin with. Here Donne uses the sonnet. At the most basic level you have two types of sonnet, the English (or Shakespearean) form and the Italian (or Petrarchan) form.

Both use iambic pentameter and both are 14 lines, but where the English sonnet is divided into three quatrains (four lines) and a rhyming couplet, the Italian divides into an ocatve (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines).

They also have different rhyme schemes. To find out more about sonnet forms and their rhyme schemes you look look at this website on ‘Basic Sonnet Forms‘. I can tell you that Donne has used the English sonnet form here. Unusually for him as he tends to like the Italian format. Let’s have a look at the first quatrain.

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.

Look at that beginning! ‘BATTER MY HEART’, he says. See how Donne has stressed the first syllable BATTer. It’s also a verb, and a violent one at that. Think about why he’s used ‘Batter’ rather than ‘hit’ or ‘smash’. ‘Batter’ has connotations of a powerful and destructive force. ‘Don’t knock on my heart,’ Donne says, ‘BATTER at the door.'(I should say ‘the speaker’ or ‘the voice of the poem’ here, but unless you’re studying this for GCSE or A level, ‘Donne’ is easier)

A late 16th early 17th century plate which is a line drawing showing a huge heart containing a door at which an angel is knocking.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

This 16th/17th century plate shows what an important role Jesus’s words had to the culture of the time. The passage from Revelations describing Jesus knocking at the door of the heart would have been familiar to Donne and his contemporaries. It’s a gentle and loving image.

But Donne isn’t having any of it. He doesn’t want Jesus to ‘knock’, ‘breathe’ or ‘shine’ on the door of his heart, he wants God to BATTER at the door. See how passive the verbs ‘breathe’ and ‘shine’  seem compared to ‘BATTER’!

Also note how bold Donne is being. Remember he is talking to God. The reader is placed in the position of (slightly uncomfortable) eavesdropper. Placing the verb at the beginning of a sentence turns it into an imperative, a command. Donne is ordering God to batter at his heart. We need to think about why this is? Why isn’t a ‘knock’ good enough for Donne?

The second half of the quatrain is equally imperious…

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

To begin with Donne uses a paradox. How can being overthrown allow you to rise? Metaphysical poets, especially Donne, love using paradoxes. Here the paradox is explained if we look at things spiritually. In order for Donne’s soul to be able to rise and be close to God he has to be physically thrown down. Forced into submission. Why? Let’s look at the end of that quatrain.

Donne asks God to ‘bend/ Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.’

I LOVE this line. Can you see how Donne has cast God here as a Blacksmith? And Donne is the iron? Listen to all those lovely plosive ‘B’ sounds!  ‘Your force’ is iambic (tee tum) and so is ‘to break’ (tee tum) but then POW! ‘Break’ ‘Blow’ ‘Burn’ are all heavily stressed. No iambic here. Donne applies equal stress to those three words and the alliteration of the ‘B’ sound makes it stand out even more.

Why does he do this? So you can hear – physically HEAR! – the hammer blows of the blacksmith as he works on the anvil. BANG BANG BANG! But why is Donne saying this?

Because he recognises he needs to be reforged, fundamentally changed, in order to be good enough to be with God. ‘Break’ the iron is broken into pieces, ‘Blow’ they are hammered down, ‘Burn’ they are melted, and then ‘made new’. The iron is melted and restructured to forge something fresh.

What a brilliantly dramatic way to convey the idea of deep, spiritual change, letting go of the sinner of the past. The use of the blacksmith imagery shows how traumatic and violent this process will be. But Donne is up for it. He is so weighed down by past sin he feels beyond help. He needs a powerful, and determined God to change him.

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.

In the second quatrain Donne shifts gears and introduces a new image or conceit (just means extended image). He compares his body and soul to a town which has been taken over by  the enemy. See how the iambic pentameter in the first line is disrupted by the comma causing a pause after the first syllable which leads to a stuttering, unsure effect.

This faltering continues in the next line with that despairing cry ‘but oh, to no end.’ He wants God to enter the town, but can’t do it. He admits that his ‘reason’ (or rationality) which is God’s ‘viceroy’ (which means an official who rules a place while true ruler is away)  should let God in and defend against enemies. But is ‘captiv’d’ and ‘untrue’. Donne cries out in despair that his whole being has been usurped by sin and the devil, locking God out.

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,

I love the beautiful simplicity in the first line of the quatrain. Look at it closely

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

You can really hear the anguish in the line and notice the rhythm which is fascinating. Rather than  using the iambic rhythm which would look like this: (ᶸ means unstressed, / means stressed)  ᶸ  / ᶸ / ᶸ / ᶸ / ᶸ / it looks something like this:

ᶸ / ᶸ ᶸ / ᶸ ᶸ / ᶸ ᶸ /

Isn’t that odd? to give it its technical name, I would say this line is an iamb followed by three anapaests. So: tee tum, tee tee tum, tee tee tum,  tee tee tum.

yet DEARly i LOVE you, and WOULD be lov’d FAIN

Can you see that? Sorry, it’s difficult to explain typing.

The reason? Well it’s because this is the heart of the poem. He loves God and dearly wants to be loved by God. That’s it. No need for elaboration and fancy imagery – that’s all. And the anapaest give the line a swinging, rising, hopeful feeling. Notice also it means there are two stresses on either side of the comma. This gives the line balance and security – it’s the core message of the poem. This form is in contrast to the rest of the sonnet.

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

The last three lines of the quatrain introduce the idea of betrothal or marriage. Donne moves onto another conceit, this time the metaphor of being married to Satan. Back he comes again with the imperatives- ‘Divorce me’ ‘Untie me’ ‘Break the knot’! He goes on to ask to be taken, ‘imprisoned’. Look at the last line – the rhythm is all over the place. It’s incredibly choppy.

Donne is giving up hope. His strength is faltering, he staggers – listen to the forlorn end of the line ‘for I…’ It’s a feminine ending – no stress on the last syllable so it floats up. Uncertainty and weakness dominate. We move from the the faltering, floating line of ‘For I…’ to…

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Donne continues the line with deep, deep sadness. He shall ‘never’ be free until God ‘enthralls’ him. ‘Enthrall’ comes from the Old Teutonic language ‘thrall’ meaning slave. So he asks God to enslave him so he can be free. Another clever paradox.

Then those, last, brutally shocking lines which mean: ‘I’ll never be pure unless you rape me.’

Blimey!

This is usually the point when the pupils look at each other and say, did she just say…?

Yes. Donne’s final, desperate request is for God to rape him. Talk about powerful.

The reason Donne uses such powerful and brutal language in this poem is to emphasise his sense of frailty. He feels poisoned and destroyed by the sins he has committed and is helpless. He simply cannot see any way he can find God unless God does something dramatic. FORCES Donne to come to him.

So what do you think of the ending? Is it hopeful? Will God be able to win the speaker round? I can’t help thinking the poem ends in such despair and anguish Donne must feel there is no hope. He knows he has to find God himself. It’s not God’s duty to come find him. And he knows he can’t do it. He’s too enamoured of sin.

What a poem, eh?

I’d LOVE to  know what you think of this poem. Leave a comment to tell me your thoughts.

 

PS My English teacher, the divine Mr B, always referred to this as ‘butter my buns’

 

 

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5 thoughts on “A Poetry Lesson: John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’

  1. Pingback: A Poetry Lesson: Miniatures and Sonnets – The Snapchats of the Renaissance – Middle-Aged Warrior

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