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John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV

John Donne's early poems focus on secular topics, while his Holy Sonnets enlighten and enliven the beautiful tradition in spiritual writing.

John Donne

Introduction and Text of Holy Sonnet XIV

"Three-person'd God" refers to the Holy Trinity. The reality of God can be understood as a unified trinity: 1. There is God outside of Creation, residing in the vibrationless realm; 2. There is God within Creation, Whose only reflection exists as the Christ-Consciousness; 3. There is God as the vibratory force itself. These three qualities are expressed in Christianity as "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and in Hinduism as "Sat-Tat-Aum."

The speaker in this widely anthologized sonnet from John Donne's classic work, The Holy Sonnets, continues to muse about the status of his soul. He knows that he is near death, and he desires to mitigate as many of his former sins as possible in order for his post-death situation to herald a pleasant reality. The speaker remains dedicated to one goal—a beautiful unity with his Divine Creator.

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,
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.

Reading of Holy Sonnet XIV

Commentary

The speaker is continuing his struggle for eternal peace and tranquility after passing a rather chaotic existence in his younger days. He regrets his many transgression and seeks lasting forgiveness from his Creator.

First Quatrain: Knocking at the Heart's Door

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.

The speaker addresses his Creator-Father as the Holy Trinity; he makes this all-inclusive address, in order to intensify his request. Thus he is appealing to each quality (or "person") of the Trinity or "three-person'd God."

The speaker then proclaims that thus far his beloved Father has been attempting to gain his child's attention by knocking at the door of his heart. But the speaker now begs for the Blessed Lord to knock harder, even "batter" down that door, if necessary.

The speaker wishes to become new, and he believes his current situation must be utterly destroyed in order for that newness to take hold. He colorfully implores his Creator-God to shatter his being—"break, blow, burn"—so that this poor child may become "new."

Second Quatrain: A Devastated, Conquered Town

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.

The speaker then colorfully likens himself to a town that has "usurp'd." That conquerered town thus owes allegiance to its captors. He works hard at allowing the Lord to usurp him but still he does not find that he is successful.

The speaker takes all the blame on himself that he has not been completely dominated by God, Whom he adores but still remains too "weak or untrue" to be able to prove that deep love and affection.

Third Quatrain: Confession of Divine Love

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,

Then the speaker openly confesses his love—"dearly I love you"—and would gladly be loved. But the speaker then shockingly admits that he is still too closely allied with "your enemy." Of course, the speaker fights this enemy non-stop. This satanic force has driven the speaker to commit his unspeakable, adulterous acts that now stifle his spiritual progress.

The speaker pleads again for his Lord to separate Himself from the speaker but then "take me to you." He begs to be imprisoned by the Lord. His exaggerated effusions continue to reveal the excited state from which the speaker reports. He feels that his desire to taken into the Lord's possession must first be preceded by utter departure from the Presence.

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The Couplet: To Become New

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The speaker then utters the truth that he shall never "be free" or ever find purity without the intersession of his Creator. He begs to be changed in heart and mind, so that his perfect soul qualities may blossom forth.

The speaker, therefore, continues to entreat his Divine Beloved to make him new. Because he believes that such an act requires a catastrophic act to accomplish, he is begging that he be utterly destroyed and then recreated by his Divine Beloved Creator, Who fathers all His children in His own image.

John Donne - Monumental Effigy

Reading of "Death's Duel"

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the theme of the Sonnet XIV by John Donne?

Answer: The sonnet is essentially a prayer whose theme focuses on the issue of forgiveness and redemption.

Question: What images and figures of speech are in John Donne's poem "Holy Sonnet XIV"?

Answer: The ethereal nature of the sonnet renders it impervious to images, but here a some of the main figures:

Metaphor and Personification: "Batter my heart, three-person'd God" -

The personification of "God" metaphorically suggests the Ultimate Force may be thought of as a human person.

Simile: "I, like an usurp't town"

Metaphors: "Reason, your viceroy" "imprison me" "except you ravish me"

Extended metaphors: "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"

Question: Is John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV a Shakespeare or Petrarchan sonnet?

Answer: English, aka, Shakespearean sonnet

Question: What is the meter of the Sonnet XIV by John Donne?

Answer: The meter is iambic pentameter.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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