John Donne's Holy Sonnet XIV

Updated on November 9, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

John Donne

Source

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 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.

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

Source

Life Sketch of John Donne

During the historical period that anti-Catholicism was gaining steam in England, John Donne was born to a wealthy Catholic family on June 19, 1572. John's father, John Donne, Sr., was a prosperous iron worker. His mother was related to Sir Thomas More; her father was the playwright, John Heywood. The junior Donne's father died in 1576, when the future poet was only four years old, leaving not only the mother and son but two other children that the mother then struggled to raise.

When John was 11 years old, he and his younger brother Henry began school at Hart Hall at Oxford University. John Donne continued to study at Hart Hall for three years, and he then enrolled at Cambridge University. Donne refused to take the mandated supremacy oath that declared the King (Henry VIII) as head of the church, a state of affairs abominable to devout Catholics. Because of this refusal, Donne was not allowed to graduate. He then studied law through a membership at Thavies Inn and Lincoln's Inn. The influence of the Jesuits remained with Donne throughout his student days.

A Question of Faith

Donne began to question his Catholicism after his brother Henry died in prison. The brother had been arrested and sent to prison for aiding a Catholic priest. Donne's first collection of poems titled Satires addresses the issue of the efficacy of faith. During the same period, he composed his love/lust poems, Songs and Sonnets, from which many of his most widely anthologized poems are taken; for example, "The Apparition," "The Flea," and "The Indifferent."

John Donne, going by the moniker of "Jack," spent a chunk of his youth, and a healthy portion of an inherited fortune, on travel and womanizing. He traveled with Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex on a naval expedition to Cádiz, Spain. He later traveled with another expedition to the Azores, which inspired his work, "The Calm." After returning to England, Donne accepted a position as private secretary to Thomas Egerton, whose station was Lord Keeper of the Great Seal.

Marriage to Anne More

In 1601, Donne secretly married Anne More, who was but 17 years old at the time. This marriage effectively ended Donne's career in government positions. The girl's father conspired to have Donne thrown in prison along with Donne's fellow compatriots who assisted Donne in keeping secret his courtship with Anne. After losing his job, Donne remained unemployed for about a decade, causing a struggle with poverty for his family, which ultimately grew to include twelve children.

Donne had renounced his Catholic faith, and he was persuaded to enter the ministry under James I, after having achieved a doctorate of divinity from Lincoln's Inn and Cambridge. Although he had practiced law for several years, his family remained living at the substance level. Taking the position of Royal Chaplain, it seemed that life for the Donne's was improving, but then Anne died on August 15, 1617, after giving birth to their twelfth child.

Poems of Faith

For Donne's poetry, his wife's death exerted a strong influence. He then began to write his poems of faith, collected in The Holy Sonnets, including "Hymn to God the Father," "Batter my heart, three-person’d God," and "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee," three of the most widely anthologized holy sonnets.

Donne also composed a collection of private meditations, published in 1624 as Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. This collection features"Meditation 17," from which his most famous quotations have been taken, such as "No man is an island" as well as "Therefore, send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee."

In 1624, Donne was assigned to serve as vicar of St Dunstan's-in-the-West, and he continued to serve as a minister until his death on March 31, 1631. Interestingly, it has been thought that he preached his own funeral sermon, "Death's Duel," only a few weeks before his death.

Reading of "Death's Duel"

Questions & Answers

  • What is the theme of the Sonnet XIV by John Donne?

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

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

    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"

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

    English, aka, Shakespearean sonnet

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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