Poem with Michaels footnotes and commentary:
HOLY SONNETS - XIV
1Batter my heart, 2three-person'd God; for you
As yet but 3knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
4That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an 5usurp'd town, to another 6due,
7Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
8Reason, your 9viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved 10fain,
But am 11betroth'd unto your enemy;
12Divorce me, untie, or 13break that knot again,
Take me to you, 14imprison me, for I,
15Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever 16chaste, except you 17ravish me.
18Michael’s Concluding Note and Personal Summary
1. ‘Batter my heart’ declares the theme of this whole poem, namely, to be completely disassembled and made new. This is an admission of a once lovely little ego that had hardened into a fixed adult persona. This old self or heart no longer worked and it appeared that it was coming down only by force.
2. ‘three-person'd God’ is a reference to the Christian Trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), probably using the plurality to admit the necessity of more than one being needed to enter his stubborn heart.
3. Donne felt the gentle knocking of God at his heart to enter and make him a new man. The whisper of a breath, a gentle shining light, and mending of wounds are all wonderful, maybe even preferred experiences by most spiritual programs. But it is not enough.
4. The aim of this ‘breaking and burning’ is that the poet may ‘rise and stand’. The poet brilliantly states the aim of rising and standing again and anew at the beginning of this line as if to let God, and the reader, know he is not a spiritual sadomasochist. The imagery of the incinerated
5. “Usurp’d town” is a poetic version of ‘usurped’ which means to seize, commandeer, grab, or capture. This is an image of a large, fortified city being assailed by a powerful king who uses all weapons.
6. ‘To another due’ refers to a town that has signed a treaty to pay taxes and give to the king what is due.
7. ‘I labour to admit you’ suggests that the town (man) works to do the right thing, to surrender, pay taxes, etc., but finds his natural inclination is to keep it all for himself. ‘To no end’ means he has seen over and over that human effort to surrender control has not worked.
8. ‘Reason’ should understand and defend God as the true Ruler. But Reason all too often becomes the ego’s rational mind which justifies rebellion, excuses selfishness, blames others for problems, justifies inappropriate behaviors and uses all sorts of mental chess to avoid surrender is the King of the city (ego). In a soul-making paradigm, this is exactly what Reason is supposed to do. This rational resistance against the Higher Self creates a Being, a Human Being, that cannot be created in any other way, producing a unique creature in the cosmos that wills to power, and then expands by surrendering that will. It is a sort of spiritual isometrics – the power of the joint and muscle are increased by working against an immovable force or opposed by resistance.
9. A viceroy is a royal official who governs a country or province in the name of and as representative of the Monarch. Donne recognizes that he is not the King of the city, but an appointed caretaker who rules under the authority and guidance of the Monarch. But even as the viceroy, Reason fails to defend and submit to God.
10. ‘Fain’ is an old word that meant gladly willing, eagerly desirous, happy to comply. In this line he acknowledges the psychic paradox of wanting to rebel and have his own way while simultaneously being deeply desirous of receiving and basking in the love of God. Traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin explains this by the Fall of Adam which made humans entirely responsible for this innate rebellion. Soul-making and Depth Psychology explain this innate human resistance and struggle as a normal, necessary developmental feature of the human psyche. As another Romantic poet, William Blake wrote, “There is no progression without opposites.”
11. Betrothed means engaged to be married, and in some cultures is practically a synonym as it seems here. Donne recognizes he is wedded to his ego, in love with his own self obsessed, self centered ego-persona. This enemy was also symbolized by the Christian images of the power hungry Devil, the World of prestige by appearances, and his own fleshly sensory drive for pleasure.
12. Using another metaphor for capitulation to becoming his whole Self, he begs God to divorce him from the enemy. He recognizes that he is not capable in his own strength to effect such a break. He must have God’s grace and power to escape the allure of the old persona. Psyche can confuse humans because we often simultaneously seek security and renovation. This is normal.
13. This cutting the thread has happened more than once. Donne recognizes that we keep going back to that old, abusive lover. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “God ties us to Himself by a very long string. We keep cutting the string, and he keeps retying it. Each time we cut the string and he reties it, we get closer to Him.”
14. He uses two metaphors here, ‘imprison’ and ‘enthrall’. They are similar in that each conjures up the image of being forced to remain in place. But enthralls, appearing as a sort of correction, amplification or modification of ‘imprison’ means to mesmerize, enchant, charm, seduce and fascinate. He asks God to make Himself more alluring than self obsession and self centeredness. This is what happens in spiritual evolution – we move from knowing what is right, to loving what is right.
15. ‘Except you shall enthrall (seduce) me’ recognizes the irony of wanting God and yet avoiding God. True freedom is in God, not in self. He has already recognized that Reason and will power will not work. The human psyche has been given the experiences of the God qualities of power, prestige and pleasure contained in a little ego-self. They are deliciously enjoyable, but apart from the Source, there is never complete freedom and satisfaction.
16. Chastity is purity or virtue. Here it is way more than sexual. It is what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
17. This idea of being ravished by God is very Rumi-esque, if you are familiar with the Persian poet. Donne knows that chastity or godly virtue is impossible without being ravished or seduced by God’s larger Reality. The word ‘ravish’ is etymologically related to the word ‘rape’, hearkening back to the original motif in this poem of God’s battering, breaking down the walls, burning the old city, overthrowing, laboring, divorcing from the old partner, and imprisoning the poet. This image brings up the Greek Rape of Persephone which is often viewed negatively. However, as with all morally neutral myths, the symbology may also remind us that sometimes the God/Gods (Psyche) take us from our field of flowers and sun by force, plummeting us into a dark Underworld where we make larger souls through what we call depression, sadness, loneliness, alienation and the loss of people, places and stuff.
18. The goal of this poem is a prayer to be made new by whatever means possible (lines 3-4). I could and probably should stop there, for that is the point. But I, like most writers, rarely stop where I should.
This poem captures me at a time in my life where I am genuinely tired of the old ego citadel which once gave so much pleasure and satisfaction, and was simply familiar and comfortable when it was giving me misery and despair. As Donne says in line 11, this citadel has been captured, or old lover divorced, many times over the years, but I keep going back. That is normal and part of the process in a soul-making universe. Donne recognizes that life on this planet is so arranged that these old selves rarely disappear without a struggle. He, unlike the Hebrew Job, is asking to be dismantled, willing to lose fortune, family, health or whatever it takes to know the Infinite. This is not easy stuff or to be taken lightly. Few of us are in this place. My twenty five year old son was killed in
The goal of this poem is a prayer to be made new by whatever means possible (lines 3-4).