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Batter My Heart

Metaphysical poetry is known for the unlikely combinations it plays with to explore complicated philosophical themes. The English poet John Donne's (1572–1631) 'Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God' (1633), as a metaphysical poem, is no exception. The poem explores the speaker's complex feelings towards their Christian faith through the lens of sex and violence. We will explore the meaning and themes of the poem.

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Batter My Heart

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Metaphysical poetry is known for the unlikely combinations it plays with to explore complicated philosophical themes. The English poet John Donne's (1572–1631) 'Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God' (1633), as a metaphysical poem, is no exception. The poem explores the speaker's complex feelings towards their Christian faith through the lens of sex and violence. We will explore the meaning and themes of the poem.

Batter My Heart, content warning due to themes of sexual violence in the article, StudySmarter

John Donne's 'Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God'

Otherwise known as 'Holy Sonnet XIV', 'Batter My Heart' is a poem from John Donne's 1633 collection of Divine Meditations or Holy Sonnets published two years after his death.

Task: when you read through the poem below, note down your first impressions of the poem, including its structure, key themes, and poetic devices before we go through them together.

Batter My Heart, Three Person'd God

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.

'Batter My Heart': Overview

Here's a handy overview of the poem's key aspects before we move on to a more detailed analysis.

Title'Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God'
AuthorJohn Donne (1572–1631)
Publication1633 in the Poems poetry collection
StyleMetaphysical poem; Petrarchan sonnet
StructureOne stanza containing 14 lines
Rhyme schemeABBAABBACDCDEE
Key themesReligious struggle; redemption
Poetic devicesSimile; metaphysical conceit; paradox

If you've tried to identify the rhyme scheme yourself, you may be confused about why 'Enemy' (line 10) and 'I' (line 12) have been identified as rhyming words. This is because, where and when the poem was written, these two words would have sounded much more similar than they do now.

'Batter My Heart' as a metaphysical poem

Along with other poets such as Andrew Marvell and George Herbert, John Donne is a prominent writer of metaphysical poetry.

Metaphysical poetry: poetry written by a collection of 17th-century poets whose works explored deeply philosophical topics using witty and complex metaphors (otherwise known as 'metaphysical conceits'), loose meter, and an expressive tone.

'Batter My Heart' is a clear example of metaphysical poetry due to:

  • Its focus on the topics of love, religion, and morality from a Christian perspective
  • Its expressive, pleading tone.
  • Its use of metaphysical conceits, including the comparison between God's power and sexual violence.
  • Its loose meter that roughly follows iambic pentameter.

Iambic pentameter: when a line of poetry contains five sets of stressed and unstressed syllables

'Batter | my heart, | three-pers | on'd God, | for you' (line 1)

'Batter My Heart': Summary

Because the poem is similar to a Petrarchan sonnet, let's divide it into an octave and a sestet to go through step by step.

Petrarchan sonnet: a type of sonnet popularised by the Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304–74) that:

  • Consists of 14 lines.
  • Is usually written in iambic pentameter (where each line of poetry is made up of five sets of stressed and unstressed syllables).
  • Is divided into an octave (an eight-line stanza) and a sestet (a six-line stanza)
  • Contains a volta (a change of tone or idea in the poem)

Food for thought: literary scholars are divided on 'Batter My Heart's style as, although it resembles a Petrarchan sonnet, it does not perfectly match. For some, the poem doesn't follow a traditional sonnet style. For others, it is a Petrarchan sonnet, but it deviates slightly to reflect the more organic expression of emotion. What do you think?

The octave (lines 1–8)

In the first line, the speaker asks a 'three-person'd God', referring to the Holy Trinity, to take them over, beat them up, fix them, and mould them into something new.

The Holy Trinity: the unity of the tripartite (three-parts) god in Christian theology consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This may seem pretty radical, but the speaker feels that this is necessary for them to 'rise and stand' (line 3). Until now, God has been too gentle and, like a seized or 'usurp'd town' (line 5), the speaker has already been taken over by another enemy force – which we can assume is the Devil.

The speaker really wants to let God in and has put in the labour to do so, but it's just not working out. Although God has put a 'viceroy' (line 7) of reason into the speaker, it is just too weak to escape imprisonment by the other stronger, unnamed force.

Viceroy: an authority figure who rules a territory in the name of a supreme ruler, such as a monarch.

Batter My Heart, a black and white image of prison bars, StudySmarterFig 1 - In 'Batter My Heart', the speaker asks to be freed from the enemy force that leads them astray from God.

The sestet (lines 9–14)

The sestet begins with a volta, signalled by the word 'Yet' (line 9). The volta indicates a change in tone as the speaker swears their love for God, despite the fact that they've been driven astray. However, this change to a positive note lasts only one line.

In the following line, the speaker exclaims that they are doomed to sin because they took the wrong path, and are now 'betroth'd' (married) to God's enemy, the Devil, and it is not in their power to escape. Because of this, they plead with God to break this bond with a divorce by untying or breaking the marriage knot.

In the final three lines, the speaker goes to new extremes and asks God to use violence, including sexual violence, to set them free. The speaker states that they will never be redeemed and made 'chaste' (line 14) or pure unless God enthralls (captivates or captures) and ravishes (has sex with; takes by force) them (lines 13–14).

'Batter My Heart': Figure of Speech

Metaphysical poets such as John Donne are known for their extensive use of figures of speech in their poetry.

Figure of speech: when language is used in a non-literal way for rhetorical effect.

In 'Batter My Heart', these figures of speech include simile, metaphysical conceit, and paradox.

Simile

In 'Batter My Heart', the speaker uses similes to try and put into words how dominated they feel by the temptation to sin.

Simile: a comparison drawn between two things using the words 'as' or 'like'.

'I, like an usurp'd town to another due' (line 5)

The speaker also uses a simile to emphasise how this situation isn't their fault. By describing themselves as a conquered territory, the speaker shifts the responsibility for their current separation from God from themselves to a dominating external force.

Metaphysical conceit

The speaker introduces a metaphysical conceit as they describe their devotion to religion (or lack of it) as a marriage contract.

Although the speaker wants to be in a relationship with God, they are already 'betroth'd' (line 10) or engaged to marry God's enemy. The only way for this promise to be broken is if God takes the speaker back by force.

Paradox

The speaker wants conflicting, paradoxical things throughout 'Batter My Heart' in order to become closer to God.

Paradox: something that contradicts what we know to be true by bringing together opposite or seemingly incompatible qualities

'Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me' (lines 12–14)

In the final three lines, and especially the final couplet, the poem uses paradoxes. The first paradox is that the speaker wants God to imprison them in order to be free. The second paradox is that the speaker wants God to 'ravish' them in order to become pure and virginal, or 'chaste' (line 14).

The second paradox is especially complex due to the use of the verb (action word) 'ravish'. While it can mean 'to have passionate sex with', it can also mean 'to take by force' or even 'to rape or sexually assault'.

These paradoxes are used to emphasise God's power to overcome impossibility and the speaker's desperation for God to use it, even if it means that God must behave like the enemy to bring the speaker back on God's side.

'Batter My Heart': Meaning

'Batter My Heart' portrays a deep expression of personal and religious doubt. The poem's speaker believes they need to be changed and is ready to submit to violent physical and sexual domination in order to achieve this.

During the time in which John Donne likely wrote Holy Sonnets, he was going through personal and religious turmoil. Donne became an Anglican priest after being pressured to do so by friends and King James I, and his reluctance is said to have stemmed from feeling undeserving of such a high position.1 Two years later, his wife died while giving birth to their twelfth child, who also didn't survive.

Perhaps, then, the speaker's wish to be dominated by God in 'Batter My Heart' reflects Donne's desperate need for guidance, or even total authority, to direct him during these tumultuous times of grief, doubt, and life changes.

Batter My Heart - Key takeaways

  • 'Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God' or 'Holy Sonnet XIV' was written by the English metaphysical poet John Donne.
  • 'Batter My Heart' was published posthumously in a 1633 poetry collection titled Divine Meditations or Holy Sonnets.
  • 'Batter My Heart' is a metaphysical poem and takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet.
  • 'Batter My Heart' explores themes of religious struggle and redemption.
  • 'Batter My Heart' includes poetic devices such as similes, metaphysical conceits, and paradoxes.

1 'John Donne'. Poetry Foundation. 2022.

Batter My Heart, crisis information including the Samaritan's website (www.samaritans.org) and number 116123 for psychiatric help, StudySmarter

Frequently Asked Questions about Batter My Heart

Religious struggle and a wish for redemption is the main theme of 'Batter My Heart'.

In 'Batter My Heart' the speaker urges God to dominate them entirely in order to free them and make them a new person. 

In 'Batter My Heart', the first paradox is that the speaker wants God to free them by imprisoning them. The second paradox is that the speaker wants God to make them pure or chaste by having sex with them. 

As a metaphysical poet, John Donne helped to popularise the use of witty and complex metaphors, known as metaphysical conceits. 

In 'Batter My Heart', the speaker wants God to punish and completely dominate them so that the speaker can finally be reunited with spirituality and Christian beliefs. 

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