> Magazine: Explicator, Summer, 1996


Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, 'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, t'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 weake or untrue,
Yet dearely'I love you, and would be lov'd faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy,
Divorce me, 'untie, or breake that knot againe
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you 'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
--John Donne

The analogous language of romantic passion ("I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine" [Song Sol. 2.16, New International Version]) and intellectual paradox ("Whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it" [Matt. 10.39, NIV]) has always seemed natural to those seeking to understand and speak of spiritual mysteries. Even so, John Donne's image of the Divine Rape in the "Holy Sonnet XIV," by which the victim becomes, or remains, chaste is at first startling; we are not accustomed to such spiritual intensity.[1] Previous explications have attempted to downplay this figure; for example, Thomas J. Steele, SJ [The Explicator 29 (1971): 74], maintains that the "sexual meaning" is "a secondary meaning" and "probably not meant to be explicitly affirmed." Moreover, George Knox [The Explicator 15 (1956): 2] writes that the poem does not "require our imagining literally the relation between man and God in heterosexual terms" and that "the traditions of Christian mysticism allow such symbolism of ravishment . . . ." However, even granting that the sexual imagery is not intended to be taken literally, but rather symbolically, we still must question Knox, as does John E. Parish: "One must infer that in Knox's opinion such symbolism shares nothing with metaphor in its effect on the imagination" [College English 24 (1963): 299].

In spite of the shocking character of the poem's imagery, the "Holy Sonnet XIV" seems coherent, its language apt; it is metrically jagged, yet traditional; its imagery is anthropomorphic, yet pious. If one may be permitted a commonplace, the poem is certainly a poem of paradoxes, as has been explored more fully in its many explications in these pages (articles appearing in 1953, 1954, 1965, 1967, and 1969, as well as in those mentioned above). However, most of these explications seem to focus on the intensity of religious ardor expressed by Donne's expansion of the boundaries of metaphorical usage within the poem. I will address more directly this metaphorical usage as it relates to Donne's experimentation with metrical freedom within the strictures of traditional sonnet form, as a further inroad to the poem's theme.

Both of these characteristics--the sinewy elasticity of meter and the intellectual contortion of metaphorical conceit--are attributes of the "metaphysical" style of poetry of which Donne is the preeminent representative. These attributes caused the critics of metaphysical poetry to label it the "strong-lined" style. It is, however, difficult to imagine Donne's passionate outpouring being expressed in any other way, since the poet uses the irregularities imposed on the iambic pentameter model to reinforce his unusual, striking imagery.

The poem follows the standard sonnet model of three quatrains, each with separate but related image, and concluding couplet. The first quatrain presents the poet in prayerful pleading to God to "o'erthrow" and "break" him, like some sort of tinker's creation; the second presents the poet as a town "usurpt" from God, its rightful lord; the third presents the poet as a woman who loves God, her suitor, but is engaged to his enemy. In these quatrains, Donne takes the position that reason, though the highest faculty and God's "viceroy" in humanity, is incomplete and flawed, and requires the enlightenment brought about by the intimate revelation of the divine being. The poet, as a fallen human, is "betroth'd" unto God's "enemy," and therefore pleads for God to progressively "break that knot" of attachment to the enemy, "imprison" the poet, "enthrall" him (or her, since the soul is typically feminine in Elizabethan poetry) into freedom, and finally, in the most daring of the paradoxical juxtapositions, "ravish" the poet into the condition of spiritual chastity. The tinker's object is broken and remade, the town is taken, the love affair is irresistibly consummated, even as the paradox of virtue and passion is glowingly resolved.

So the strategy of the poem appears to be that of approaching a dangerous, blasphemous anthropomorphism in the heat of devotion, but deflecting that danger, just in time, by the equation of sensual passion to spiritual virtue; for the concluding couplet declares that true freedom comes when one is imprisoned by God, and that purity of heart comes with God's ravishment (sexual assault, with the double meaning of "ravish" as "to win the heart of" someone). By the poem's conclusion, the conceit of the rape which ensures chastity no longer skirts blasphemy. In fact, in Donne's hands, it even becomes orthodox, an ideal of devotion worthy of emulation.

This resolution of discordant imagery, this stillness after the petitionary storm, is reflected in the poem's metrical pattern as well. Nominally iambic pentameter, as befits a sonnet, the first twelve lines (with the exceptions of lines 3 and 11) are full of irregularities. For instance, the first line opens with a trochee on the violent "Batter my heart," the trochee reinforcing the idea of the crashing blow and response for which the poet prays. This verb also foreshadows the daring imagery to come: the hardened heart is battered ("heart" also being Elizabethan slang for the vagina), even as the tinker's artifact is battered, even as an entry is forced through the closed city gates (through which the poet labors to admit the attacker), even as, finally, a sexual entry is forced.

As the poet grapples with these daring but compressed and contorted images, the poem's meter contorts in response. Several lines have repeated strokes of accent, with two lines having as many as three accents in a row (a far remove from the iambic model:

Line 2: As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;

3-4: . . . bend /Your force, to reake, blowe, burn and make me new.

5: I, like an usurpt town, t'another due,

6: Labor to admit you, but oh,to no end (or an alternate reading: Laor to admit you, but oh, to no end),

7: Reason your vicroy in me, me should defend,

8: But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue,

9: Yet dearely I love you, and would be lov'd faine . . .

The violence of these repeated strokes of accent mimics the violence of the poet's attempts to cope with the implications of his central conceit, the divine violation. The reader will note also that the irregularities of Donne's meter would be even greater were it not for the enforced splicing (in the original Elizabethan English) of several words. For instance, the normal iambic pattern of line 3 would also be irregular were it not for the pronunciation of "me' and" as "m' and" or "mand." The same holds true for the iamb "captiv'd" of line 8, in which the accent is shifted to the second syllable of the word; for the iambs "Yet dearely I love" of line 9, in which "dearely'I" becomes "dearl'I" or "dear-lie" ("Yet dear-lie love"); for the iambs "Divorce me,'untie" of line 11, in which "me,' untie" becomes "m'untie"; and for the iamb "you'enthrall" of line 13, which becomes "y'enthfall."

Yet Donne uses this last example for his own purposes as well, for the jarring metrical irregularity of the previous quatrains is suddenly transformed into pure iambic pentameter for the final couplet:

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

The iambic meter here reflects the peace found as the poem finds its spiritual resolution, not necessarily its intellectual solution. The tension still exists, but in a poised state of equilibrium. "Beautifully calculated," as critic William Kerrigan puts it, "the final line . . . presents the word 'chaste' before 'ravish me,' relaxing anxieties an instant before the revelation that focuses them.": The divine assault is now seen fully as a spiritual act. That which is humanly imperfect and even exploitative becomes divinely perfect and fulfilling. The rape preserves, rather than destroys, chastity. God builds up as he tears down, possesses as he frees, is as honorable as passionate--that is, in him all paradoxes find their supra-rational resolution, resolution not only presented in the imagery of the closing couplet, but reflected in the sudden tranquillity of the completely regular iambic pentameter.

Thus Donne links content to form throughout the "Holy Sonnet XIV." His aesthetic presentation of the relationships "implicit in the ancient theological conceit of the righteous soul's marriage to God"[3] is therefore doubly moving.


The author wishes to thank Alice Clime for her assistance in the preparation of this article.

1. John Donne, "Holy Sonnet XIV," John Donne: The Complete English Poems, ed. A. J. Smith (New York: Penguin, 1984) 314-315.

2. William Karrigan, "The Fearful Accommodations of John Donne," John Donne and the Seventeenth-Century Metaphysical Poets, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1986) 44.

3. Karrigan, 40.


By CRAIG PAYNE, Indian Hills Community College

[Go To Citation]

Copyright of Explicator is the property of Heldref Publications and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Explicator, Summer96, Vol. 54 Issue 4, p209, 5p.