Poet's Pick April 16
John Donne: "Holy Sonnet: XIV"
Selected by Laura Van Prooyen
National Poetry Month 2015

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Laura Van Prooyen's Poetry Month Pick, April 16, 2015

"Holy Sonnet: XIV"
by John Donne (1572 - 1631)

Batter my heart, three-personed 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 usurped town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, 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 betrothed 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.

* Laura Van Prooyen Comments:

Having grown up in a Dutch Calvinist home, the literature of my childhood was scripture. Every night at the dinner table, my mother read Bible stories of journeys, plagues, and trials, meant to inspire and instruct. The Psalms, many of which I was required to memorize, were my first poems. Language and rhythm got into my blood. However, the rigid parameters of my religious tradition and my family’s commitment to them prompted in me a battle. I felt constrained by narrow interpretations of Right and Wrong and grew to be an irritating thorn, poking: What if? Donne’s restless, searching energy in “Holy Sonnet: XIV” has become, for me, a new psalm. I am drawn to the music of doubt and discontent, to the deep-rooted struggle with faith. I understand the speaker’s impulse to implore a triune God to alter, forcefully, his soul.

A close look at verbs in the first quatrain reveals this poem’s power to create both unity and discord, to enact the tension between the idea of restoration and a call to destruction that pulses through the whole sonnet. “Batter” immediately commands the reader’s attention, being not only the first, but also an aggressive word whose intended object, we discover, is the speaker’s “heart.” The demand to be assaulted is distressing, especially when the speaker requests that the “three-personed God” administer the thrashing (ironically to calm his restless soul). It seems, from the outset, that the speaker understands paradox as an inherent component of faith and embraces it.

Line 2 establishes the syntactical pattern of monosyllabic verbs that metaphorically describe God’s relationship to the speaker as if he were a metal vessel. Ending line 1 with the pronoun “you,” the syntax runs over to line 2, suspending the revelation that God has taken action to “knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend” the speaker. The verbs are charged, fusing together what has happened with the connotations of the actions: as if the speaker were a metal vessel, God has hammered (“knock[ed]”) out his imperfections, lightly “breathe[d]” on him, “shine[d]” him up (to be clean and reflect the image of God), and sought to repair (“mend”) the speaker’s spiritual damage. The verbs cast God as a somewhat benevolent craftsman (albeit “knock” has the underpinnings of brutality).

Line 3 is the hinge that connects the parallel constructions of lines 2 and 4 and builds the paradoxical argument: for the speaker to be saved (“rise”), God must “o’erthrow” him. Structurally, line 3 is balanced; a caesura acts as the fulcrum between opposite ideas of piousness and the need to be overpowered. Similarly, line 3 is the crux between the verbal comparisons in lines 2 and 4; it acts as an ingenious bridge between clashing ideas, pairing its end-rhyme, “bend” with “mend” (line 2), which creates friction between sonic equivalency and disparate meaning. Furthermore, the enjambment (“bend / Your force”) both quickens and slows. The syntax spills over and tries to catch up with the words in the next line, but “bend” is halted between a comma and line break. This unsettling push and pull is quite like the speaker’s struggle with his own faith.

Line 4 echoes line 2, syntactically and semantically, but its verbs reveal the speaker’s desire for a brutal and profound transformation. Begging the divine to use “force,” the speaker to implores God “to break, blow, burn and make me new.” The verbal metaphors demonstrate the speaker’s active, and increasingly violent, state of (need for) change. Though the verbs in line 4 parallel those in line 2, they are in direct contrast to their restorative gestures. As a metaphorical vessel in God’s hands, the speaker does not want to be merely “knock[ed],” but shattered (“break”); he seeks not a gentle breath, but a forceful “blow[ing];” he does not want to merely “shine,” but wants to be purified by fire (“burn”). The speaker’s depraved self, line 4 posits, cannot be “mend[ed],” but only can be saved by conversion (“make me new”) as achieved by violent means. The verbs sonically support this argument with potent alliteration (“break,” “blow,” “burn”) and a repeated harsh clicking sound (“break,” “make”), creating a sense of pounding, snapping action. Furthermore, the static nature of monosyllabic words is at odds with the verbs’ intimated propulsive force, creating friction that mimics the speaker’s spiritual crisis.

In lines 2 and 4, the highly contrasted verbal images and parallel syntactical structure economically and forcefully yoke the speaker’s paradoxical need for violent redemption. Within the small space of the sonnet’s first quatrain, we discover a speaker who is deeply divided between the spiritual and the carnal, between his paradoxical desires (as the poem later reveals) to be both “enthrall[ed]” by and “free” from God, to be both “chaste” and “ravish[ed]” by God.

Though the transformation I seek is not violent, I yearn for greater reconciliation between reason and faith, in both spiritual and personal affairs. When troubled, anxious, or searching, I walk. Often, “Holy Sonnet: XIV” is my companion, the words rolling through my head, easing frustration and discontent. Restlessness is my chronic condition. This poem speaks to many conflicting forces in life, and in its paradoxes I feel at home.

About Laura Van Prooyen:
Laura Van Prooyen is the author of Our House Was on Fire, (Ashland University Press, 2015), and Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press, 2006). Her poetry has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of grants from The American Association of University Women and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She lives in San Antonio, Texas. 

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