Batter my heart (Holy Sonnet 14)
by John Donne
This poem is chock-full of contradictions. Why? Because what the speaker wants is fundamentally a contradiction – a physical manifestation of a being (God) who doesn't really exist in physical terms. Plus, there's the fact that, in the speaker's version of Christianity, eternal happiness can only come through earthly suffering.
But there's also another reason, which we think is just as important: the contradictions give the whole poem a feeling of instability and insecurity, which suggests that the speaker really doesn't know what he wants, and certainly doesn't know how to say it. Ever played Taboo or Catchphrase, or some game where you have to describe an object without using that word or related words? What's the easiest way to do it? Use the opposite (not salt but…pepper!). We think that's sort of what's going on here. Since the speaker can't figure out what he wants to say, he throws together a lot of opposites to try to approximate it.
- Lines 2 and 4: "knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend," and then "break, blow, burn, and make me new" set up a series of contradictions. The speaker gets one thing, but says he'd rather have the opposite. But, would he? Is being broken, blown, and burned actually what he wants?
- Lines 3-4: We see a double feature of contradictions here. First, "overthrow" is the opposite of helping someone "rise" and "stand," but the speaker gives us a bonus contradiction here by using enjambment. He asks God to bend his force, but, since "bend" shows up at the end of line 3 and not the beginning of line 4, it looks like he's saying, "So that I may rise and stand, overthrow me and bend me." Intense stuff.
- Lines 7-8: Nothing tricky here, just Reason did the opposite of what the speaker thinks it should. By refusing to allow the speaker to submit to God, Reason acts irrational – which is a paradox.
- Lines 11-12: Untie me so as to imprison me? Sounds like a contradiction.
- Lines 12-14: Welcome to Contradiction City. The speaker asks to be imprisoned, delighted, and raped so that he can be free and chaste.