Batter my heart (Holy Sonnet 14)
by John Donne
Section II (lines 7-14) Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
- Our bet is that these are the trickiest lines in the poem for you. Us too. They're weird, but it helps to put them into simple English: "Reason, my local ruler who works for you, should be defending me, but he was captured, and revealed himself to be weak or unfaithful."
- We assume that the "you" to whom Reason is supposed to report is God.
- The whole idea guiding these lines is that God gave us reason (rationality) to defend ourselves from evil, but now the speaker's reason seems to have turned on God (or is just incapable of warding off evil), so the speaker is having trouble showing his faith in God.
- As we discuss in the "Speaker" section, the sense of entitlement is interesting. Check out the back-to-back "me's" and the "should" in "Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend." It's all about the speaker's self-interest, and he sounds like a spoiled little kid: "Me! Me! You should defend me!"
- And, if we zoom out a bit, why on earth is he treating his ability to reason as if it were a real person? The answer may be: so that he can pass the buck and blame this other person (who's really God's responsibility, according to the speaker).
- If you think about it, the speaker actually blames God, through his representative (Reason) for the speaker turning over to the enemy's side.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
- When you get to line 9 of a sonnet, you know that you have to do a little extra work, since the ninth line of a sonnet traditionally marks the "turn" in the poem, where the problem set up in the first 8 lines begins to move towards a solution.
- To be honest, though, this line doesn't make for much of a turn at all. The simile of the fortress ends here (until it's picked up again at "imprison"), but this line, like those before it, mainly furthers the development of the speaker's desired relationship with God.
- He hints at no solution, but the line does mark a shift in tone. The speaker seems to be a bit more candid and personal here, and he abandons some of the similes and metaphors that he uses before. "Yet dearly I love you" is the most straightforward line we've had so far.
- "And would be loved fain," though, is a continuation of the kind of self-centeredness we see in lines 7-8. He's saying "I'd be happy to be loved," just like you'd tell a friend "I'd be happy to help" – he makes it sound a little like he's doing God a favor.
- What's more, the speaker quickly drops the straight-talk, and goes back into another metaphor: he says he's "betroth'd," or engaged to marry, the "enemy."
- This word "enemy" is troublesome, because we don't know who it is. There's no one right answer here, but our speaker may be referring to Satan.
- The question is, why did the speaker choose the metaphor of a wedding engagement? Why didn't he just say, "I'm under the Devil's control, so help free me?"
- Perhaps an engagement implies that the speaker is cool with the whole thing and isn't forced into this relationship with the enemy. Unlike in lines 5-8, where the speaker blamed Reason for losing touch with God, here he seems to suggest that it is actually kind of his fault, since he agrees to an engagement with the "enemy."
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
- Line 11 continues the train of thought in line 10, asking God to help him get out of this close engagement with the enemy. He wants God to help him break the wedding "knot" he tied when he was "betroth'd," and take him away from the enemy.
- What's absolutely key here is the word "again" – does it mean this isn't the first time the speaker needed to ask God for help in getting away from the Devil?
- All of a sudden, we learn that these pleas to God may be a frequent occurrence. This can have a major impact on our understanding of the poem. The speaker begins to look less like a poor guy who's all-of-a-sudden blurting out his love for God the only way he knows how -- and more like a con-artist who makes it seem like he's desperately in need, when, in fact, he's been down this road a number of times.
- But, instead of thinking that the speaker has wanted a wedding knot broken before, we might read "again" as referring to another time when God had to break a knot. (As if the speaker were saying, "Sorry, God, you have to go through that whole knot-breaking thing again.")
- By this logic, "again" could be a reference to the moment in Genesis (in the Old Testament) when God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because they follow Satan’s advice. This way, when the speaker says, "Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again," he seems to say "either divorce/untie me from Satan, or you'll have to break the knot between us, just as you did with Adam."
- In line 12 (and on into line 13), the speaker seems to bring back the castle siege metaphor one last time with "imprison," and rekindles the earlier debate about who had captured (or imprisoned) the town in the first place.
- Here, again, the speaker refuses to make things clear, first asking God to imprison him, but only so that he can be free. This all goes back to the Christian idea that a human must to suffer in order to get to Heaven, and reminds us again that violence and aggressive behavior aren't necessarily bad things in this poem, so long as God is in the driver’s seat.
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
- These last two lines make it clear that the speaker loves those paradoxes and double meanings that we struggle with all along. Both lines take the form of "If you don't ______, I can't be ______," but the speaker fills in that first blank with double entendres (words or phrases with two possible meanings).
- The first can be read as "If you don't excite me, I can't be free." If we read it that way, it's possible that "excite" has sexual connotations, and this makes sense in light of the following line.
- But, we can also read line 13 as, "If you don't enslave me, I can't be free." Back in the day, "enthrall" would also mean "enslave," so we should be aware of that possibility.
- We can read line 14 as, "If you don't fill me with delight, I will never be able to refrain from sex." Like "excite" in line 13, "fill me with delight" in this reading might carry some sexual connotations.
- Confusing, right? These lines leave us with some major paradoxes, refusing to pin down exactly what the speaker wants from God.
- As we see it, it seems that the speaker wants better access to God, and having been unsuccessful in the past, demands that God reveal himself forcefully and powerfully.
- In other words, the only way the speaker and his stubborn "reason" will be convinced of God's power is to see an epic example of it. What's more, the speaker desperately wants to be convinced, so he can be “saved.”
- Still, it's hard to make the last line fit, mainly because you can't really become chaste. Either the speaker is and always has been chaste, in which case he wouldn't have to worry about it, or he's had sex but now wants to abstain.
- But, if he wants to abstain, is more sex really the prescription?
- And, if he wants this divine sexual encounter so much, then wouldn't that contradict the idea that it is "rape"?
- In the end, then, we might come to the conclusion that talking about God in human terms and metaphors actually doesn't make sense. The kinds of rewards and interactions that God can provide simply can't be described properly in human language, and that's why the speaker gets so caught up in paradox and mixed metaphors.