To talk about the sound of Holy Sonnet 14, it's helpful to have a fancy word in tow: plosives. Plosives (think "explosive") are the kinds of sounds that we make by using something in our mouth (or lips) to stop the flow of air, and then suddenly release the air, making for an explosive sound. The letters t, k, p, d, g, and b are the basic plosives in English. These letters often have a hard, violent sound, when compared to, say, h or the vowels.
Now, take a look through the poem, and check out how often the speaker uses plosives. Check out line 4: "to break, blow, burn." That word "break" comes up again in line 13, when the speaker says, "Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again." Go ahead; say "break" out loud. Really. Hear how violent it is, both at the beginning and the end? Whenever the speaker is talking about how he wants God to treat him, the sonic quality of the language becomes violent and intense.
There's actually one cool exception: in the last line, when the speaker asks God to "ravish" him. That word there is interesting because its connotations are violent, but instead the speaker uses a softer, more whisper-like sound. It's almost as if, by the end of the poem, the speaker can be more intimate with God – instead of yelling, he whispers that second syllable of "ravish," savoring the idea.
Holy Sonnet 14 is part of a larger series of Holy Sonnets that Donne published in the early 1600s. This happens to be the 14th, which isn't all that important. The significant part here is that Donne adopts the sonnet form, which was previously concerned mainly with the speaker's love for a woman. In turning the traditional object of love away from a woman and toward God, Donne demonstrates his fixation with blending earthly and sacred forms of love.
You know those stories set in medieval times with dragons and jousting, where there's a damsel in distress locked up in a tower, set to marry someone she doesn't love, but then she somehow gets a note out to a knight in shining armor, who comes and rescues/sleeps with/marries her? Well, if you call the guy she doesn't love the "enemy," the knight in shining armor "God," and the damsel "the speaker of this poem," you'd have a good feel for the setting of this poem.
It begins with the loud, fearsome "knocking" of the battering ram against the big wooden door of a besieged city. If you've seen the battle scene at Helm's Deep for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, you know what this looks like. Thump, thump, thump. Inside the town, the viceroy Reason is squabbling with the other leaders about whether to let in God. Reason has become deranged, and he doesn't want to open the gates, even though it would be the rational thing to do, because, well, it's God. You can imagine the speaker bound, gagged, and tied up with rope in some broom closet inside the town. If he weren't bound, he would run out to open the gates. God is like a dashing knight, and the speaker can't wait to rush out into his big, godly arms. We'd better stop before we start swooning...
So, there seems to be a normal way in which people address God and ask him for things, and then there's our speaker's way. The normal approach tends to show respect and humility. An example of this is the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed [holy] be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in Heaven."
But our speaker appears to refuse this approach. He just tells it straight-up, no-holds-barred. Evidence? He starts with a direct command to God ("Batter my heart"). Some Christians would tell you commanding God to do something (as opposed to asking nicely for it) amounts to sacrilege. There's a sense in the whole poem that the speaker thinks he deserves God's attention, which has been lacking, and the speaker goes on and on, maintaining this sense of entitlement: "Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend" (line 7). Note the two "me's" back to back there, and then that word "should." Everything in this poem is about what the speaker wants and deserves. What's more, instead of confessing to abandoning God in favor of the enemy, the speaker blames it all on "Reason," this personified mental faculty given by God. Realistically, can reason really betray someone? Isn't he just betraying himself, and then trying to pass the buck?
But, somehow, he doesn't come off as a totally arrogant, presumptuous jerk. Instead, we think, the speaker seems like a guy who's tried for a long time to get God's attention in normal ways with no success. Like a middle-schooler with a huge crush on someone for a couple years, the speaker here finally just has to blurt out everything he's been thinking in a very short space of time.
And, that's also why he wants God to treat him so violently – he's gone so long without God's attention that he craves it with incredible intensity. In line 6, we see an interesting moment of lament when he says, "but oh, to no end." Here, the speaker seems pathetic, and his other commands start to look more like passionate begging. In fact, we might actually think of the speaker here as self-consciously theatrical. At the most basic level, this is a man who's anguished by unrequited love.
However, there's a huge problem with that reading. Check out the end of line 11: "break that knot again." Unless we're missing something, or the speaker just needed a rhyme with "fain," we find out here that God has, in the past, helped the speaker remove himself from a relationship with the enemy. It seems like the speaker goes through all of this intense, emotional fuss to get God to reveal his presence more forcefully even though God has already done it for him in the past. Why all the drama? Why make himself sound like "a guy who's tried for a long time to get God's attention in normal ways with no success?"
Perhaps the answer, as we just mentioned, is that the speaker is self-consciously theatrical, being provocative just for the sake of the experience of being highly emotional and provocative. Another possibility is that "again" doesn't actually refer to himself, but to another time when God had to break a knot. Some scholars argue that the "again" is an allusion to the moment in Genesis when God expels Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden because they follow the Devil's advice.
By this logic, when the speaker says, "Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again," he means "either divorce/untie me from the Devil, or you'll have to break the knot between us, just as you did with Adam." If we run with that theory, we should be able to keep up the theory of the pathetic, desperate lover.
This poem is a great example of a poem that allows you to get from it as much you put into it. If you just want to read this poem with a general lens, it's not all that tough. There are a few moments of tricky word-choices and grammar, but a quick trip to the dictionary will give you a coherent, sensible poem about a guy who wants God to make himself known much more forcefully. If you want, though, you could bring this poem up into the 6 or 7 category by asking some tougher questions. Have at it, Shmoopster!
"Metaphysical conceits" aren't too strictly defined, but the general idea is that the poet makes use of a clever and unusual extended metaphor throughout much or all of a poem. An extended metaphor, by the way, is just a regular metaphor (directly comparing two things that aren't immediately related) that carries on through more than one sentence. So, in Holy Sonnet 14, the idea of the speaker as a city barricaded against God's advances is a metaphysical conceit. Check out Donne's poem "The Flea" for an even better example.
As for the conflict between sacred and profane love, check out "In A Nutshell" for more on Donne's history with religion. The basic idea, though, is that Donne is really into physical, earthly love, but also really into God and holiness. As you can imagine, these often run into conflict, and Donne likes to write poems that play with this tension.
Let's zoom out a bit. How do the metaphors and the issue of loving God work together? Well, check it out: the metaphors are somewhat strange, even though they're supposed to make the speaker's relationship with God easier to understand by comparing it to other things we know and recognize (war, sex, and an engagement). But, the problem is that the actual action he wants God to take is no clearer to us at the end of the poem than at the beginning. Does he actually want God to “ravish” him? Probably not, right? So, what does he want? The metaphors, instead of making it easier to understand what's going on, just make figuring out what he really wants much more confusing.
And, why make it so confusing? That's where the issue of loving God comes up. The huge problem he must deal with is that he's trying to define a sacred, spiritual relationship, but the only tools at his disposal are the language we use and the lives we lead here in the non-sacred world. The Bible makes a big point of this: the language God uses is not the language we can use, so the kinds of comparisons Donne can make are inherently limited. Our words and metaphors just can't describe what happens when you get close to God. Donne writes about something he really can't express, and that struggle is a big calling card for all of his poetry.
This poem takes the form of a Petrarchan sonnet. We know this because the poem is composed of 14 lines, the three quatrains (groups of four lines) followed by a rhyming couplet (two lines) at the end, and the regular rhyme scheme. As for the rhyme scheme, the poem looks like this: ABBA, ABBA, CDCD, EE, with an unusual rhyme at the end of line 12: "enemy" with "I."
This history and tradition of this form are important to this poem. Until Donne writes this sequence, sonnets were almost always about a speaker's love for a woman. Instead of writing a little love song to a lady, Donne decides that this would be an appropriate form for speaking to God. Think about that for a second – Donne’s speaker attempts to address God exactly as if he is telling a woman that he thinks she's beautiful. On one hand, there's an intimacy and genuine affection for God here, but on the other hand, you can also construe this as serious disrespect for God. This tension between an earthly, physical attraction and a more sacred, spiritual form of love, so perfectly represented in the context of the sonnet form, is central to the poem's meaning.
Now, the other cool thing about sonnets, and one always worth keeping in mind, is that sonnet tradition dictates that the 9th line is a sharp "turn" in the poem, where the speaker's language, style, or content is expected to change. What's more, it's often the case that the poem presents a problem before the turn, while the poem works out a solution after the turn. Now, with that in mind, check out line 9: here the metaphysical conceit (see "Calling Card") switches from the speaker-as-fortress to a much more personal, less abstract metaphor of a lover who is engaged to someone else.
Finally, there's the meter. The poem is in iambic pentameter (five groups of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable). As a quick look over the poem will show, this clearly isn't what's going on for every syllable, but the effects of changes tend to be case-specific. Take the first line for instance: "Batter my heart" starts the poem with a strongly stressed first syllable, where a more regular iambic meter would start unstressed. Here, the idea is that Donne starts with a bang – this poem, like the action that the speaker asks for, is aggressive and unusual.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
The besieged town is the dominant symbol in the poem, and it's a confusing one. The speaker likens himself to a town that has been taken over, but he wants God to attack the town in order to capture it. Actually, if we're being technical, when the speaker says he's "like an usurp'd town," he actually makes a simile, but by using the simile throughout the rest of the poem without making an explicit comparison elsewhere, we can safely call the whole thing an extended metaphor.
So, aside from the request that he be attacked (if he's the town, is it really such a good thing if the town is assaulted?), there's also the confusion about who "usurped" this town in the first place. We might think it's the "enemy" from line 10, but that's not helpful because we don't know who the enemy is, unless it's just that general enemy of God, Satan. The real problem, as we see it, is the line: "Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, / But is captived, and proves weak or untrue" (lines 7-8).
First of all, why is reason described as a viceroy, when the speaker just compared himself to a captured city? Wouldn't that make reason the force in control of the town (since a viceroy is a local ruler)? And, if reason is in charge of the town, does that mean God is the one who usurped the town, since reason is God's viceroy? Or, is reason the original viceroy of the town, before the town got captured? Either way, it's interesting how the speaker sets up his desire for more attention from God as a battle in which God fights against him. The whole thing is a bit confusing, but it could be intentional, working well with the theme that the speaker doesn't really know whom he's addressing (see "Lines 1-2" in the "Detailed Summary").
In another metaphor that runs through this poem, the speaker describes an unhappy and inconvenient engagement with the "enemy," presumably the Devil. Where before, the speaker sets up God as an attacker, here, he wants God to be a home-wrecker. Strangely, he seems to want God to break up a marriage, even though we imagine God as a pretty staunch supporter of the institution. This metaphor, then, works more as an apology and plea for forgiveness, whereas the siege is more of a plea for liberation from forces the speaker can't control.
So, in classic Metaphysical Poet tradition, Donne doesn't make anything super-explicit, but it's hard to read this poem without noticing some sexual overtones. "O'erthrow me, and bend Your force" and "[I] labour to admit you" are examples of moments that carry sexual weight.
Plus, the final line of the poem is hard to ignore: "Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." The speaker seems to try to give a more specific flavor to his demands here at the end of the poem. How about this: in struggling to make what he really wants concrete, the speaker finally admits his thoughts through the entire poem – the closest he can come to describing what he wants from God is through the metaphor of being ravished by God.
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.
In keeping with its metaphysical style, our speaker never makes anything totally explicit, but he pretty clearly raises the idea of a violent sexual encounter with God. He closes the poem by wishing that God would "ravish" him to establish his chastity. It's a paradox, but the word choices here suggest a sexual encounter.