Study Guide

Batter my heart (Holy Sonnet 14) Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By John Donne

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

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

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").

  • Line 1: Here the speaker refers to a battering ram, as if God should break down the walls of a city. That's why "batter my heart" is a metaphor.
  • Lines 4-7: The speaker describes himself as a captured town, using a simile. Though he tries to let God in, reason, the figure of power in the town, won't help.
  • Lines 12-13: The speaker brings up the siege metaphor one last time, saying that he wants to be imprisoned (as one would be in a captured town) in order to be freed. And, yes, that's a major paradox.

The Unhappy Engagement / Affair with God

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.

  • Line 5: The phrase "to another due" resonates with "betroth'd unto your enemy" as part of the same engagement metaphor. To be "due" can mean to be owed, or it can refer to a pledge to be married.
  • Lines 9-11: The main point here is that the speaker describes an engagement with this enemy that he hopes God (the one he actually loves) can help him escape. Since he doesn't actually plan to marry the Devil, this is a metaphor.

Romance with God

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.

  • Lines 3-4: "o'erthrow me, and bend / Your force" might be a part of the sexual metaphor.
  • Line 6: "Labour to admit you" may be similarly part of the sexual metaphor.
  • Line 13: To "enthrall" someone means to put them in captivity or slavery. But, the word can have some sexual overtones, if it refers to being under someone's erotic power.
  • Line 14: "Ravish" carries the connotation of “taking advantage of someone,” even if it also means the less sexual "fill with delight." This is where the sexual metaphor is most prominent.

Contradictions

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.