Study Guide

Batter my heart (Holy Sonnet 14)

Batter my heart (Holy Sonnet 14) Summary

The speaker begins by asking God (along with Jesus and the Holy Ghost; together, they are the Trinity that makes up the Christian "three-personed God") to attack his heart as if it were the gates of a fortress town. The speaker wants God to enter his heart aggressively and violently, instead of gently. Then, in line 5, the speaker explicitly likens himself to a captured town. He tries to let God enter, but has trouble because the speaker's rational side seems to be in control.

At the "turn" of the poem (see the "Form and Meter" section for more on the importance of the sonnet form and, specifically, the "turn"), the speaker admits that he loves God, and wants to be loved, but is tied down to God's unspecified "enemy" instead, whom we can think of as Satan, or possibly "reason." The speaker asks God to break the speaker's ties with the enemy, and to bring the speaker to Him, not letting him go free. He then explains why he wants all of this, reasoning with double meanings: he can't really be free unless God enslaves and excites him, and he can't refrain from sex unless God carries him away and delights him.

  • Section I (lines 1-6)

    Lines 1-2

    Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for you
    As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

    • The speaker begins by asking God (along with Jesus and the Holy Ghost; together, they make up the "three-personed God") to attack his heart as if it were the gates of a fortress town.
    • If you are caught up on the word "batter," note that back in medieval times, in order to break down the door of a fortress or castle, you'd have to use a battering ram. It's a huge pole of wood, possibly with a ram carving on the front.
    • He asks God to "batter" his heart, as opposed to what God has been doing so far: just knocking, breathing, shining, and trying to help the speaker heal.
    • Those actions are nice and all, but Donne wants something a little more intense. Scholars focus a lot on these verbs, and the words are certainly stressed in the line (notice how you accent these verbs and pause between them when you read the poem out loud), so let's break them down a bit.
    • First of all, none of the verbs are particularly active. God asks to come in by knocking, which is nice, but he also just breathes and shines, two things that he might do out of necessity — not choice. When we breathe, it's normally not because we choose to, and the same applies to things that shine.
    • The "mending" seems nice, but note that Donne says "seek to mend," and not just "mend." Does God really "seek to" do anything? Doesn't He just do it, if he's all-powerful?
    • So, what about the specific actions? Are they particularly significant? Well lots of scholars think that the three verbs mirror the set-up of a "three-personed God" (the Christian notion of the Trinity). Thus, they associate the Father with power as he knocks but ought to break, the Holy Ghost with breath as he breathes but ought to blow like a strong wind, and the Son with light as he shines but ought to burn like fire.
    • These actions make some sense as representative actions of each part of God, but other scholars argue that, based on the Bible, it isn't clear which member of the Trinity should be understood to do which of the actions. The confusion about which aspect of God does what appears to be purposeful.
    • If the speaker wants to make things easier, he can very well put the verbs in the traditional order in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are normally described.
    • But, the Trinity isn't the only way to read those verbs. Some scholars point out that these terms (especially when combined with the other series of three verbs in line 4) all make sense in the context of metal- or glass-blowing (the process of shaping glass and metal objects). In this way, scholars see the speaker as making God into a craftsman who can, like a glassblower, "blow" life into the object (the speaker).

    Lines 3-4

    That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
    Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

    • Lines 3-4 continue much like lines 1-2, with the speaker asking God to treat him violently.
    • He asks God to "bend your force," which may mean to "make use of your power."
    • More importantly, even though it takes him four full lines, the speaker finally gets to the point of why he's telling God to do all this. His goal, as he puts it, is to "rise" and "stand" and become "new."
    • This can work in two ways. First, there's the born-again angle, where the speaker asks to have a moment of religious epiphany. He wants to recognize God's power, but he worries that the only way God will get through to him is by doing something violent and completely overthrowing his life.
    • On the other hand, "make me new" is probably a reference to the Christian idea that true happiness and salvation come only after death, and that, in order to get into Heaven, earthly life must be a continual act of suffering. That may be why our speaker wants to be abused and broken in the earthly world — so that he will be worthy for the afterlife.
    • A quick note on the language here: read these lines aloud, and notice how the word "o'erthrow" makes you take a big pause and change the rhythm of your speaking, and how violent and intense those alliterated b-words are ("break, blow, burn"). These words get a lot of attention verbally, and it's a cool example of words' sounds reflecting their meaning. Onomatopoeia anyone?

    Lines 5-6

    I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
    Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.

    • Here comes the explanation of that whole "battering" business. The speaker compares himself to a town that is captured or "usurped."
    • The phrase "to another due" suggests that the town belongs to someone else, but it's tricky because we don't know who this "someone" could be.
    • Whose was it originally, and who took over? The likely possibility is that it was originally God's, and it was subsequently taken over by another, but that doesn't help us figure out who the "other" is.
    • In any case, the speaker wants to let God in, but he's unsuccessful so far.
    • These lines are interesting in part because, unlike anywhere else in the rest of the poem, Donne actually uses a simile here instead of a metaphor. Instead of saying, "I am a usurped town," he leaves more room between himself and the town by only saying that they're similar.
    • What's the big deal? Well, it suggests that the speaker is conscious of how unrealistic his requests are. Where, in the first few lines he directs God to overthrow, break, blow, and burn him, it's not until this line that we know he's being metaphorical (instead of actually wanting to be broken, burned, and so forth).
    • The "oh" in line 6 is another linguistic choice worth mentioning. There are two ways we might see this:
    • First, we can read it as the only moment of truly honest self-expression in the poem, where the speaker lets his words go without careful control. In other words, the "oh" is the only word in the poem that isn't actually a word – it's more of a sound, a sigh, or an exclamation. It's a different kind of language, and one we don't see elsewhere in the poem.
    • If we read it as a sigh, it might lend this line some extra emotional pull if he seems sad that he can't let God in.
    • On the other hand, you might think the "oh" is theatrical and overly dramatic, like a "woe-is-me!" moment.
  • Section II (lines 7-14)

    Lines 7-8

    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.

    Lines 9-10

    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."

    Lines 11-12

    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.

    Lines 13-14

    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.