Study Guide

Batter my heart (Holy Sonnet 14) Themes

  • Religion

    The subject of Donne's Holy Sonnet 14 is religion, even if it's masked by love, sex, and general mayhem. At the most basic level, this is a poem in which a man asks for forgiveness and salvation from God, but he expresses his frustration that God hasn't revealed himself forcefully enough. The speaker, though, is unclear on what the forgiveness and salvation will entail, and how to make sure that God's message gets through to him.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do you think the speaker believes God to be capable of the things for which he asks?
    2. Is this a uniquely Protestant poem, or could it apply just as well to other branches of Christianity, or even other religions?
    3. Can you see different treatments of different members of the Holy Trinity anywhere in the poem?
    4. What does the speaker mean by "bend / Your force?"
    5. What's up with the rhyme scheme in the third quatrain (group of four lines)? How come "enemy" and "I" make such an unusual rhyme?

    Chew on This

    The speaker of Holy Sonnet 14 is more interested in worshipping himself and his own rhetoric than any sort of higher spiritual authority.

  • Love

    Complicating the speaker's desire for salvation is the fact that he loves God in more than just the regular spiritual way. He seems interested in marital and sexual forms of love, as well. The bottom line is that he's unsatisfied with the kind of love where one's relationship with God is one-sided worship. He wants to feel loved back, and he's not sure how God can manifest that love.

    Questions About Love

    1. How do the ideas of marriage and divorce work in Holy Sonnet 14? Does either involve love?
    2. Which does the speaker want more: salvation or affection?
    3. Why do you think the speaker isn't satisfied with a God who will only "knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend?"

    Chew on This

    The speaker's love for God is an easier, more natural expression for him than his plea for abuse. His language flows much more calmly and easily in the lines of the sonnet where he expresses his love directly.

  • Sex

    Sex in this Holy Sonnet 14 is a metaphor our speaker uses for the way in which God might demonstrate his love for the speaker. The speaker really wants a close, reciprocal relationship with God, and one of the only ways he can imagine a relationship like this working is through an encounter of a sexual nature.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What does "chastity" mean in this poem?
    2. Given that Adam, Eve, and Jesus are all born without involving sex, why can't the speaker separate God from the idea of sex?
    3. Look closely at the meter and phonetics (sound qualities) of the moments when the speaker talks about sex. Anything interesting?
    4. Sex is generally considered something enjoyable for both people. Rape is more about violently satisfying one person's desire at the expense of another. Which does the speaker want?

    Chew on This

    While the identity of God breaks down from the first line, the speaker uses the whole sonnet to build consistently toward a sexual, rather than spiritual, resolution.

  • Violence

    Violence is a way in which the speaker of Holy Sonnet 14 imagines God manifesting his love. God's more gentle efforts to remind the speaker of his presence haven't done the trick, so the speaker demands more extreme gestures like breaking, blowing, and burning.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Does the speaker assign a value judgment to violence and warfare? Are they good or bad things?
    2. Why does the speaker want God to be so violent?
    3. Can sex and violence be separated in this poem?

    Chew on This

    The meter and phonetics of the concluding couplet suggest that sex is a gentler and more intimate act than the violent imagery around it would suggest.

  • Warfare

    Warfare makes up the major extended metaphor of Holy Sonnet 14, as the speaker presents himself as a captured fortress city. He calls upon God to storm the walls and retake the city. What's curious about this metaphor is that, if the speaker is the city and God is the attacker, God is going to have to do some major damage to the speaker in order to save him. Questions of what it means to be an attacker or a victim dovetail with the notions of rape and ravishment in the poem.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Does the speaker assign a value judgment to violence and warfare? Are they good or bad things?
    2. Who's in charge of this fortified town? What can that tell us about the poem as a whole?
    3. Why does imprisonment seem like such a bad thing in the beginning of the poem, but such a desirable thing at the end?

    Chew on This

    Holy Sonnet 14 can be seen as a reworking of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as the speaker begs forgiveness to ward off the destruction of the two cities.