Depiction of Extreme Desperation and Embracing the God in John Donne’s Poetry

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

John Donne’s nineteen holy sonnets, which were originally published as divine meditations highlight the very important fact that violent conflict is an integral aspect of any struggle towards self, social or religious clarity. Inner anxieties are often translated into outward violence and to convey this Donne adopts a voice, which as John Carey describes: “communicates itself through the dictatorial attitudes the poet adopts, through the unrelenting argumentativeness of his manner and through the manipulation and violent combination of the objects of the sensed world in his imagery”. {Healy, Donne to a Turn} So we see that in writing, Donne has an appeal to violence and force as a primary medium for thought-based expression. After all “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” {Johnson 8}

In describing Donne’s poems, Carey says that “they resemble monodramas, in which the figure of Donne, cajoling, demanding, enunciating, occupies so much of the foreground that we only catch a glimpse at some anonymous figure at whom the flow of language is being directed.’ {Healy, Donne to a Turn} So Donne’s poems are really straightforward, aggressive in nature and his notions or ideas can seem too wild to preclude feeling which leaves them, as Redpast explains in his analysis: “liable to give the impression of being merely brainspun”. However, that is seldom the case and the core feelings of his poems are never “sacrificed” by the aggressively persuasive force or intensity of thought they possess. Rather, “their feel in is qualified, by carefully conceived linguistic expression through witty poetic commentary, by the poet’s genuine and passionate articulation” {Silver, Warming the World with the Stroke of a Pen: How Donne’s Powerful Poetry Can Alleviate Mankind’s Existential Woes} as we shall see in the poem that we are going to tackle but first we need to discuss somethings about the poet like his life, his style in writing and what made him write the holly sonnets?

John Donne was born in 1572 to a Roman Catholic family in England where it was illegal to be a Catholic following the Protestant Reformation. After the death of his brother Henry, Donne began to question his faith and he eventually renounced his Catholic faith altogether. Later on, he converted to Anglicanism becoming a preacher and he took Anglican orders effectively joining the Church of England as part of his political career; becoming one of the most prominent political figures of the 17th century. In addition to being a preacher and a prominent political figure, John Donne was a very well-known metaphysical poet. {Kurian and Smith 294}

Metaphysical poetry is a style of poetry inaugurated by John Donne and other great literary figures with the aim of moving concrete symbols beyond their meaning into more philosophical symbols. To achieve this outcome, the main technique that was used is mainly known as the metaphysical conceit {comparison of physical world with human passions and emotions}. In his poetry, Donne reveal an apparent opposition to the “rich mellifluousness”, and the idealized view of human nature and of sexual love which had constituted a central tradition in Elizabethan poetry”. Further, he adopted a diction “modeled on the rough give-and-take of actual speech, and often organized his poems in the form of an urgent or heated argument—with a reluctant mistress, or an intruding friend, or God, or death, or with himself.”{Abrams 158}

John Donne did so much wrong in his earlier life and there was a time when he did not pay any attention to divine matters. However, near the end of his life and in the sphere of loneliness Donne started to concentrate on religious beliefs again and rebuild that connection with God. John Donne’s latter poems are known as divine sonnets as these sonnets reveal the poet’s religious interaction with God and his attempt to mend the rift that happened with the divine. One of the best examples we can take is “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” which is one of the most mystical divine sonnets that he wrote in the last phase of his life. This sonnet reveals a deep religious consciousness, a spiritual appeal and a very important phase of the relationship between God and the poet. {Kurian and Smith 294} Structurally speaking, the poem is written in the Petrarchan model of sonnets consisting of fourteen lines; eight of them are called the octave in which Donne is presenting his dilemma and the other six are called the sestet in which he is presenting some sort of a conclusion or an outcome:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,

But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish mee. {Donne, 10}

In this poem, Donne is setting up a conceit in which he is a town captured by forces unknown and has been made captive. We do not know what is it that is keeping him captive whether it is the devil, whether it is his own desires, or whether it is some type of Darkness? What we do know however is that because of this confinement he cannot give himself over to God and so for that reason he wants God to intervene and help him, he wants God to come in and bash down the doors of this town which is him and take it over. Donne is asking for violence, to be battered, to be destroyed by God and it is not just God in general; it is the “three-person’d God” Donne is besieging to. He wants all three manifestations of God – God the Father God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – to team up, come in, smash down his defenses, and seize him over.

Donne is calling for this because he sees that God is not doing enough for him and not putting everything into it. He is saying that God is sort of knocking on the door, shining his light through an opening but for Donne this is not enough. Donne needs more because he is obviously held in confinement against his will by whatever it is that is stopping him from having that connection with God. Instead of knocking breathing, shining and mending; he wants god to “break, blow, burn” and remake him as new. In this, we can detect an allusion to metalworking in which metals are broken up, air is blown, fire is stoked and something new is made.

Donne is laboring very hard to let God in and he is using his mind {reason} that is god’s representative in his body to help him in this task but it seems that it is not proving fruitful as his mind {reason} is weak and not strong enough to make Donne free. It seems that Donne is annexed by his heart and by what he wants to do more than by what he truly should do which he knows is the right thing. Here Donne is highlighting a common human weakness – following one’s heart and desires rather than mind and reason – which many human beings are subjected to, including the poet himself. And by this, Donne concludes the octave in which he is presenting his dilemma.

Now we move on to the sestet and the first thing we notice is the immediate change of tone. Donne expresses his deep love and affection to God and he wants God to love him exactly the same but he understands that God can’t really do that because Donne is taken by God’s enemy. It is interesting that Donne used the word “betrothed” here, which brings up the idea of the sacrament of marriage. It seems that Donne wants to tell us that he is sacramentally tied to God’s enemy and so he wants God to intervene and “divorce” him and untie this knot that is connecting Donne to the enemy so that he can return to the bosom and grace of God.

In the last lines, we can get a sense of a real desperation from Donne and that, he really does want God to come and take him totally. He feels that he will never be sexually pure enough to be a holy man and never freed from whatever it is that ties him to the secular world unless God himself steps in and ravishes him violently to the point that no intimacy is left within him that God has not taken away.

In conclusion, we see that throughout the sonnet Donne creates a portrait which depicts him in an extreme desperation and fervent for God’s embrace and love. And although the sonnet is highly emotional and personal as we have clearly seen, it is still augmented in force and violence which is evident through The speaker’s persuasive strategies that include, using commands and sublime images. “This stylistic component” which Donne is famous for has been “the main focus of much critical analysis by writers who characterize his tone as principally shaped by his rhetoric of power.”


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