“Holy Sonnet XIV” by John Donne

So, Mondays are typically where I post music to the “Christian Music That Doesn’t Suck” series, as a hopes to share refreshing, theologically rich, music.

But today, I am taking a brief interlude to look at another piece of art, that is somewhat similar – a sonnet. John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, to be exact.

I have heard Donne’s Holy Sonnets referenced and quoted before, but have never actually sat down and read any of them. This last week, I sat down and read Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, and it was stunning. Donne has a bit of a checkered past as far as his relationship with God and I would not agree with him on several things, but the beauty and sovereignty he ascribes to God in this sonnet is remarkable. I have begun to try and memorize it, finding it very helpful to stir my heart for the Lord. Perhaps you will too:

Batter my heart, three-personed 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 usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed 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 me.

There is much to be said about the poetic structure and rhythm that Donne’ employs in this piece, revealing his brilliance, but I am no poet, so if you are interested in learning more, check this out.

Here are some of my reflections on the poem:

Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend”

Donne is asking God to overpower him, to break down his sinful heart, like a battering ram breaks down a gate or door. He is saying that thus far, God has been too polite. “Knocking, breathing, shining and seeking to mend” are all gentle and tender phrases. Donne knows that it will require the forceful work of God to deliver his sin-sick heart.

“That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new”

Donne is employing a seeming contradiction here, saying that the only way he can “rise and stand” is if God first overthrows him. Donne knows that he will never taste joy or freedom unless God conquers him. In contrast with the previous verse’s tender actions of God, Donne, again using a seeming contradiction, pleads the Lord to “make me new” by the means of “breaking, blowing, burning”.

“I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but Oh, to no end.”

Donne describes himself like a town that has been held captive by an enemy – Satan. He is asking God to deliver him now from this invader. He uses “usurped” to imply that Satan is not the original ruler, but God is. And though he may “labour to admit” God in, it will be futile. He is powerless against the throwing off the rule of the enemy.

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.”

Here, he calls “Reason” God’s viceroy (a representative of a ruler). In the metaphor of the conquered town, Reason was supposed to be able to defend the city. Reason, created by God, should lead us to seeing the freedom in God, and death that sin brings, but it proves “weak or untrue”. Donne knows that even his own reason is under the captive rule of the enemy, leaving him with nothing to defend or fight off this invader, and completely helpless. When we sin, our Reason also becomes tainted; through rational reasoning and logic, we can not free ourselves from the bondage of sin – we must be delivered.

“Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy:”

Here, he switches the metaphor from a conquered city, to a lover, promised to be wed to another. Reflecting upon his heart, Donne realizes that he truly loves God and wants to serve him, but also feels the binding power of sin close at hand. He feels as if he is being forced to marry his true love’s (God), mortal enemy, (Sin/Satan).

“Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,”

The bride (Donne) is calling for her true love to sweep in, and steal her from this wedding she dreads. Though we are betrothed to our enemy, we can be rescued. Again, Donne uses forceful language (divorce, untie, break) as a picture of Christ freeing us from the bonds of Satan. He also relies on the seeming contradiction by explaining the only way he can be free is if God will imprison him.

“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

The culmination of the whole sonnet, employing the most forceful, vivid imagery. “Enthrall” has a double meaning, “capturing the fascinated attention of” and “enslave”. His word choice is perfect; unless God stuns him with his beauty and glory and makes him captive to it, he will, ironically, never be free. Donne’s final line is the most powerful, and most provocative. Relying again on the metaphor of two lover’s, Donne explains that he will never be chaste, unless God ravishes him. He is saying that unless God reveals Himself and gives Himself to Donne in the same way two lovers give themselves to one another in the throes of passion, he will forever be a slave to sex, never chaste. God must satisfy Donne far more than any worldly pleasure can, or he will always be a slave to pleasure.

What an incredible mixture of honesty and truth – Donne confesses his weakness, but in so doing, magnifies God’s ability, beauty and grace. Unless God comes and “breaks, blows and burns” our hearts, we will never be made new. Unless God conquers us, we will remain defeated. Unless God “divorces us, unties and breaks that knot again” we will be doomed to be in the arms of our enemy. Unless God ravishes us with His beauty and love, we will forever be a slave to a cheaper beauty and love.

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