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boring entry on John Donne--you should skip it.

2004-01-09 - 12:35 p.m.

At the risk of being either totally pretentious or the ultimate literature geek, I was suddenly seized with a rather unaccountable desire to write up an explication as I used to do for Robyn back in CCS. So here is Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14."

Batter my heart, three-personned 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 a usurped town, to another due,/ Labor to admit You, but O, 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, break or untie 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.

Summary: Beat me up, God, because your milder techniques aren't working. I'm mired down in the world and am unable to break free except by Your forceful actions. True freedom lies in being your servant and subjegating my will to yours.

This poem reminds me of a cross between The Exorcist and Delta Force. I love the violence implicit in Donne's version of surrendering to God. Donne's ability to remain accesible to the 21st century reader has always taken my breath away--he's like a cool ocean breeze in the midst of the sometimes stultifying desert of the rest of the metaphysical poets.

My favorite lines are the last two. Donne sets up a fabulous paradox--he can't be chaste unless he is ravished by God--I am somewhat strangely drawn to the idea that divine rape can whitewash all your sins. I'm fairly confident Donne is not describing a physical rape, but rather a brutal assault on the mind and spirit, a sort of "wiping the slate clean" by force. In the line just above, he captures the idea that surrendering your will can prove to be a great freedom--a theory I've heard espoused in theoretical examinations of dominant/submissive relationships (yes, I'm talking about S&M and that stuff now). My gut feeling is that Donne would disagree with that theory about another human being, but would argue that this is the only way to approach God--with total submission of the individual will.

Donne's will seems to be leading him astray in this poem; certainly God's efforts to "knock, breathe, shine" aren't having any effect. Although Donne labels reason "Your viceroy in me," he goes on to demonstrate that not only is reason not infallible, but indeed that it cannot be trusted much at all. I'm not sure if he's indicating one particular instance, or if he's trying to insinuate that reason is a poor substitute for faith. I lean towards the former. The idea of reason being God's viceroy is intriguing, and I'd prefer to think that Donne really meant it; only he is in such dire straits that he cannot depend on reason to do its job.

I love seeing Donne struggle here. My favorite writers are strugglers, and I think one of the reason I was so turned off by George Herbert was that he came off as smug in his faith; he didn't have to work at it. Donne's poetry is so much more human, and seems to encompass a wide scope of conflicting emotions and desires. Even in this poem, there is a conflict--he wants to want to return to God, but can't quite get there without a radical restructuring of his soul..

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