A Close Reading of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 10

John Donne is well known for his use of religious topics in his poems, coupled with seemingly unthinkable metaphors and conceits. This is most obvious in his collection of poetry called “Holy Sonnets”. His most famous of these is Holy Sonnet 10 in which the violence of the imagery shocks the reader greatly. The explication that follows will explicate the poem and the violent imagery, so as to help the reader understand Donne’s motivation.

Donne starts #10 with violent imagery in the very first line of the poem, “Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;” (1-2). The imagery serves to set the tone for the entire poem. Donne wants God to get back into his heart. It is common Christian belief that God dwells in all people, in their hearts. Donne tells the reader that currently God is outside of his heart, and only knocking peacefully to get in. This is not working for Donne, and he requests that God beats his heart to get in; creating this image allows for the later explanations of why it is by violence that God will have to get back into the speaker.

Through lines three and four, the violence is continued and some reasoning given to as why the speaker wants the violence. The speaker states, “That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new” (3-4). Another common Christian belief is the idea of being born again. It is a belief that, in short, is a way for people who have lost their fait or fallen away from God to come back to God, through repenting and essentially being ‘born again’ into the faith. Line three states the speakers desire to once again be under God. Line four outlines this idea of being born again, but again, with violent imagery. This violence reinforces the idea that for some reason the speaker cannot have God come back into his life through conventional “kindly” means.

The reason for why the speaker cannot be taken over peacefully is offered in metaphor in lines five through eight:
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captive, and proves weak or untrue, (5-8)
The speaker likens himself to a town that has been taken over; while still loyal to a previous ruler in line five. The description is apt to describe why God will have to come into the speaker through violence. God has to ‘take the town by force’ as it were. While the speaker never tells who has taken him over, it can be assumed it is something opposite or opposed to God: temptation, sin, the devil. Line six offers reinforcement to the idea that the speaker yearns to let God back into his life, but cannot. In lines seven and eight, the speaker again says that he should defend the rightful ruler of his body, but is captive to the usurping power and is too weak or untrue to actually defend God or let him in.

Lines nine through twelve continue the idea that the speaker does want God back into his life, no matter what it takes. There is again the desperation that through unconventional means the speaker needs to take God back into his life:
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, [�] (9-12)
In line nine the speaker further confirms his love of God, and also states that he would willingly be loved by God, however in line ten the speaker tells us that at the moment this would be impossible because he is married to God’s enemy (again confirming that the “town” or body of the speaker has been usurped by the devil). The speaker then, in lines eleven and twelve, commands as much as requests that God divorces the speaker from that which has taken him over. Then the speaker asks God to imprison him. This image is another atypical one that is common throughout this poem, but also works very well in the context. The speaker wants to be locked in with God, so that he can never stray again, even when temptation again comes after him.

The final lines of this sonnet are the most famous, and end with a violent twist. Carrying on the image of imprisonment in line twelve, the speaker states, “for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,” (12-13). This paradox can be very confusing. The speaker says that he cannot be free unless God covers him completely. While this seems impossible, the speaker wants to live a good Christian life, and the only way he sees this as possible is for got to come over him like a shield to protect him from all evil in the world. Line fourteen is a stunning end to the poem, “Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me” (14). The line offers the same kind of paradox as the line above did. The statement says that the speaker can never be true to God unless God rapes him. While this absolutely shocking statement seems almost sacrilegious, it fits with all the violent imagery preceding this point. It is reasonable, with all imagery in the poem, for the speaker to say that the only way for him to be true to God is to have God force himself upon the speaker, take him over in all ways, and then hold fast to the speaker.

While the images in this poem may seem inappropriate or ludicrous, they are actually very apt descriptions for what the poet is trying to communicate. The poem is a desperate outcry for God to get back into the speakers life. It starts off with the idea that all other means have been exhausted, and this is the final effort of the speaker to have God back. It is common Christian belief that through God all things are possible; this poem embraces that ideology full on.

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