Saturday, November 13, 2010

Donne's Contradictions

Holy Sonnet XIV

Batter my heart, three personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, overthrow 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 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.

A Victorian critic* described John Donne: "He has a mind so full of learning that references crowd in spontaneously [and] he is thoroughly at home with all the fathers and ecclesiastical history .... His subtle intellect evolves endless distinctions and startling paradoxes and quaint analogies so abundantly, that he might apparently have preached for a week as easily as for an hour." In other words, he was a brainiac and had a lot to say. "Startling paradoxes,"  the man says. You see these in the sonnet above.  Particularly in Christianity's Biblical language, paradoxical images are rife. Paul does this. Here we find slavery that makes one free, ravishing that makes one chaste. More important that the paradoxes, in this sonnet the spiritual violence is shocking. Usually religious poets describe the gentle wooing of the Holy Spirit, the kind patience of God, the humble sacrifice of Jesus. Donne demands that God break him, subdue him, imprison him. He knows his own evil heart, and that nothing short of brute force will make his spirit yield. The image of the poet as a town besieged by God, where even the mind has been promised to the Devil, and nothing short of "storming the castle" will succeed, is compelling to the believer. We know how horrid it is to have sold ourselves into sin, and long for rescue from the one we used to call our enemy, but who is our Friend and Deliverer.

*Leslie Stephens, in the biographical introduction to  The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, Modern Library, 2001, p. vi, vii.

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