Tag Archives: John Donne

“Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God”

John Donne’s famous sonnet, “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” reveals the intense spiritual passion of those whose “god-spot” in the brain is over-heated.  Donne’s sonnet vividly conveys his deep desire to know God with complete abandonment though he also realizes that it is his rationality that stands in the way of this experience.  He knows that this reason is itself a gift from God but intuitively knows that it has been “captive’d” by something or someone (i.e. Satan) so that it is useless in the quest for God without Divine intervention, unless his reason be “o’er thrown.”

Donne recognized that our reason is not the primary driving force in our lives, even with religious impulses.  Being a poet he was in tune with depths of the heart which most of us never have any awareness of.  He knew that the phenomena of “god” would come to fullest expression only from these hidden spiritual resources in our heart and never as the result of rationality.  Donne was bringing to our attention that life is much more complicated than we like to think, knowing that our “thinking” when given primacy will always keep us on the surface of life.

But life spent on the surface will always be shallow and sorely lacking, with the absent quality always beckoning for attention.  Some use the term “god” to refer to this driving force but any word choice is not important for words can never capture this experience though our “captive’d” would like us to think so.  Religion was created to address this issue, the word itself meaning to bind together something which is divided.

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.

The “Unity of All Things” in a Poem

I love the way poets can bring things that are totally disconnected together to make sense. Of course, that is because we, and everything about our lovely world, is very connected in the first place. But lost in our illusion of separateness, it takes poetic courage to “Dive into the Wreck” and put the unity of all things into words so that pedestrian traffic like “moi” can appreciate it:

Trinity
Small things have a different logic to them.
Drop an ant from fifty times its height.
It survives. But a man, a mammoth, a bomb …
well, quantum particles tell us, size is fate.
So when Robert Oppenheimer gathered
those great minds, each with his specialty,
they chose a boy’s schoolhouse in the heart
of an enormous nation, its sons at sea.
Those days were never simple: the squeak of chalk
against the darkness, the dread of failure,
of success, inside each uneasy thought
the dull knowledge that, hell, if not here,
then some other hell, and so they worked
against the clock, the hammer of its hours.
Trinity. That was their goal, their test site
that drew its name from a line by Donne,
who invited God to batter his heart,
God who was three-person’d, and so one
conscience split into ravishing light.
The way men long to be that usurpt towne,
no doubt it frightens them: the blank slate
that reason fills for all the wrong reasons.
What Oppenheimer saw there, God knows.
Perhaps it was the words knocke, breathe, shine, 
and seek to mende. Perhaps the overthrow
of one god for another, for one who blinds
the doubt, so we might lie against our shadows
and fall, too deep to fathom, too small to find.

BRUCE BOND
For the Lost Cathedral
Louisiana State University Press

http://poem.com/today.php

Batter My Heart, Three-Personned God

The following sonnet by John Donne is one of my favorite poems. He portrayed mankind as coming to God kicking and screaming, coming to Him only after persistent and loving “battering” of our hearts. This, he argued, is because we are by nature “like an usurp’d town, to another due” and that steadfast loyalty has to be broken through. He also notes the limitations of reason in this process. We often try to think our way to God, believing with a little syllogism we can reason our way into the “bosom of Abraham”. But Donne laments, “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, but is captive, and proves week or untrue.” And I have a hunch that Donne had in mind those of us who have been “Christianized” by our culture; or “enculturated” into our faith.

HOLY SONNETS.

XIV.

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,
Labour 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 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 me.

Sin, Words, and Grace

“Speak words that give shape to our anguish.”  This poet recognized the power of the spoken word to provide a container to human experience, to impose a limit to what would be otherwise unbearable.  Another poet put it like this, “To name the abyss is to avoid it.” There is a profound difference in the raw, unmediated, emotional, pre-symbolic (pre-verbal) experience of the abyss and the concept of “the abyss.”

Let me share an anecdote from clinical work many years ago.  I had young male for a client who was very addictive and functioned very poorly at times.  He had no history of religion and church.  He stumbled upon the phenomena of “religion and church” and found himself attending a formal, non-evangelical church fairly regularly.  He told me several times of how comforting the liturgy was to him, particularly that portion where he acknowledged, by the spoken word, that he was a sinner.  As we explored this experience of his, he recognized that by conceptualizing that he was a “sinner” he was able to articulate a deep-seated feeling of “badness” and “darkness” and “shame.”  He was able to apply a limit or boundary to the experience.

There are some whose life is sin articulate.  Their life is raw, unmediated, unmitigated “hell on earth.”  And I’m not talking about “sin” as it is usually taught.  I’m talking about sin as the experience of being separated from one’s Source and separated in a radical fashion. It takes a quantum leap for the individual so confined to say, “I am a sinner” and in so doing escape that “hell on earth”,  that world which Paul Tillich described as “an empty world of self-relatedness.”

This is actually a conversion experience and is a quantum leap from one sphere of existence into another.  It involves the experience of discontinuity, what St. Augustine described at his moment of conversion as “that moment when I became other than I was.”  This is not simple compliance with a syllogism

Let me close with the marvelous sonnet of John Donne:

BATTER my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due, 5
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie: 10
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

Ravished by God

One of my favorite sonnets is by John Donne:

 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 me.

This is a beautiful portrayal of God’s persistent but gracious intervention in our lives.  It recognizes our bondage to reason, noting how that reason is “captiv’d” by subterranean forces, forces that I would describe as the ego.  As long as that bondage continues we will live a life “betroth’d unto your enemy” which I would also describe as the forces of the unconscious.  We will be what Colin Wilson described as a “sleep walker.”

And do note the sexual imagery there!