31 March 2012

Poems for Lent (36): ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God’ by John Donne

John Donne ... “That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me ...”

John Donne (1572-1631) is remembered in the calendar of the Church of England other Anglican churches on 31 March. He is one of two priest poets remembered during Lent in Anglican calendars – the other being John Donne’s contemporary, George Herbert.

Donne has been hailed as an influence on many poets, including WB Yeats, TS Eliot and WH Auden. He is often regarded as one of the best of the metaphysical poets for his wit, metaphor, paradox, and imagery. His lyrics are unparalleled among the metaphysical poets for their passion, both physical and spiritual.

Many of his early poems express the anguish of unrequited love. After a dissolute early life, he married for love, and after becoming disillusioned with politics he was ordained a priest in 1615. He went on to become the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1621, and one of the most inspiring preachers of the 17th century.

His sacred works include a qualified apology for suicide, and an argument for Anglicanism.

The death of his wife deepened his work significantly, and it was in this period that he published Holy Sonnets, from which today’s poem, Holy Sonnet XIV, has been selected. Exciting Holiness includes a collect for today that is used on 31 March to commemorate John Donne and that draws on the imagery of this poem:

Batter our hearts, three-personed God,
that we, who have been overthrown by our sins,
may at the last rise with your servant John [Donne]
and sing with him the wonders if your love;
where you live and reign,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
God for ever, Amen.

But this is a poem that is appropriate for Lent too, for it is a poem about penitence, forgiveness and the hope for new life and Resurrection.

In this poem, he emphasises the role played by each person in the Holy Trinity plays in saving the penitent. As the heart is the gate to the body, he implores God the Father to break, not merely to knock, God the Holy Spirit to blow rather than breathe, and God the Son to burn, not just shine.

After imploring God to break into his heart, he says in his prayer that he loves God and wishes to be loved. But he finds himself in the same situation in which a woman has been forcibly betrothed to another. He asks God to take the role of a lover and free him. He knows the real security rests in the hands of God, and so invites God to capture him.

Batter my heart, three person’d God 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,
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 betroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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