John Donne (1572-1631) popularly known as the Metaphysical poet in English literature. The term metaphysical poetry is first used by Dr. Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth century critic to refer to John Donne’s poetry. Donne was a Roman Catholic by birth but later converted into Anglicanism. The practice of Roman Catholic religion was illegal in England at the time of Donne and hence it was a hanging burden on the family. So he had to convert himself for safety and security. He was well studied in law, languages and theology and became the Dean of St. Paul’s Church. He fell in love with Anne More but the love and relationship was not accepted by Anne’s family. They had to marry secretly. Their marriage was in hiding for a decade. But later it is disclosed and Donne had to pay the heavy price for it. He was expelled from the authority of Church and was thrown into jail. He spent many days into jail. But finally he was released and reunited with Anne and their marriage considered legal. The experiences of these days were reflected into his poetry. He is famous as a love and religious poet. His poems are intensely personal, highly witty, filled with sensation and appealing to human emotions. He was a significant poet in the age when drama was at its peak.
Structure of the Sonnet: it is an English sonnet having three quatrains and a couplet. But there is a little difference in the rhyming of this sonnet. The English or Shakespearean sonnet has the rhyming scheme of abab, cdcd, efef and gg or Spenserian sonnet abab, bcbc, cdcd and ee. Here we have the rhyming as abab, abab, cdcd and ee. Again there is an unusual rhyme in the third quatrain, line tenth, the word ‘enemy’ does not rhyme with the word ‘I’ in line twelfth. But it is considered as rhyming for the sake of structure. The sonnet is composed in irregular iambic pentameter in the sense that generally in iamb an unstressed syllable follows by stressed one but this pattern is broken for some time in the lines and hence it is called as irregular iambic pentameter. All the lines are interconnected conveying the very thought carried right from the beginning. Though it is in the form of three quatrains, there is no any division among stanzas as in English sonnet.
Summary & Interpretation: the present sonnet can be interpreted by applying the biographical approach and analysing the diction. The select and conscious use of words lead to its interpretation that the sonnet is addressed to God and the poet is requesting or asking something to God.
Quatrain First: the sonnet begins with the words, ‘Batter my heart’; and the meaning of the word ‘batter’ is ‘hitting hard’. It’s an imperative word. The very next words are ‘three-person’d God’ which refers to the holy trinity in Christianity i.e. the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. It is clear that the poet is asking to God to hit his heart hard. In the second line, different verbs are used to show the intensity of the action needed from the side of the God, here the poet wanted to rise above his present condition and hence he asks God to do whatever he can do to repair the soul of poet and so that the poet can stand in the life. To repair the poet, God can do many things or anything, he can apply force, break, blow and burn to make poet new. The use of alliteration ‘break, blow, burn’ emphasises the very emotion of the poet that he is permitting God to perform a kind of operation on him. In this stanza, the poet has revealed his intention to God that he wanted God’s favour. The poet opens many options before God in performing the task. The tone of the poet is aggressive as he uses the words showing violent action.
Quatrain Second: now in this second stanza, he has given the reasons why he wanted a favour from God or why he wanted to become new or repair himself. He compares himself with a usurped or devastated town using the figure simile, ‘like an usurp’d town’. His condition has become like a town which has been attacked by some enemy and made barren. It is very painful for him to admit this condition but he had left no option instead explaining the situation. It seems that there no end to his misery. Next he provides the reason why it is necessary to disclose his condition that he is not separate but the part of God and for the sake of good he need to speak and defend himself. Because he is captured by some force or enemy. It would be weak or prove untrue if he would not tell this to God. This stanza exclusively states the very urge and situation of the poet and also tells why poet has asked God to instill new energy in him.
Quatrain Third: in this stanza, he shows full trust on God that God will do what the poet wanted. He loves God and will love him happily. He is sure about how the God is merciful and will bestow upon him the love and compassion. But right now he is under the spell of an enemy. He call as ‘your enemy’ meaning the enemy of God i.e. no other than Satan. Here he becomes more specific in revealing his inner mind that his soul is captured by the enemy and he wanted to get rid of that enemy. He wanted God to untie him from the enemy and release him for good. The poet is ready to be divorced or get imprisoned by the God to be part of the God.
The Couplet: the last couplet is the continuation of the same thought and tone. He increases the intensity of his emotions and says that now he is completely at the feet and mercy of God and God can arrest him or he’ll be never free from the chains in which he stuck. His chastity or sanctity is destroyed by the enemy and it is the responsibility of God to make him free. Here we find contrast in the words of the poet ‘enthrall me, never be free’, he is asking God to tie him in a knot and at the same time talking about getting free.
Some scholars have another interpretation based on the third quatrain and last couplet that the poet is sensually or sexually instigating the God and wanted to perform a romance with the God. The diction he used suggest this interpretation—‘I love you’, ‘loved fain’, ‘betroth’d’, ‘divorce’, ‘take me to you’, ‘imprison’, ‘enthrall’, ‘chaste’ and ‘ravish’. All these words point to his sexual desire and he wanted something solid from the God. This is an extended metaphor or implied meaning throughout the poem. We get scope to consider that these may be his experiences from actual life as he spent many years of marriage in secrecy.
Prominent Themes in the Sonnet: following themes can be stressed in the sonnet:
1. Religion or Spirituality: the sonnet is about forgiveness and salvation. The poet is asking God to forgive him for his sin or bad deeds he did in his life. It is at the very surface level.
2. Love: it is an obvious theme because Donne composed many love poems. Here the love is depicted between God and the poet. He longs for the love of God and wanted an eternal marriage with God. His focus is on marital and sexual love.
3. Sex: it is an implied theme in the poem. There are many words which show the direct reference to sex and romance, the words like, ‘betroth’d’, ‘divorce’, ‘imprison’, ‘enthrall’, ‘chaste’ and ‘ravish’.
4. Violence: it is one of the vivid themes in the poem as we find it is shown through the diction used by the poet. The words like ‘knock’, ‘mend’, ‘o’erthrow’, ‘bend’, ‘force’ ‘break’, ‘blow’, ‘burn’, etc. are direct pointers to the inherent violence in human life. The poet asks the God to perform some of the extreme gestures to repair his soul.
5. Battle/ Warfare: in the second stanza, there is reference to a captured or attacked town by the enemy which suggest the warfare and battle. The town is completely devastated by the enemy and in need of the restoration. Actually the poet used the extended metaphor to show his inner condition. He directly compare him with a usurped town or fortress city.
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Author: Datta G Sawant