John Donne’s Submission to God in “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God”

ENG 309: British Literature 1600-1800: Response


 

John Donne’s “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” is one of the Holy Sonnets that share common themes, including religion, death, and violence. “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God” stands out to me because it is a profoundly emotional illustration of humans’ fallible nature, which makes one’s desire to be devoted to God difficult. The poem also sounds like a man praying in desperation as Donne addresses God directly, e.g., “I love you,” “take me to you,” and “you ravish me.” (Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God, Lines 9, 10, &12). Throughout the poem, Donne is distressed. He yearns to be inherently good, but his human nature does not allow him to. I believe that he is begging God to rid him of his humanity so that he can be utterly devoted to him. He yearns to be forcefully placed on the right path before death takes away his chances to repent for his sins.

John_Donne_by_Isaac_Oliver

In “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God,” I believe that Donne wishes to be made infallible. He is begging God to close his eyes and take away the knowledge of good and evil that he inherited from Adam and Eve when they ate the apple. (King James Bible, Genesis 3, Lines 6-7). Donne demands the Lord to batter his heart, which is followed by a string of requests to be violently purified.God’s actions of knocking, breathing, and shining are contrasted with the poet’s desire for God to “break, blow [and], burn” him (Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God, Lines 2 & 4). This contrast showcases that the poet does not want to have the free will to sin. Instead, he wants to submit to God completely, and by doing so, he ascends to the level of Angels, incapable of wrongdoing. This is because due to his fallible nature, God’s guidance is insufficient, and Donne will always be prone to making mistakes.

Moreover, I think that Donne views having free will and knowledge of good and evil as a curse because it complicates one’s relationship with oneself, as the head (logic) battles the hearts (desires). Subsequently, this complicates one’s relationship with the divine. This is illustrated by comparing himself to a town conquered by Satan, who makes sins desirable (Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God, Lines 5). Donne states that his hard works to let God in went to vain because his reason is “weak or untrue” (Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God, Lines 6-8). Regardless of his devotion to the Lord, his efforts are inadequate because his soul is captivated by desires and stained by sins; his reason is losing to his desires. Therefore, the poet is asking God to invade him and take over his will. By requesting that, Donne implies that he does not want to be a human who is influenced by desires and has the free will to sin.

This is further exemplified when he expresses his ultimate submission of his body and soul to God, as he asks God to ‘ravish’ him (Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God, Lines 14). He seeks ultimate unity with the divine, which cannot be achieved while he is subjected to Satan’s rule. Thus, Donne is demanding that God conquer him instead of passively guiding him. In addition, the poet demands God to ‘imprison’ him and states that he longs never to be free, showcasing that it is necessary to be enslaved by God to become righteous. This slavery will free him from sin, namely, the enemy he is ‘betrothed’ to (Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God, Lines 9-13). Such slavery can only happen if Donne gives up both his free will and knowledge of good and evil.

By making such requests, the poet showcases his desire to be possessed, conquered, and enslaved by God while lamenting his human nature. He sees beauty in God’s violent intervention because it will lead him to righteousness. In addition, he also glorifies God while questioning his passiveness in comparison to Satan, and hence, he demands that he intervenes, conquers, and imprisons him.


6 thoughts on “John Donne’s Submission to God in “Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God”

  1. The great conundrum that Donne faces is indicated by the last line in your essay: “he demands that [God] intervene…” He demands to be imprisoned, and yet by definition the prisoner is in no position to demand his imprisonment. It is the fact that the prisoner is imprisoned against his free will, not because he demands it, that gives prison the sting of punishment. If God does as Donne demands, then Donne is in control of the relationship. Donne is not really submitting at all. He is like Job. He is putting God in the docks rather than the other way around. In the case of Job, God would have none of it. After Job kept demanding that God explain Himself for allowing Satan to destroy his life, God finally answered Job by saying, “Where were you when I created the firmament?” In other words, I am God, and you are not, and so you are in no position to question me. That may seem like an evasion on God’s part, and yet God is simply stating the fact that His relationship with Job is voluntary (which also means that it is an expression of divine love, since if God does not need to have a relationship with man then the fact that He does so is a voluntary gift on His part). Donne may seem to be seeking surrender, but the fact that he demands that God invade him makes him no more submissive to God’s preeminent will than Job had been. The comparison of Job and Donne on this point will provide even more context for understanding Donne’s moral and spiritual conundrum.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment. You raise a very interesting point! I saw his demands as a desperate prayer, so I never thought about it in terms of control.

      Perhaps, Donne wants to control his relationship with God, but I don’t see how it would place Donne above God. Maybe, the more demanding a prayer is, the more a person submits to and accepts God. What if demanding rather than asking is evidence of his strong faith despite being a sinner? I think what Donne wants the most is self-control.

      Sorry, I’m not familiar with the story of Job, but I will look it up.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I recommend reading the Book of Job at some point. It is a Book in the Old Testament, but it is also a classic in literature. I think you raise an interesting question about the line between asking and demanding. Perhaps, as you say, demanding is just a stronger version of asking.

      Liked by 2 people

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