Irresolution of Paradox in Donne’s “Batter My Heart”
John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” is filled with Biblical imagery and language suggestive of Psalmic platitude.
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, blow, burn and make me new. (Donne 1-4)
This imagery is consistent with statements made throughout the Bible like Hebrews 12:6—“For whom the Lord loves he chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives.” The analogy of the speaker as a wayward spouse “betroth’d unto your [God’s] enemie” (Donne 10) is also evocative of distinctly Biblical language and the marriage metaphors used throughout the Old Testament prophets and the Pauline epistles. Arthur Clements has pointed out that even the association of “knocke, breathe, shine” with “break, blow, burn” is specifically Biblical in its language. There are two points within the poem, though, where the biblical language is disturbed by novel ideas that are both intriguing and perplexing. Ambiguity in a sonnet is most certainly not a device pioneered by Donne, but the significance of the theological issues dealt with in his holy sonnets make Donne’s use of paradox a significant literary and historical event.
The first deviation from standard scriptural parroting tactics comes halfway through in lines 7 and 8—“Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend/ But is captiv’d and proves weake or untrue.” This is one of those most interesting deviations in Donne’s sonnets; though Donne is reasoning through a well-known narrative (God as a potter or loving disciplinarian) he finishes the beautifully written yet to this point trite octave by casting doubt on his method of pursuing relationship with his god. It is important to note that Donne does not cast doubt on the soundness of his own reason, but pronounces that “Reason” itself could prove “weake or untrue.”
If one was attempting to reconcile this reasoning with standard church theology the doubt cast on reason could be construed as a call to the primacy of faith in spiritual development, elevated even above fallible reason. That interpretation works reasonably well until the final lines—
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish me. (Donne 8-10)
The paradoxes can be plausibly resolved until the final line; one could easily understand imprisonment being a kind of protection, and while “enthrall” can connate sexual bondage, its relationship to freedom within the line is convincing enough that one can emphasize the sense of enthrallment as shelter. The direct interpretation that one might have constructed to this point is seriously troubled when the speaker ultimately suggests being ravished as the only way to chastity.
When contrasted with each other, the key words to understanding the final line, “chast” and “ravish,” are evidently used in an overtly sexual sense, but, with that sense in mind, the suggestion seems impossible; to be ravished is to become no longer chaste. In order to reconcile this final line with the rest of the poem and resolve the internal paradox it would be easy to look for an alternate meaning of “ravish.” Indeed, if “ravish” is understand in its most etymologically literal sense the line could be interpreted as an understanding that God must use violence to steal the speaker away from “his enemie” and prevent violation. It is unclear, though, whether this is the deixis most important to focus on in order to understand the line. The word “chast,” as used in line 14, also possesses alternate connotations. It might be first understood as a moral or sexual descriptor, but its status as a form of its sense used in Hebrews 12:6, “Whom the Lord loves he chastens” (emphasis mine) should not be overlooked. The line could in this way be understood as inviting harsh discipline on the speaker.
There is no clear indication that Donne meant for any one of the possible interpretations suggested by the final line to be exclusively authoritative. This ambiguity gives some license to the reader, and because it is license related to a theological matter there is an important subtext to the poem. John Donne, a minister of the Anglican church, might not have intended to subvert the authority of the church, but he does give readers power to work out ambiguity as they please. This seems to connect Donne’s sonnets to a more liberal theology and politic which would ultimately deprive the church of its authoritarian power in a significant way.
It is also possible that the paradoxes contained within “Batter My Heart” are better off without clear resolution. It has been pointed out that “being a Christian in the seventeenth century was a peculiarly complex fate.” (Strier 360) It is a popular view among Donne lovers everywhere that the inability to resolve theological and metaphysical paradoxes within the holy sonnets is a large part of the appeal. The biggest problem with holding such a view is that it inevitably breaks down upon any sort of examination. If one holds the view that the paradoxes reflect the absurdity of theological quibbles that meaning has been imposed on the text with no more evidence than the desire of the reader. One could just as easily hold that the paradoxes reflect the beautiful curiosities of an infinitely complex creation. Neither of these reflections is necessarily falsifiable within the text, but the point is that they are not contained in the text in any way. To conjecture about extratextual meaning as if it was a legitimate parsing of the text is to impose an illegitimate authority. To get at a meaning independent of bias and the whimsical twaddle of an unfettered imagination it is necessary to consider the true meaning of the words.
Having a reference that truly disambiguated the meaning of words would eliminate our problems with conflicting interpretation, but such a reference cannot exist for two rather obvious reasons. First, books are written by human hands which are generally connected to finite human brains that work to impose meaning on words and worlds regardless of an inability to know omnisciently or outside of the lens of one’s own consciousness. Second, an attempt to define words with words acknowledges implicitly the necessary uncertainty of the definition. Despite the instability of language it is not hypocritical to appeal to a standard, rather than personal conjecture as the proper method of interpretation. While it should be acknowledged that words are simply what we agree them to be, it is the consensus of a group rather than a single mind that is appealed to through the utilization of etymological principles of interpretation. With this in mind it should be acknowledged that literary interpretation without personal conjecture might become nothing more than charts of the historical usage of words and figures from polls applying meaning by consensus. To provide a significant analysis of a text it is necessary that recognized “authorities” and tools that are applied are useful, but not as simple as mechanically applying an algorithm that will spit out meaning. When a creative human mind encodes information in texts, especially in paradox, a creative human mind is ultimately the tool necessary for interpretation.
Clements, Arthur. “Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV.” Modern Language Notes 76. (1961): 484-489.
Donne, John. “Holy Sonnet XIV.” The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne. Ed. Charles M. Coffin. New York: The Modern Library, 2001. 264.
The Holy Bible, New Scoffield Reference Edition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Strier, Richard. “John Donne Awry and Squint: The ‘Holy Sonnets,’ 1608-1610.” Modern Philology 86. (1989): 357-384.