Batter my heart, three-person’d God is Sonnet 14 in John Donne’s Divine Sonnets, and it is the most famous of the Sonnets. None of the poems is more characteristic than this, with its nervous, jerky rhythm, the intensity of feeling and violent, almost overstrained, language. It has the same intensity, the same variety of mood and experience, which characterises Donne’s love poetry.
The poet is fully conscious of his own sinful nature, he strongly feels that he is a diehard sinner who may never be forgiven, and he conveys his feelings in a language strongly charged with emotion. The violence of his passion is fittingly conveyed, for example, by the opening words of the sonnet, “Batter my heart….. , and throughout the language is the language of impassioned importunity. It is one of those happy poems in which the language used is adequate to convey the emotional intensity of the poet. It is a sonnet in the grand style, for in it noble thought has been expressed in a noble language.
The sonnet is an expression of the poet’s apprehension that he may not be redeemed from his sin and hence the impassioned prayer to God to occupy his soul, and thus to purify and reshape him. The poet has used three metaphors to convey his feelings.
In the first stanza, he compares God to a tinker and himself to a pot which the tinker shapes and forms anew. Until now God has used gentle methods of persuasion to detach him from sin. The words, “knock, breath, shine, and seek to mend” describe the gentle methods God has used so far. But all such methods have proved futile, for the poet is a confirmed sinner difficult to mend. Therefore, He should shatter him completely, overpower him completely and then re-shape and re-mould him. The words, “Break, blow, burn”, convey the idea of the force and violence which must be used if the poet is to be re-formed and redeemed, and saved from Hell and damnation. The tinker image may be a bit obscure for the modern student, for the tinker is not such a common sight today as he was in the age of Donne.
Then comes the metaphor in which the poet likens his soul to a town conquered by God’s enemy, the Devil. This territory, his soul, lawfully belongs to God, and he himself is eager to pay the homage due to God. But he is helpless before the might of Devil who holds him in thrall. The Reason is God’s Viceroy or Deputy, but even this Deputy of God is unable to withstand the forces of evil. Therefore, prays the poet, God Himself should overthrow the evil within him, and thus save him from sin and damnation.
Next comes the metaphor in which the man-God relationship is represented through a lover-beloved relationship. The poet is the beloved and God is the lover. At present, the poet’s soul is betrothed to the Devil, though she loves God and yearns to be united with him. But God alone can break this unholy bond. Therefore, exhorts the poet, God should free him from the Devil —Divorce him from His own enemy — and imprison him, enthral him and ravish him. Only then would he be chaste, i.e. free from sin.
The sexual imagery used in the last lines of the sonnet brings out, Joan Bennet’s contention that there is no break between Donne’s earlier love- poetry and the later religious poetry. The use of such sensual imagery cannot be taken as an irreverence to God, because of the sincerity, intensity and earnestness which is conveyed through it. It is the impassioned language of a true and earnest devotee of God.