The speaker asks the “three-personed God” to “batter” his heart, for as yet God only knocks politely, breathes, shines, and seeks to mend. The speaker says that to rise and stand, he needs God to overthrow him and bend his force to break, blow, and burn him, and to make him new. Like a town that has been captured by the enemy, which seeks unsuccessfully to admit the army of its allies and friends, the speaker works to admit God into his heart, but Reason, like God’s viceroy, has been captured by the enemy and proves “weak or untrue.” Yet the speaker says that he loves God dearly and wants to be loved in return, but he is like a maiden who is betrothed to God’s enemy. The speaker asks God to “divorce, untie, or break that knot again,” to take him prisoner; for until he is God’s prisoner, he says, he will never be free, and he will never be chaste until God ravishes him.
This simple sonnet follows an ABBAABBACDDCEE rhyme scheme and is written in a loose iambic pentameter. In its structural division, it is a Petrarchan sonnet rather than a Shakespearean one, with an octet followed by a sestet.
This poem is an appeal to God, pleading with Him not for mercy or clemency or benevolent aid but for a violent, almost brutal overmastering; thus, it implores God to perform actions that would usually be considered extremely sinful—from battering the speaker to actually raping him, which, he says in the final line, is the only way he will ever be chaste. The poem’s metaphors (the speaker’s heart as a captured town, the speaker as a maiden betrothed to God’s enemy) work with its extraordinary series of violent and powerful verbs (batter, o’erthrow, bend, break, blow, burn, divorce, untie, break, take, imprison, enthrall, ravish) to create the image of God as an overwhelming, violent conqueror. The bizarre nature of the speaker’s plea finds its apotheosis in the paradoxical final couplet, in which the speaker claims that only if God takes him prisoner can he be free, and only if God ravishes him can he be chaste.
As is amply illustrated by the contrast between Donne’s religious lyrics and his metaphysical love poems, Donne is a poet deeply divided between religious spirituality and a kind of carnal lust for life. Many of his best poems, including “Batter my heart, three-personed God,” mix the discourse of the spiritual and the physical or of the holy and the secular. In this case, the speaker achieves that mix by claiming that he can only overcome sin and achieve spiritual purity if he is forced by God in the most physical, violent, and carnal terms imaginable.
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