29 April 2007

Batter a paradox

A few weeks ago, I came across a quote from John Donne, and had to look up the source. In doing so, I took the time to read through The Holy Sonnets, a collection of 17 sonnets Donne wrote in his later life, after the death of his beloved wife. Of these 17, I had previously only been familiar with two of them: Sonnet X, Death, be not proud and Sonnet XIV, Batter my heart, three-person'd God.

Holy Sonnet XIV is a poem that vexes me. And, yet, it is a poem that I love. It is fitting to have these contrary reactions to Holy Sonnet 14, given that the poem's beauty and truthfulness lies in understanding the paradoxes in Donne's sonnet.

Batter my heart, three-person'd God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The images of violence in this poem are overwhelming. The speaker asks his loving God to set aside his gentle, healing ways ("for you/As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;) replacing them with force. The speaker compares himself to a town in battle that will lose to the enemy; the speaker traitorously abandoning his threshold despite reason. (Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,/But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.) Lastly, Donne compares the speaker to an unfaithful bride, loving God, but betrothed to his enemy. (Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,) To be released from this agony, the speaker asks God to batter him, imprison him as his only salvation. And this is where the poem gets really tricky, or perhaps even icky: the speaker asks to be ravished -- the Elizabethan word meaning rape -- in order to be purified, to be defiled in order to be made chaste.

To my modern sensibilities, this conceit is wrong. A God of love and mercy should not be compared with acts of violence, especially rape, a violent act of power and control. To suggest it seems not just inappropriate, but sacrilegious. It is so contrary to what I hold as true, that it is jarring, shocking, even revolting.

And yet...maybe that is exactly Donne's point. By using such brutal and shocking metaphors he makes the point that the easier way is that of the world -- the earthly, and the carnal. In our imperfections we choose things of this world, rather than those of a heavenly one in the guise of freedom. I believe that the spiritual path is one to be found here, not only in some dreamy, cloud like conceit of a heavenly afterlife, but it is only found by abandoning the trappings of this world that likewise enslave us. The speaker in Donne's poem knows which master he should serve, but begs to be bullied into servitude to the more difficult path. As Bob Dylan once penned, (in what had to be one of his worst songwriting phases), "...It may be the devil or it may be the Lord/But you're gonna have to serve somebody".

And so, I love Donne's poem for the form, the meter, the lyrical way the words play in my head and on my ear, (go read the poem aloud, immersing yourself in its language) and even for its ultimate meaning, but the explicitly violent images distress me. My feelings a paradox, just like Donne's poem.

I prefer the prayer/poem of Rabi'ah al-Adawiyya (an 8th century woman from Basra, Persia) which presents the same paradox. While her images are not of battery, rape and sexual torture, they are no less frightning:

Oh God, If I worship Thee for fear of Hell,
Burn me in Hell.
If I worship Thee for in hopes of Paradise,
Exclude me from it.
But, if I worship Thee for Thy own sake,
Do not keep Thy Everlasting Beauty from me.


Anonymous said...

I must say, I like it. No doubt Donne is writing from a rather romantic, male perspective on rape. A breathless "Take me now!" rather than what it really is. Abandonment and surrender, not violation.

hobgoblin said...

Somewhere, Donne is smiling in satisfaction at your great reading. I think he--and the other metaphysicals--constructed these conceits to distress you and force you to think harder. My favorite part is when Donne breaks the meter with "break, blow, burn": that abrupt rhythmic shift gets my attention just as the later paradoxes do.

Cam said...

Sylvia, I have considered that perspective. It does make the poem a little more palatable, but given the voice in some of Donne's love poems, I don't think that was necessarily his perspective. Donne's work is very physical and sensual and I think he was quite aware of the violence he was portraying. Granted, attitudes towards rape have changed (at least we hope so) over the centuries, but I think Donne's intent is to play on both the utter abandonment and surrender of passion as well as and the violation.

I remember trying to shock students in an Intro to Lit class I taught in Grad School (shock them, just to make sure that they were listening, perhaps) by starting a discussion of Donne's The Flea with a comment along the lines of "Pretty hot for someone 400 years ago". It received a few muffled laughs. I often wondered how many of them might have tried a similar approach to the speaker in The Flea to bed some naive co-ed. Donne could be pretty lusty.

Hobgoblin -- I too love the sound of the "Break, Blow, Burn" line. And the trochee in the first line. He just about breaks the sonnet form in every line, and yet it still works. Pushing the envelope of the form. I could have written at least as much about the form alone. Perhaps that is why Donne continues to remain one of my favorite poets, one I can read over and over again and still discover something new.

chiefbiscuit said...

Thanks for that review of Donne's poetry. I am a fan of Donne too and was given a book of his poetry as a gift last year. I like to delve into his poetry and let the words and language minister and jolt all at the same time - much like the paradox that you were referring to.

Dorothy W. said...

I love Donne! I should go back and read more of him. I see what you mean about the disturbingness, though, but I like Hobgoblin's point, that it's meant to disturb you.

Bardiac said...

Donne always blows me away, especially that sonnet. But since I see religion as a fairly violent institution, I guess it fits my conception, especially of early modern religion. These folks burned each other for heresy and such; they really believed in the potential for purification through absolute and incredible suffering.