Reforming Donne?

My brother Ming-Yee happened to choose an excellent poem by John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV, to examine for his lyric poetry freshman seminar (I’m especially proud of his seminar choice in light of the fact that he’s an intended physics major who thinks he lives ever in my humanities shadow). Through the filter of Luther I could write about Augustinian doctrines of human depravity and the bondage of the will, but perhaps I should rather let you read the poem:

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 captivèd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lovèd 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.

Perhaps typically for me, my first observation was Donne’s use of the respectfully distant pronoun you for addressing God, in place of the customary thou. In spite of his efforts to admit God, Donne finds himself unable to bring God closer than that respectful you: nothing he does succeeds in changing God into a thou. Unless God himself ravishes him, and so batters his heart, he thinks he never will be free. Whatever Donne thought of Arminianism in 1609–1610, the time in which he’s supposed to have written the Holy Sonnets, I find this poem to be a warm expression of Reformed piety, quite unlike the mechanical sterility that people often associate with decrees of election.


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