Essay by Gary Sloan, Winter 2003

John Donne: Bulimic Bore?
an essay by Veronica Chater

C.S. Lewis was not an admirer of poet John Donne (1572-1631). He called him the “saddest” and most “uncomfortable” of our poets whose verse “exercises the same dreadful fascination that we feel in the grip of the worst kind of bore—the hot eyed, unescapable kind.”

His sentence on Donne is comically adroit, and even Donne idolaters such as myself must agree with him in part. Donne can be read as is a highly frustrated, emotionally needy and tragically self-centered individual. For his “not keeping of accent” Ben Jonson said that Donne “deserved hanging.” And for his style Stanley Fish says he “is bulimic . . .  someone who gorges himself to a point beyond satiety, and then sticks his finger down his throat and throws up.” “There is nothing,” bewails Donne critic Deborah Larson, “not even the ugly and disgusting, which his verse will not say, no manner, not even the rudest, which it will not adopt to attain its almost impossible ends.”

When I began reading Donne twenty years ago, I was drawn by default (we are both ex-Catholic) to his Holy Sonnets. I was fascinated by the tempestuous noise of his language, by the violence and hunger there, and I was attracted to the very thing that turns so many of his readers off: the sense of a horrendous personal crisis and profound loss. For me, the abandonment of Catholicism was a good thing—an opening up of thought and experience. Not for Donne, however. A sense of loss pestered him. Here is a man who is both in love with God and on the verge of spiritual despair. Here is an unrequited lover in the degrading process of trying to wear down the object of his affection into a change of heart by blatant, abject pleading, but who in the bald face of rejection doesn’t have the sense to—or simply won’t—let up. Here is a person who, in the grip of a fixation, will resort to breaking one of the most significant laws of good writing: compounding disparate images and metaphors as if no single one is adequate and by doing so causing over stimulation in the reader and thereby losing their effect.

What does he expect to achieve, and how does he expect to achieve it?

Of all of his Holy Sonnets, BATTER MY HEART is my favorite because of its pure urgency of design, and because it is one of the sonnets that best displays the poet at his most determined. But it is also the sonnet in which there is method to the madness. And the key to understanding the method lies first in understanding the man, and second in recognizing his complex spiritual tactics.


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 break, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’ another due, 5
Labour to ‘admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue,
Yet dearely’ I love you, and would be lov’d faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie, 10
Divorce mee, ‘untie, or breake that knot againe,
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except that you’ enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish mee.

John Donne’s family and immediate ancestors were conspicuously Catholic. His mother Elizabeth was descended from a sister of the Catholic martyr Sir Thomas More, survived three husbands and a son, and died a Catholic. His maternal grandfather was a favorite with Queen Mary and composed the poem The Spider and the Fly for her, an allegory in which the spider, of course, is the Protestant.

But while his family remained staunchly Catholic, the environment that Donne grew up in was hostile to Catholicism to the point that militant and celebrant Catholicism was severely penalized. It can be easily imagined how Donne’s young imagination must have reacted to the underground existence of the Roman church, not to mention his exclusion from the usual avenues of success on account of his seemingly archaic faith. These elements of Donne’s life alone have caused critics to diagnose him as under an extreme psychological burden, and a victim of “private psychological, religious, and moral struggles.” But Donne was more interested in temporal fame than spiritual fortune in his early twenties and so he quietly dropped the faith of his family as one would sever a ball and chain from one’s ankle.

The composition of his nineteen Holy Sonnets has not been precisely dated, but Donne scholars place them from approximately 1607 and on. This date allows BATTER MY HEART to have been composed somewhere around the time of his conversion to Anglicanism. It is well documented that Donne flatly refused in 1607 to take Anglican orders, a refusal that was either “sheer lunacy” or evidence of “extreme devotion” (most critics trusting it to be due to devotion) but by 1615 had “overcome his scruples” enough to enter the Anglican ministry at the age of 43. The eight years that it took for his drastic change of heart most likely witnessed the writing of most of his Holy Sonnets, and this was a “period of doubt and intense thinking about his religion which preceded Donne’s entry into the Church” (Gransden).

The foremost question that captivates Donne admirers and non-admirers alike is what “scruples” Donne was forced to overcome in order to enter the ministry with a clear conscience. Many feel, and rightly so considering Donne’s temperament, that whatever these scruples were, they were not easily put aside; moreover, that Donne did not overcome them at all. The governing opinion has come down to the overwhelming consensus that his conversion to Anglicanism was “insincere, prompted by ambitious, materialistic motives” (Larson) and not, as Donne might have protested, by a reconciliation with the Anglican doctrine. “The first thing to remember about Donne,” writes critic John Carey, “is that he was a Catholic; the second that he betrayed his faith.”

At the risk of psychoanalyzing a poet through his sonnets, BATTER MY HEART depicts the agony of a man who has lost the once-cherished physical contact of his lover and instead of humbling himself, is using manipulative passive-aggressive behavior. We sense that the poet knows the feel of the lover’s touch and craves to feel it again. And not gently. He’s so desperate to regain the sensation that he longs for the touch to be violent and masculine and even painful. He wants the touch to convince him beyond a doubt that he is in contact with his beloved: that he’s under the power and coercion of God to the point of being sadistically victimized, maltreated, even persecuted to the extent of physical abuse. He’s begging for the return of something he once had. But how did he lose the one thing he loved the most in the first place?

As someone who spent 30 years on the inside of the traditional Roman Catholic Church and 10 years on the outside, I think I have the answer. The loss transpired when the strongly devoted Catholic twenty-year old swapped one very specific church doctrine for another: namely the Catholic doctrine of “true substance” for the Anglican doctrine of the “real presence” in the sacramental Eucharist.

According to Catholic doctrine, the consecration of the bread and wine during the Roman Catholic Mass converts “the bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord; the changing of one substance into another substance while retaining the accidents of the former thing” (Catholic Concise Dictionary):

Following Aristotle’s distinction between accidents and substance, the bread and wine are from this point relegated to accidents, while the true substance is that of Christ’s body and blood. (McNees)

The Reformation saw this doctrine modified, calling the consecrated bread and wine a figural or typological change—that is, a consubstantial change. But in fact, “the Anglican Church [never] formally defined the sacrament” (The Columbia Encyclopedia), and could only have blurred the concept of the “Real Presence” in a fog of ambiguity. Howbeit, this change in eucharistic definition marks the cardinal difference between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism and the precise definition of the change of substance must have been of extreme importance to Donne.

For it follows from this comparison of eucharistic dogma, that Donne not only renounced the faith of his ancestors, but consequently renounced the true substance of Christ in the Eucharist in exchange for a typological presence. For a man of extreme devotion, such a shift in perspective could have considerable repercussions. In purely practical terms this would imply that celebrating an Anglican Mass with the object of calling down Christ’s presence would not have supplied Donne with the same imaginative thrill as celebrating a Catholic Mass, which promised the actual flesh of Christ: a much more tangible reward.

A God that is not physically contained in the bread of the Eucharist and chooses to remain psychologically distant is a strand that is strung tensely between Donne and God and his reader in all of his Holy Sonnets. Clearly, Donne is banging on heaven’s door to no avail. But the unescapable bore never retreats when he can double his efforts. When a bore says, “. . . dearly I love you, and would be lov’d faine” one can rightfully assume that he will myopically persevere the object of his desire or die trying. And that is precisely what Donne does. He doesn’t want to accept that God might not want to come down to him, or that God might not even hear him. He has one purpose, and one purpose only, and that is to establish physical contact. But since God is God, he is not obliged to respond, and disappointingly, he doesn’t. Whether he is out of earshot, or just uninterested in revealing himself, or whether he is, God forbid, non-existent, God is a slippery entity who challenges his creatures to do what they can to reach him while doing nothing to come within that reach.

My question, in reading Donne is a two part question: What tactics does he use to establish the physical contact, and do these tactics help or hinder him in establishing it?

Theoretically speaking, Donne must persuade God of his worthiness of grace by writing a convincing poem—a poem that does the similar duty of a prayer. But here is where the difficulty lies: a prayer is an act of speech that depends on the humbleness of its speaker as proof of the speaker’s worthiness of love. Accordingly, a prayer’s petition is undermined when the self-centeredness of the speaker eclipses the supplication itself. Likewise, Donne’s chances for grace become increasingly slim as the scale of his egotism within the poem escalates. If we were to measure BATTER MY HEART for its potential to attract divine grace, we might do it by asking, as Herbert critic A. D. Nuttall does, “Is God pleased with what he reads?” Nuttall speculates that God would be happy with Herbert’s Dialogue because Herbert is “so submissive to his will” and demonstrates perfect “Christian humility.” If this is the standard by which God measures a person’s worthiness, then how does God feel about the tricky tactics?

Donne’s first tactic is his use of personal pronouns in a direct address. In the opening 4 lines of BATTER MY HEART, the speaker releases, like foxes from a pen, a string of verbs of three different grammatical moods: the imperative, the indicative and the subjunctive. This collision of tenses turns the poem into a site of struggle between the “I” and the “you” pronouns both of which are implicit within the verb forms. Interestingly, in terms of proportion, the “you” of the imperative and indicative moods are used 11 times, and the “I” of the subjunctive is used only 2, in the opening lines of the poem:

If the 2 “I’s” are weighed against the 11 “you’s” in these opening lines, the balance of the sonnet will fall heavy on the side of God’s power in action, or potential action, and light on the side of the speaker’s resistance. In this way, the predominance of the “you” pronouns supports the theory that the sonnet works as a prayer, since God is syntactically superior to the speaker and thus takes the role of grace-giver, and the speaker the passive petitioner of that grace.

Still, the sonnet’s tone doesn’t pretend to be submissive. Consider the paradox of the egoistic “I” eclipsing the tone of supplication of the poem. Donne’s “I” is such a strong presence in this poem that it is difficult to concede his humility. But on the other hand, a very effective “you” is also present—a “you” which is implicit in the perpetual imperative mood of the “you” verb. The question is, then, which is a stronger presence? Critic Martin Coyle thinks that when Donne exhorts God to “destroy” him in order that he may be “new,” what he is also doing is “foreground[ing] himself as in control while both God and Reason prove ‘weak’ .”

Although even if Donne is showing himself to be the one in control, there is also the poem’s lack of control to consider. The conspicuously stumbling meter and the randomly placed short-breathed caesuras do more than rob the poem of any meditative or “prayer”-like tenor: they bring the focus away from the imperative “you” back to the speaker, who becomes the locus of suspicion because of the strange instability of rhythm. This is not a sonnet of softly lilting iambic feet, but a series of pentameters that abuse the tradition of syllabic regularity. “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you” defies poetic explanation. It is neither solely iambic, nor solely trochaic, but a mixture of both; and the words “Batter my heart” can be read as either a trochee followed by an iamb, or two spondees side by side. This unidentifiability of meter, it can be argued, turns the prayer into a strongly individualistic, unstable, attention-seeking piece of egoistic poetry. And because the rhythm is an equal partner to content in meaning, the meaning of the poem reverts from the dominance of the 11 “you’s” of God, to the seemingly impotent 2 “I” verbs.

His second tactic relies heavily on the success of the first. This is the strategy of fictionalizing God, or “anthropomorphizing” him, as William Kerrigan defines it, in order to shape a more conceivable and accessible entity. Because the Christian notion of a personal God always experiences a certain amount of flux, and in the minds of 17th century thinkers it was undergoing a transformation toward a more abstract figure of larger proportion—an indefinable figure of almost mechanistic properties—for Donne this trend in thinking was a travesty to be abhorred and resisted, for he could not tolerate a God any more abstract than he already was. Thus, Donne applied the use of the metaphysical conceit as a figurative vehicle to create a fictional situation between himself and God, and in his conceits he featured God as something of a “king who has left a deputy to command his city” (Low).

But what exactly is an “anthropomorphized” God? Kerrigan explains it as a “fundamentally human instinct” which works both “downward” and “upward”: “Considering generically, as permissible expressions of our abiding loneliness, there is an unsettling brotherhood between the pet owner projecting his humanity downward in the hierarchy of being to his dog and the religious man projecting his humanity upward to his God, addressing his deity as his ‘father’ or ‘king’ .” In Donne’s sonnet BATTER MY HEART, Kerrigan argues, he contrives, by using “three conceits of equal importance developed in successive quatrains,” to concretize an abstract God: to give him flesh and blood and then to appeal to him to have a human response. In the first quatrain, God is characterized as “the male lover addressed in Trinitarian terms,” who is invited to convert the speaker’s soul; in the second, God is “there at the gates, besieging the ‘usurpt towne’ in the person of a monarch reclaiming his territory;” and in the third, we understand the “disturbing rape” to imply “the ancient theological conceit of the righteous soul’s marriage to God.” Kerrigan feels that Donne’s poetic strength lies in his ability to achieve “sensual immediacy, interior drama, and intense emotion,” all of which combine to make a powerful statement of longing. And once the effect has been achieved, “the difference between a heavenly father and an earthly father tends to disappear” and our minds accept the image of a God-man whose human circumstances are equal to our own in their mundaneness.

Funny to imagine that at a time when George Herbert was writing such gentle lines as “Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, / Who made the eyes but I?”, Donne was making his boldest designs on God: through the third tactic, the act of seduction.

In his essay “The Fearful Accommodations of John Donne,” Kerrigan lays out the erotic nature of this sonnet. “Recognizing how overtly this poem dares the forbidden we can appreciate the uncommon power of its closing paradox,” says Kerrigan. Anthony Low agrees with Kerrigan in this case that “the poem casts its influence backward, so that one cannot read the poem a second time without reading sexual implications from the beginning.” Taking it a step further, Arthur Marotti calls it a “passive homosexual fantasy.” Indeed, it is easy to see that Donne envisions God’s love for him a very human love—and an unmistakably erotic love.

To get straight to the point, Kerrigan interprets the opening phrase “Batter my heart” as an explicit reference to sexual intercourse, since “heart” was “not [an] uncommon slang word for vagina” and the battering suggests “the monarch’s engine” in the act of intercourse. To read the poem from the onset as the sexual act reminds us of C. S. Lewis’s decree of Donne as “uncomfortable”—and it doesn’t do much for reader comfort either. It is no wonder that, as Low mentions, this poem is “likely to trouble nearly any reader, from a traditional Christian to, say, a feminist-materialist.” Since rape is not an erotic transaction, it takes a stretch of the imagination to imagine it as one. But to Donne, and perhaps his male readers, the idea of a “divine rape” in which oneself is the victim is equal to imagining the utmost fantasy. Donne was obviously not out to offend his readers, but to titillate them; and as God is usually thought of as a male, Donne must have imagined a secretively appreciative audience.

Kerrigan doesn’t stop at the sexual metaphors, but underlines Donne’s inexhaustible “anthropomorphic crudity” and “outright blasphemy” by going on to read the poem itself as a mimesis of the sexual event. He says “the design of the poem grants extraordinary emphasis to the penetration of a tight body,” and in the way the tropes describe the “climactic invitation” the sonnet structure becomes the “repository of reference,” with the sexual finale being the “wave of implication (that) finally breaks.”

Kerrigan’s reading surpasses even the most extreme critiques, but it is substantive because it not only gives us further evidence of Donne’s strategy of seduction, but it elucidates why the sonnet form is the best poetic structure for Donne’s purposes. As a compact unit “contain[ing], in concentrated form, almost all that is human” (Spiller), the sonnet progresses in rhythmic waves toward the rhyming couplet, which brings with it, “like the fifth act of a play, a solution of previous incompleteness.” It makes perfect sense, considering Spiller’s definition, that Donne would use a sonnet to embody the wish for the sexual act. Of course, in BATTER MY HEART, as previously discussed, the rhythm is anything but regular and sex-like, but extremely “unstable” and violent: contributing to, as a mimetic effect, the violence throughout. But however the violence may imply the act of rape, the “brevity” of the sonnet “always gives an impression of immediacy” (Spiller). Therefore, the event of the poem is a present event and a tactile one.

Is the sexual act of the sonnet then a triumphant occasion for the poet? Or is it an anticlimactic failure that leaves the poet (and reader) flaccid and desireless from an auto-erotic emptiness?

I am tempted to believe that it was Donne’s intention that the mimesis of the sonnet do what the consecration of the bread in an Anglican mass does: to offer, symbolically, the “real presence” of God in the poem as the bread offers the “real presence” of God. In this way, the poem can function as equal partner to the sacramental Eucharist, which is exactly what Donne is after: a divinely inspired revelation, or the divine gift of grace, but in a purely personal format. Still, no matter how you look at it, there is still no physical being. There is simply no body!

Therefore, his loss is destined to remain a loss. As Donne vituperated in a sermon against the doctrine, “neither doth any one thing so overcharge God with contradictions, as the Transubstantiation of the Roman Church. There must be a Body there, and yet nowhere; In no place and yet in every place, where there is a consecration.” This outburst speaks volumes as to Donne’s compulsion to reject the inexplicable; to deny the indefensible. And also to his desire to create an explicit event that can be rendered from divine inspiration. It is certainly a giveaway for what drives his “sacramental” pen. Donne will have God on his own territory and in his own way, with or without church authority, the devil be damned.

It is for this reason that I can agree with C.S. Lewis’s description of John Donne and still love Donne’s work. I feel that where the “unescapable bore” succeeds out of tenacity, resolve and self-centeredness, others will fail out of humility, restraint and simple caution. And I will always cheer on a winner.


© 2004 Veronica Chater

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