“Doubt as sin,” writes Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, in his publication Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (86), criticizing the dogmatic pillars of Christianity that adhere to a resilient belief of God and religion. A true Christian, argues Nietzsche, ought to rectify their faith through “blindness and intoxication,” where “reason” should be cast aside and doubt be denounced a sin.
The mental vice of reasoning is deeply rooted in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet, Batter my Heart. Although the sonnet could be regarded as the prayer of a pleading soul in search for God’s “force” and majesty, one may perceive the speaker’s entreaty as a plain sign of doubt–even disbelief. A state of incredulity seems to overshadow the tone of the poem; which is contradictory to the willingness of the speaker to be overtaken by God’s absolute eminence. This conflict between the speaker’s will and reason’s aversion to comply formulates the poem into a confession–a manifestation of a troubled disciple that fears the dissipation of their idol’s sacred stature.
John Donne’s Unholy Call of Reason
The sonnet revolves around the premise of an extended metaphor: a representation of the speaker as a “usurp’d town”. Through the speaker’s request in the opening line, “[b]atter my heart”, the main conceit starts to present itself to the reader; the speaker urgently beseeches his God to take the shape of a battering ram in order to ferociously enter and claim his heart–the gate of the town. However, the conflict depicted in Donne’s poem lies in his adjectivization of the metaphorical town as “usurp’d”; which connotes the existence of “another,” to whom the town is claimed.
The speaker exhorts his God in the second line to exert more power in the process of claiming his being; the verbs “knock . . . breath . . . shine . . . seek” are rather softer actions to the speaker than the rigor of “break . . . blow . . . burn” in the fourth line. The speaker is “labour[ing]” to admit to the persisting claim of his God, but to no avail. The conflict of the poem reaches its full proximity by the seventh and eighth line, as the speaker declares:
“Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.”
Here, it is clearly stated that “Reason” is in fact God’s enemy. To recall the main conceit, the speaker is metaphorically a town that is seized by another entity which opposes the true claim–that of the speaker’s God. In the above two lines, “Reason” is declared as God’s “viceroy”; a designation that parallels the fidelity and complete devotion of its receiver. However, the town is recalled in the fifth line as “usurp’d”, which implies that God had sent Reason to exercise power over the town in his stead, but the obligations of that rule were not met. Reason, in other words, acted irrationally; to which the realist projection would have been the incredulous state of the speaker.
Doubt was not tolerated in John Donne’s ideological approach to religion; and this, along with spiritual turmoil, gave way to his fear. In Batter my heart, Donne’s diction and phrasing convey, at several times, a request of a physical manifestation of divine power. This physical need for celestial contact is not merely requested to be a mellow and heavenly reflection of His majesty, but the speaker pleads for what seems to be earthly suffering to his being: in the third line, Donne chooses the verbs “o’verthrow” and “bend”, which connote not the mildest of requests. The undertone of the following line, as in the use of the previously mentioned “break..blow.. burn”, resounds with the vehemence of the speaker’s plea. In Calvinism–Donne’s pledged doctrine–, earthly suffering was believed to grant “spiritual growth” and is also associated with sin. As the speaker in Batter my heart is “betroth’d unto [God’s] enemy” , sin might also define his recurrent state of affairs which resulted in a request to be taken by God’s eminence, not merely out of divine love and devotion, but also as an echoing of Donne’s fear of judgment.
The Holy Sonnets could be deemed as poetical representations of Donne’s despair and doubt, but the anxiety that followed his spiritual contemplations gives way to a deeper, existential meaning. Donne used to experience a fear of death; in The Second Anniversary, his concern was conveyed as a “fear of separating the soul from the body” (Targoff 106), but the eventual fate of his remains after death is not clearly determined in the poem–regarding both the physical and spiritual aspects of his being. In the Holy Sonnets, Donne’s fear shifts from death itself to a fear of divine judgment–an anxious wish for salvation. In Death be not proud, Donne views death’s danger as merely a temporary, hibernation-like state; and by becoming resurrected in the afterlife, death’s ultimate defeat is achieved:
“One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”
As John Donne psychologically ‘killes’ death in his mind, the lingering thought of its aftermath and the concept of judgment seem to haunt his thinking. In the Holy Sonnets, Donne began to unravel his flawed nature and confront its deficiency on the spiritual and physical dimensions. In Batter my heart, he demands immediate Divine attention, requesting to be overtaken in every way by the hegemony of God; which reflects his eagerness to be cleansed from sin. In another Holy sonnet, O! Might those sighs and tears return again, the speaker expresses his will to repent. In lines nine and ten, he describes a state and behavior that seem to be a reflection of the poet himself:
“Th’ hydroptic drunkard, and night-scouting thief,
The itchy lecher, and self-tickling proud”
John Donne viewed himself and his earlier ways of living as alarming, considering the imminent prospect of heavenly judgment. He refers to his earlier erotic lifestyle and promiscuous activity through “itchy lecher” and “hydroptic drunkard.” The perspective through which Donne perceives his earthly actions deems his physical state corruptive and sinful. His hope to make amends onto the path of righteousness is to be “enthralled” by God’s power, but “Reason” stands in the way, adding another sin to the lot. The last refuge for the speaker in Batter my heart is to endure the suffering–even beg for its happening, in the hope that his soul reaches an elevated state of spiritual purification; and, when the last hour has come, to be eligible for the merciful salvation of God.
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,”
- Process Theology and Calvinism
- John Donne, Body and Soul, by Rami Targoff (106~108)
- John Donne Holy Sonnets: with an introduction by John Daniel Thieme (9)