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The Ultimate Spiritual Plateau: An Analysis of John Donne s Holy Sonnet 10
In John Donne s Holy Sonnet 10, the speaker finds himself in an intense struggle to obtain the ultimate relationship, which is to have God in his life. He feels distant from God because of his sins and finds it difficult to accept being saved as a sinner and being free from sin. The speaker wants God to enter his life, but feels unworthy due to his sinful past. The moral and religious qualms of the speaker are manifest during the sonnet, which seem like an avowal between lovers. These convictions of guilt, which stem from his sexual emotions, are what induce a desire for a relationship with God. Donne conveys the struggle between the base reality in which we are firmly planted, and our need to raise above our earthly confines, with the help of God, towards salvation.
The first quatrain shows the speaker’s aversion towards his mortal body and soul. Like a veteran crusader’s armor, the speaker’s heart is badly in need of repair, “Batter my heart…for You / As yet but knock, breath, shine, and seek to mend…” (1-2) The language, though not quite onomatopoeic, reflects the process of repair and maintenance. Craftsmen manipulate materials to change the outward appearance of an object: blacksmiths shape metal, weavers spin cloth from thread, and carpenters use lumber to frame houses. The physical properties of these primary materials remain unaltered. For the craftsman, to
“knock, breath, shine, and…mend,” (2) would change only the appearance or function of the speaker’s heart. However, repair isn’t what the speaker wants because his mortal defects are too great. Being mended is not going to solve the problem because he will not be saved, and will continue to be bogged down in his own sinful mire. It is only God the creator, unlike human craftsmen, who is capable of this outright spiritual transfiguration. “That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” (3-4) Here, Donne’s language echoes his knowledge of alchemy: the science of changing lead into gold. To “break, blow, [and] burn” would transform existing materials into completely new ones. The speaker seeks not mere metamorphosis, but a violent rebirth. Furthermore, the alliteration and assonance of the words “batter… breath… bend… break, blow, [and] burn” paint the sound of a deeply seated object being struck by a blunt instrument, or a priest striking his breast in furious prayer.
In the second quatrain, a complication arises when the speaker says he is to another due. (5) There is another character in the poem that has seized him by force, like an usurped town. (5) In the appropriation of a town, the usurper must be the new ruler of the town, the authoritative leader who snatches the reins of power from the original leader. This image of an usurped town makes an interesting metaphor for Satan s heist of a man s soul from God. It is the Christian belief that the human spirit, originally owned by God, is at a constant battle with the devil, who in turn provides perpetual temptation to which the Christians fall, and want God to mitigate. The speaker
says, Labor to admit You, but Oh, to no end! (6) He desires and works to admit God as the beholder, the controller and owner of his spirit, but the Devil s seizure is to no end. (6) His defense of the viceroy (7) in him proves weak and untrue. (8) The second part of the quatrain expands upon the speaker s spiritual incompetence, “Reason, Your viceroy in me, me should defend…” (7) Therefore, Reason, being a divine gift, presides over our bodies much like heaven presides over the earth. Reason, then, is of God, a small stipend of the Almighty. The speaker’s body, suffering from weakness, offers no defense from outside temptation; he “…proves, weak [and] untrue.” (8)
In the final sestet, the speaker feels susceptible to the temptations of Satan, and needs the relationship with God to solve his anguish. Despite his unsavory human qualities, the speaker has a profound love of God, “Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain…” (9) However, since the speaker is inherently flawed, he feels betrothed to Satan. Since he is betrothed unto [God s] enemy , (10) he needs for God to break his tie to Satan, and to imprison (12) him so that he will be less susceptible to the Devil s temptation. Like someone snared in a defective marriage, he must be divorced (11) or untied (11) from the knot. The speaker begs God to break the divine wedding knot, a simile for human weakness. More importantly, the speaker begs God to imprison him, so faltering from temptation will not jeopardize his soul, “Take me to you, imprison me, for I / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.” (12-14) The manner in which Donne describes this depicts the violent nature of how he
wants God to rescue him. Ironically, to become truly free and chaste, the speaker asks to be imprisoned and seized by God. Donne uses this contradiction to emphasize the relationship man has with himself and God; we can not will salvation through self-action, but through surrender. The speaker seems so keenly aware of his sins and wrongdoings, that it is imperative that God saves him from his sinful ways in an intense and brutal manner. These particular yearnings of treatment demonstrate the elevated fervor and passion of his religious conviction, which in this case is accompanied by brutality to compensate his sins.
The last sestet also serves as a further call by the speaker to strengthen his relationship with God, this time through his sexual emotions. Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,/ Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me. (13-14) Donne s choice of words is imperative in ascertaining the sexuality of the poem. The word enthrall (13) means to captivate, charm, and hold in slavery. The previous and following phrases, imprison me, (12) and never shall be free, (13) indicate that Donne used the word in every meaning. This has both a violent and a sexual slant; he is enslaved forcefully and sexually. This foreshadows the fornication, which takes place in the next line. Ravish (14) is a key verb which holds significant meaning. The different meanings for Ravish are: to seize and carry off by force, to kidnap, to rape and violate, and in Shakespearian times, to rob, plunder. Donne desires for God to seize him from the usurper, the Devil himself. The aforementioned word chaste, (14) meaning virginal and celibate, bestows
coherence on the definition as rape. He is asking God to break (4) him (or rape him) to make him new. (4) In the concluding line, the speaker states that he will never be chaste, except You ravish me. (14) The speaker can not claim he will never be virginal, unless he has been raped since it is contradictory in ever regard. It is apparent that Donne sees a rape from God as purification, a rebirth of virginity; once again, giving emphasis to his need to be punished for his transgressions. This raises the question to the exact nature of Donne s relationship with God, and why he is so spiritually dependent on God. The speaker asks God to purify him, to help him escape Satan s grasp, but at the same time he wants to be spiritually raped. In an explanatory sense, he wants to be recreated, made new, and at the same time mended, rectified in morals. Donne sees rape as a spiritual purification of the soul. It sanctifies chastity rather than annihilating it. He requests this violence to cleanse him of his sinful defilements, and wants God to beat the sin out of him to avoid further temptations. The whole intent of the poem seems contradictory, but it is very telling of the speaker s religious standing.
In the John Donne s Holy Sonnet 10 the speaker is a man who desperately needs the ultimate relationship with God in his life. The speaker has endured many spiritual battles, and needs God to repair the damages. Along the way, temptation arises in the form of the Devil. The speaker feels weak and vulnerable to Satan s evil desires. In an attempt to save his feeble soul, the speaker asks God to take him by any means possible in order to gain spiritual salvation. This need for a relationship with God, comes
through both a violent and sexual slant. Analogous to the irony of rape as a means of purification, God builds up as he tears down. Donne s religious principle is revealed in this metaphor, in his shocking request to be ravished into chastity. He is a man who is in desperate need of being forgiven and purified by God; and, a man who sees violence and spiritual rape as the only effective means of achieving this spiritual plateau.
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