Imagery and symbolism in Batter my heart

Force and bending into shape

Blacksmith, photo by Hans de Kroon, available through Creative Commons

The sonnet Batter my heart is dense with imagery. The verbs in the first quatrain suggest a variety of activities: from the domestic picture of a housewife cleaning and polishing to a blacksmith or metalworker bending into shape some obstinate object. The biblical image of a furnace used to shape us, as seen in Isaiah 48:10 and Ezekiel 22:20-22, is echoed here.

Under siege

In the second quatrain, the central image is of a besieged town, perhaps picking up on the opening word ‘Batter', as in a battering ram to break down a city's gates. Interestingly, another religious writer of the same century, John Bunyan, uses this image as the central symbol in his fiction The Holy War. The simile is an extended one, as the poet works out its details. Reason is ‘your viceroy', or governor, but is powerless to act. Donne is unable to reason himself into a better spiritual state. It is as though God's forces are outside, but Donne cannot get to the gates to let them in – hence the need for the battering ram.


In the sestet the imagery becomes markedly sexual – and paradoxical.

More on paradox: see Affliction I by George Herbert

Donne is portrayed as in love with God but betrothed to his enemy. In his time, when arranged marriages were not uncommon, this could happen. So the ‘Divorce mee' means God is to dissolve the betrothal, undo the knot of the engagement. Then come the clinching paradoxes: that of ‘enthral/free', where to enthral means to enslave, mentally or morally. The sexual overtones are made explicit in the last line, where ‘chast/ravish' are set alongside each other. In the sonnet As due by many titles, Donne talks of the Devil ravishing him, a more obvious use. But God ravishing?! The shock reverberates through the whole poem.

Investigating Batter my heart
  • Look at the male/female roles in Batter my heart
    • Which role does the poet take?
  • Compare this role with that taken in much of his love poetry
    • What significant differences do you see?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.