Commentary on Batter my heart

An impassioned plea

In the sonnet Batter my heart Donne quite deliberately goes out to find as many paradoxes as possible. But far from being an intellectual exercise, it is a deeply impassioned plea to the ‘three person'd God'. The Trinity is invoked as if the term ‘God' alone would not be sufficient as the person addressed.


As always, Donne's drama requires someone to address or argue with or, as here, plead with. The forceful opening is a plea for deliverance from a supposed state of apathy or lack of devotion and for a renewal of spirit. In fact the desperation voiced suggests a state far from apathy! So there is an unconscious paradox underlying the conscious ones.

In the first quatrain, then, God has to be very active. In the second quatrain Donne explains why. Try (‘Labour') as he might, he just cannot seem to allow God to have control of his life. He knows God should govern his life, but it is as if he's been taken over by other forces, though he does not say what these forces might be. They might be apathy, or they may be more obviously evil.

Love for God

In the sestet, he declares his continuing love for God, and his desire to receive God's love. Here the language becomes very sexual. Unless God really acts and takes Donne by force, he is never going to get out of his present spiritual state of sinfulness and indifference.

Donne here is not unique but is echoing the cry of many Christians down the centuries who have expressed a desire to be free to love and serve God more deeply, yet who have felt that something has held them back. The classic biblical passage expressing this comes in Romans 7, where Paul cries out: ‘O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?'(Romans 7:24 AV). Paul finds a way out; Donne leaves his poem unresolved, yet at the same time there is a sense that the battle has in fact been won.

Investigating Batter my heart
  • Relate Batter my heart to your own experiences of, perhaps, wanting to do something good or loving, but finding it difficult
    • How would you describe Donne's spiritual life? Do you find his struggles surprising?
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