Structure and versification in Batter my heart

Complex form

The sonnet form used by Donne in Batter my heart is actually very complex. The octave form of the first part, with the rhyming scheme of abba abba definitely suggests the Petrarchan form. But as with other Donne sonnets, the sestet is somewhat of a mixed form, as Donne likes to get the clinching effect of the final couplet of the Shakespearean sonnet form. So, as with other sonnets, he rhymes cdcd ee. The punctuation goes against this, however. The last six lines break into a 2+1+3 pattern, which means that the last three lines read like a triplet. Even the ‘I/ee' rhyme is close. We could even argue that the last line stands apart, and it is that which is by itself the clincher, though anticipated by the preceding lines.

The iambic pentameter form of the sonnet is kept fairly rigidly. There are significant first foot inversions in ‘Batter', ‘Labour' and ‘Reason'. However, the urgency is maintained through the number of run-on lines (enjambement), at ll.1,3 and significantly, 12. The many lists of words make extra stresses (as ll.2,4) and also for an interrupted and jerky reading, which of course, mirrors his own state of mind. Even a line like

reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend

which seems to run smoothly enough to start with, has the deliberately awkward ‘mee, mee' in the middle to force a caesura. Lines 9,10 are the only ones to give a smooth reading, perhaps suggesting how tempting his present captivity still is to him.

Investigating Batter my heart
  • Try reading Batter my heart in several different ways, perhaps emphasising its fragmented nature or its cohesion
    • Which do you prefer?
  • Look at the structure of the octave
    • Is there any uniting force there?
    • Or does it divide into separate parts?
  • What do you think are the poem's strengths?
    • Would you say it deserves its reputation?

Resource: The poem has been set to music by Benjamin Britten: The Holy Sonnets of John Donne

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.