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Holy Sonnet 14(1609)

John Donne

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
MeterBatter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
MeterAs yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend
MeterThat I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me and bend

Note on line 3: Editions of this poem often print subscript elision marks indicating an iambic scansion of foot 5 here, and of numerous other feet in lines ahead. While this may have been Donne’s preference — or just his posthumous printer’s in 1633 — for pedagogical purposes 4B4V prefers to let evident anapests be anapests wherever possible, dispensing with elision’s shock absorber and giving the washboard effect full play.

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
MeterYour force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Note on line 4: Rhythmically identical to the irregular line 2 above it, line 4 sets its centrally stressed verbs in a one-for-one correspondence to their counterparts in the earlier line, with alliteration for extra punch.

I, like an usurped town, to another due,
MeterI, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end;
MeterLabor to admit you, but O, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
MeterReason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

Note on line 7: “Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” So said his prosodically better-behaved contemporary Ben Jonson, and at a moment like this it’s hard not to concur. Syllables 6 through 9 in this line might each arguably be either stressed or slack, in a variety of possible combinations reflecting eligible postures a reader might activate and throw the voice into. Much turns on what importance is vested in “me” as histrionic focus of this outrageous if holy poem. Quite a lot, 4B4V thinks; but others will sound it differently. Warning: the next line is not much easier.

But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
MeterBut is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lovèd fain,
MeterYet dearly I love you, and would be lovèd fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
MeterBut am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;
MeterDivorce me, untie or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
MeterTake me to you, imprison me, for I,

Note on line 12: Admittedly there are only three indisputable stresses in this line: syllables 1, 6, and 10. Still, reconciling it to the pentameter is not a thankless task. “Me” in foot 4 is an obvious choice for stress, and a right one. But it is a nice question whether to make the second foot trochaic like the foot before or iambic like the foot after. Donne is entreating the Lord to ravish him: stress on “to” brings out the physicality of this spiritual rape, stress on “you” the contrast between the bold rescuing lover God and the cold litigious enemy Satan. 4B4V knows which lover to prefer, but not which reading.

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
MeterExcept you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
MeterNor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Rhyme
Show Stress    Foot division    Syncopation