John Donne’s life, more than any poet’s, illustrates how the Elizabethan and Jacobean views of the world, which was based medieval world view, came to collide with the Renaissance one provided by the Copernican science. The result was confusion and scepticism. The contemporary intellectuals searched for a moral pattern that governs the world. However, in many their cases, the intellectuals fell back on to the traditional religion for ontological support as the new science could not provide at one all the answers. The same happened with Donne, who after spending a rather fiery youth, became afraid of God’s wrath and looked for His grace. However, it is to be noted that despite old age, his habit of using metaphysical conceit remained with him. But it should be pointed out that in his religious poetry, he drew his images from the Bible.
Donne begins the poem in his characteristic conceited manner:
“Batter my heart, three person’d God; for You
As yet but knock, breath, shine, and seek to mend;”
The poet here prays to God for grace and he may have the fear of damnation. He compares his body to a fort, which has been captured by His enemy Satan. He invokes the “three person’d” God or Trinity—God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, to exert his triple power and rescue him from Satan. The poet emphasises the role played by each part of the Trinity in saving the penitent. As the heart is the gate to the body, he implores God the Father to break, not merely to knock, the Holy Ghost to blow rather than breathe and the Son to burn, not just shine. He feels his whole being contaminated and that is why seeks to be made refreshed almost in a process like exorcism,
“…to breake, blowe, burn and make me new”
He finds that Reason, which is God’s envoy and which should preserve his soul for God, has been imprisoned by the usurping enemy Satan in the same way that a town’s governor is imprisoned by an invader:
“Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captivated and proves weak or untrue”
It may also mean that his Reason has proved too weak in its post as God’s viceroy or that, like a traitor, it has allied itself to the enemy.
In the sestet of the sonnet John Donne, after imploring God to break into his heart, says in his prayer that he loves God and wishes to be loved. But he finds himself in the same situation in which a woman has been forcibly betrothed to another. That is why he asks God to take the role of a lover and free him. He knows the real security rests in the hand of God, and so invites Him to capture him. Again, he feels himself impure for remaining so long in contact with Satan. So he finds that paradoxically he can be made chaste again only when he is ravished by God:
Except You enthral me, never shall be free
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”
The explicit sexual image used by Donne may seem outrtageous, but readers who are familiar with the Biblical equation of the devotee to a beloved can easily understand that the image expresses the intensity of the urge for salvation.