*Posted by Barry Creamer
One of my favorite poems of all time is John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14. I was exposed to it as an undergraduate student and found myself compelled to read it until, at last, it made sense to me. It was the first time I ever read a real poem and understood just how daunting, beautiful, provocative, and comforting poetry can be. Below the poem is my paraphrase of its basic meaning. I do not pretend it touches on all the nuances which make the poem so powerful. I only intend it as a bridge for readers unfamiliar with the language Donne uses to address a common struggle in Christian discipleship. (Of course, the numbering is added merely to help associate the lines of the paraphrase with the lines of the poem itself.)
John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14:
- Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
- As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
- That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
- Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
- I, like an usurp’d town to’another due,
- Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end;
- Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
- But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
- Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
- But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
- Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again,
- Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
- Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free,
- Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
- Break down the barriers to ruling my heart completely, God, because
- so far you have only politely knocked, gently breathed, lightly shined, and patiently sought to fix me.
- But if I am ever to be a mature disciple, You will have to completely overpower me. You will have to turn
- Your mighty power not just to knock, but to break down the door; not just to breathe but to blow mightily; not just to shine a light, but to burn with fire; and not just to fix me, but to make me brand new.
- I am like a town being ruled unjustly by someone else’s authority and owing whatever I have to someone else.
- I try to open the gate to my city and let you in, but I cannot overcome the wrongful authority and so nothing changes. I continue to be ruled by something other than You.
- My mind and the truth ought to be able to keep me safe from error,
- But even they are prisoners of my failed condition. So reason itself falters or even fails, and I am still sin’s prisoner.
- Still, my deepest love is committed to You, and I would gladly be completely consumed by Your love.
- But my most abiding obligation is to the one I want to escape, your enemy.
- Break off my relationship with the deceiver. Either patiently untangle me from him, or just cleanly cut the knot in one stroke, as you did when you first drew me to You.
- Then, take me with You. Make me Your prisoner. Because
- Unless you do–unless you mesmerize me–I will never be free from this enemy, from sin. Only in Your prison will I be free.
- I am desperate because I realize I will not be clean and innocent unless you violate my freedom and force me to be Yours.