How to Talk to God

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 usurped town, to another due, Labor to admit You, but O, 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 lovèd 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. John Donne Can “old” poems, written in a vanished culture, be rescued for a contemporary reader, or will their brilliance be lost? I will fasten my hope here on John Donne’s spectacular fourteenth sonnet of his Holy Sonnets, published posthumously in 1633. But what are we rescuing in such a case? A statement? A fragment of autobiography? A portrait? Yeats, the finest poet of the twentieth century, offers an answer that seems to me the true one: a lyric poem is a simulacrum of a succession of human moods, conducting us through their rapid transitions and self-contradictions. The melody of the poem enters the reader invisibly, as if it were a transfusion. Yeats, an intense absorber of English poetry from the fourteenth century to the twentieth, had to ask himself, for his own instruction, what it was about certain past poems that made them endure. Since the passage of time tends to make prose — essays, sermons, philosophies, manifestos — decay, why should we prize past poems at all? Is a poem published in 1633 as outmoded for us as the theology or

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