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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 the science of its era?

Yeats argues that only one trait of human life is universal and recurrent in all human beings: the experiencing of moods over a lifetime. Our general terms for emotions are boring: “I’m depressed,” “I was so glad.” Experiencing a mood, however, is not boring at all: it is enlivening; it tells us that we are alive. (Robert Lowell observed in a letter that “a poem is an event, not the record of an event.”) Yeats dismisses both intellectual culture and natural phenomena as fundamental sources for poetry, claiming instead that only the moods are eternal, always formidably present everywhere and in all times, and recognized by each generation of human beings. The moods are “fire-born,” generated not from the material levels of earth, water, and air, but from a deathless fire, the invisible energy that sustains life. The moods are neither calm nor obedient: to the soul they are “a rout,” an ever-present and uncontrollable throng of disturbing visitors. Here is Yeats’s tiny two-beat poem on that overpowering and rebellious and memorable throng:

The Moods

Time drops in decay
Like a candle burnt out;
And the mountains and woods
Have their day, have their day;
What one in the rout
Of the fire-born moods
Has fallen away?

Answer: not one. Not a single mood, Yeats believes, has ever been lost from the repertory of personal consciousness, whether registered in human beings or reflected in poems. Contemporary readers recognize without effort every mood in Shakespeare’s sonnets: moods of infatuation, love, disgust, dismay, anger, wonder, meditation; moods sublime and shameful, trivial and tragic, coursing surprisingly in and through our own veins. In “Poem,” Elizabeth Bishop wrote, on seeing an old painting, “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” She had been there before.

To Yeats, a lyric poem exists because of the poet’s felt compulsion to trace the contour of the complex, invisible, shifting, alarming, and passionate moods constantly pressing on human beings from infancy on, and continuing (unceasing in variety and unpredictable in evolution) until death. The fierce obligation to animate the human moods on paper through a template of sonic form is an urgent one to poets, but they find the task an almost impossible one, since moods are so distinctly shaded in idiosyncratic fashion. My mood of melancholy may bear a “family resemblance” to yours, but it will manifest itself, linguistically speaking, in a different pacing, an unfamiliar scene, a new minor key, legato in lieu of staccato, syncopated rather than regular — and if its conceptual and melodic expression in language does not become an experience for the reader, the poem has failed as the unique internal energy-transfer it must aim to become.

To rescue a lyric poem of the Western past is to feel how deeply we have already encountered its human moods, although this may be the first time we have seen them illustrated in just this shading, at just this pace, with just this degree of unnerving precision. Poets exhibit a set of moods indescribable by any generality. In a poem we watch a blurred interior contour take on a distinct face, which turns out to be our own: “Heavens, I recognize the place!” At that point we can voice the words as if they have been born in us. The poets may be making distinctions that we have never made, but as soon as the words create a dynamic life in us, we are struck by their accuracy. Shakespeare, for instance, will offer a taunting definition of a certain inscrutable form of behavior, and complex though it is, we shiver and recognize the species of persons who toy with the emotions of others while themselves remaining, in a chilling sense, impeccable. Such a definition, in its obliqueness, is far from one we could have composed ourselves, but as we read Sonnet 94, we miserably recognize Shakespeare’s portrait of such seducers —

They that have power to hurt but will do none,
Who do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmovèd, cold, and to temptation slow…

The pain in the lines transmits a lover’s struggle to express — but in an abstract and impersonal form — his shameful infatuation with a narcissistic deceiver. The sonnet’s oblique concealment of the intrinsic nature and actions of such a person requires us to struggle, like the lover, to ascertain the truth. Recognition of our parallel struggle awakens the poem in us.

Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, like Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94, creates within us the experience of a disturbed sufferer. And it therefore provokes puzzled questions: why, instead of simply addressing God as a single deity, do I (as Donne’s speaker, henceforth referred to as “D” to distinguish him from Donne the author) feel called upon by my predicament to address all three “Persons” of the Christian Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, only to revert to a single God after I no longer “need” the Trinity? A modern reader may be unlikely to recall the two contested Christian concepts acted out within the poem: is a human being a creature predestined by a Calvinist God to eternal damnation or salvation, or is he its more humane opposite, a person endowed by the Creator with free will? Modernity has naturalized “predestination” as ordinary causality (historical, biological, psychoanalytic), and as the theology of creation drops out of the modern debate, the reality of “free will” becomes uncertain. Yet the ancient opposition of determinism and free will persists equally in the modern mind: can I free myself from addiction by sheer will? If not, is there any other recourse? D, finding himself inextricably addicted to promiscuity, seeks external aid to cure him. Today D might look for psychological or medical help, but in seventeenth-century England he calls on God.

As past eras drop away, not only do past concepts (the Trinity, predestination) become extinct, but also, for non-Latinists, there occurs the effacement of etymological meaning. The original English readers of Donne’s circulating manuscripts were highly educated Christians for whom Latin was almost as familiar as English. Such readers would have known that the Latin noun spiritus (as in “the Holy Spirit”) is, in English translation, “the breath,” which, when converted to a verb (“to breathe”) and intensified — as D demands — becomes the poem’s “blow.” Similarly, the Christian reader would have seen the pun by which the Son of God is said to be the Sun. Donne the theologian (see his extravagant later sermons) has perhaps experienced, and certainly analyzed, the complicated and conflicting emotions surging through the speaker of Holy Sonnet 14: the speaker knows the redemptive promise of a virtuous life, but is aware as well of the troubling guilt of persistent wrongdoing, the unrelenting fear of continued sexual addiction, and the defensive excuses usually offered by the addicted.

Yet almost all commentators have believed (as we can see from the exhausting number of their remarks quoted in the 2008 Donne Variorum) that Donne’s speaker is “praying” to God. That description seems dubious to me. Do we know what Donne would consider a prayer acceptable to God? Yes, we do: in Holy Sonnet 7, a repentant sinner, recalling Saint Paul’s consoling words, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” (Romans 5:20) can feel hope for his own salvation. Imagining the dead on Judgment Day, stationed “there” in the afterlife (when it has become too late to repent), the sinner prays as a penitent, “here” on “lowly ground,” that he will he be “taught “by God how to repent in time:

But let them [the dead] sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space;
For, if above all these, my sins abound,
‘Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there. Here on this lowly ground,
Teach me how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou hadst sealed my pardon with thy blood.

This speaker’s humble “Teach me how to repent” sounds nothing like D’s insistent imperatives hurled at God’s ear. Donne-the-composing-author would of course have recognized the difference between the penitent speaker’s acceptable “prayer” (an acknowledgment of sin, with a plea to be instructed in virtue by God) and D’s persistent (and improper) reproaches blaming God for His insufficient effectiveness. Still addicted, still unrepentant, D rails at his putative savior.

Readers with a hazy sense that any speech addressing God can be called a “prayer” have not understood that no acceptable prayer can reproach God (who is perfect) or can suggest (to a divinity who is eternal) that he alter his actions in time. Rather, a believer’s prayers address a God who is ever benevolent and ever the same. But “As yet” — says D (intemperately calling for an improved future from his silent God) “You / As yet but knock.” Christopher Hitchens sardonically remarked in Mortality that the person who prays “is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.” That epigram exactly sums up what is expressed in the first twelve lines of Donne’s sonnet, while in the last two lines D will discover — in the cleverest way — an acceptable alternative to propose: D will retain the helplessness he has maintained throughout; and God will bring him to salvation without external force.

Most readers have assumed that it is the “real Donne” — the historical authorial one — who speaks Holy Sonnet 14; he certainly speaks in propria persona within other sonnets. The commentators quoted in the Donne Variorum consistently mistake D’s actual speech-acts by employing in their paraphrases — besides the actual word “pray” — a number of synonyms: “Donne” entreats, beseeches, implores, pleads, and so on. But the speaker of the poem does not perform these religiously acceptable acts: rather, he demands, he reproaches, he insists, he complains, and he consistently represents himself as a victim of God’s inadequate assistance. And is it credible that the authorial Donne is here speaking as “himself,” when the impertinent D apparently does not understand the legitimate ways to address God and the reverent posture suitable for acceptable prayer? (Even the pious person about to pronounce a prayer has to beg God to find it acceptable.) It is the visible disharmony between the Donne who writes the other Holy Sonnets and the protesting “D” who speaks “Batter my heart” that compels a necessary distinction between author and speaker. This is always an awkward procedure because our instinct is to merge the author and the “I” of the poem, but it becomes necessary to separate them whenever there is a discrepancy (as when Donne speaks as a woman in “Break of Day”).

The historical Donne, author and courtier, was raised during the Reformation in an intensely Roman Catholic family, but later took orders in the English Church and eventually became Dean of St. Paul’s in London. Expert from youth in the diction of faith, he would not have seriously entertained D’s notion that he can harangue God on how to better His actions, nor would he have characterized D’s successive ultimatums as “prayers.” D’s expostulations to God arrive as a torrent of imperatives beginning with explosive b’s: batter, bend, break, blow, burn, and again break. These are not words of entreaty but words of offended entitlement. In one of Donne’s strokes of authorial wit, he exposes the self-serving reason for D’s triple mustering (in his battle against Satan) of all three Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Resentfully, D has been reflecting “There are three of Them: why are They not more efficacious in battling the enemy? Surely the divine Persons have more available power than Satan!” But the Trinity disappears from the poem when D recognizes how improbable it is that he, the sinner, will receive supernatural reinforcements: he re-imagines the military battle as a single combat with Satan; and once he drops the Trinitarian summons, D always addresses God in the singular (revealing that it was a matter of temporary military expediency to summon the three Persons in his first lines).

In his mood of rebellion, D demands more successful actions by all three Persons. Yes, God the Father created him, but His creature (now addicted to disobedience and sinful sexual expression) has come to grief. God must (commands D) create a replacement for D’s “old”self and make a whole “new” human being; it would be a mistake on God’s part merely to mend the old one. Since God the Son is (punningly) the Sun, he has the power to burn, to consume the “old” self utterly, making room for the “new” one; certainly he can do better than merely shine. God the Holy Spirit has so far merely deigned to breathe, instead he should blow, as he did in the guise of a “rushing mighty wind” when the apostles came together after Christ’s ascension into heaven: “And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, [the apostles] were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting” (Acts 2).

But in spite of D’s rising decibels, each person of the Trinity has continued mildly in known ways. God the Father merely mends the damaged being; God the Son will do no more than knock at the door of the heart, not batter it nor burn it with fire; and God the Holy Spirit gently breathes, will not blow the heart’s door open. In Donne’s emphatic arrangement of D’s excited verbs, the desired act always pushes itself into place before the current one:

batter <—————–knock
blow <—————–breathe
burn <—————–shine
make new <—————–seek to mend
break <—————–seek to mend
bend your force <—————–knock
break <——————seek to mend

God’s gentle present actions in the second column are “feminized” by their “weakness” vis-à-vis the powerful and explosive masculinity of all the “b” words in the first column. In an impatient argument, D urges his “masculine” verbs on the Trinity as a set of actions preferable to those “weak” ones that God has so far been resorting to. “Batter” the speaker’s heart — with what? A “battering ram,” the weapon that can conquer a city at the end of a siege. D irritably repudiates the feeble single “knock” in favor of troop action. (He has thereby explained his invoking of all three Persons of the Trinity, since a battering ram must be wielded by more than one attacker.) The satisfying resonance of the repeated “b’s” exposes the speaker’s exultation at having piled up (in prospect) so many reinforcements of his army. As D blames God for his own helpless continuation in a sinful state, he does not shame himself by naming his sins, but rather implies that God could nullify any and all sins if He would exert some energetic force.

Abandoning the hope of a Trinity-staffed battle, after the silent absence of the summoned Persons, D has decided on single combat — a duel with Satan. He imagines himself, in a plaintive simile, not as an actor in battle, but as the victim of an unnamed usurper of the throne of his own terrain: “I, like an usurped town…” His mood becomes one of self-excuse, as he releases a vague explanatory flashback (but one lacking many crucial details): “Once I was a well-governed city, ruled by God’s viceroy, Reason. Then a wicked usurper assumed [but how?] the throne of the viceroy.” The blurred narrative of victimization continues: Reason, the absent viceroy, is now a captive [but whose, and why?]. “The usurpation must have happened” [says D, blaming the viceroy] either because Reason was weak and is now imprisoned or — a far worse concluding speculation — that God’s viceroy has turned traitor, has been “untrue,” and is now a minion of Satan. D claims that his own strong efforts to admit God to the “usurped” city have been frustrated by Reason’s traitorous secession. Would the authorial Donne think to deceive God by such a tale? Of course not. It is the speaker who resorts to self-excuse, revealing himself as a hypocrite, once again blaming others (if not God, then Satan) for his plight.

As D continues his narrative into the immediate present, Donne-the-author turns the sonnet in a different direction, changing his rhyme scheme to alert his reader. The first eight lines (rhyming abbaabba) had created, in “embraced rhymes,” the octave of an “Italian” sonnet, but the closing six lines adopt a “Shakespearean” sestet, an alternately rhymed quatrain plus a couplet (cdcdee). Such a hybrid form announces a fundamental change in mood from octave to sestet, but we are not yet aware what it may be, although we feel the mood change as the speaker voices a single dejected admission: “Yet dearly I love you.” Still sinning, D quickly takes on a false pathos, asserting in self-defense that although he loves God dearly, and is eager to be loved in return, yet he has waked to find himself dismayingly “betrothed” to God’s enemy, Satan. How can that have happened, apparently without his conscious knowledge? D has voluntarily (if bafflingly) “tied the knot” — as the colloquial phrase has it — in a solemn public promise to marry. By some sorcery, D tells God, he has been betrayed into a contract with a seductive unnamed “enemy.” As usual, D never imputes any agency or blame to himself for his condition: the betrothal has merely “happened” (Donne discloses D’s attitude by the passive voice of “am betrothed,” rather than “I betrothed myself”).

Donne-the-author must now reveal that D, even after admitting the fact of the sinful betrothal, believes that he cannot extract himself from it, and has not changed his expectation that it is God’s responsibility to free him. Donne points out this truth by D’s voluntary return to the violence of his initial address to God (with the telling repetition of his earlier injunction, break, implying that he is still reproaching God’s inertia). Divorce me! he cries, from the promised marriage (appealing to the Jewish law permitting such action); untie or break that quasi-marital Gordian knot of betrothal. The pitch of the voice rises ever higher as the sinner’s mood worsens. In protest against his apparent helplessness. D bursts out (the vowel echoing the doubly resounding break), “Take me to you, imprison me.” In this histrionic climax, D unwittingly parallels the action he says he desires (“Imprison me)” with Satan’s action as he (supposedly) imprisoned God’s defeated and “captiv’d” viceroy. When a speaker — even unconsciously — wants God to reproduce an action by Satan, that speaker is emphatically not the authorial Donne but rather an imagined (and faulty) sexual sinner.

Although the poem has been composed of a string of verbs of demand, God has responded to none of them (not even to the “milder” suggestion of untie) and D’s despair has not yet been alleviated by any merciful act. Casting hither and yon for a verb which will move God to save him, D has so far run through a thesaurus of imperatives, always maintaining his own innocence, always making others responsible for his sin or professing ignorance of its cause. Does D sound here like a man praying? “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise,” says the Psalmist. Has D, up to this point, manifested a mood either heartbroken or contrite? To the contrary, he has remained wronged and accusatory. He has, in short, not been “praying” (or “entreating” or “imploring” or “beseeching” or “pleading”) at all; he has been rebuking God as too mild in his solicitations of the heart, too weak to prevent the usurpation of the heart-town by Satan, and even too timid to untie the betrothal-knot.

Though remaining wholly passive, D — after the bitter mood in which he scourges God’s inertia — is enabled to discover verbs which will change his state, will embody the necessary conditions for his restoration to virtue. As before, he expects God to be the active agent of his salvation. However, in the most linguistically “magical” move of the poem, D is rescued by the ability of his former language to mutate. Donne-the-author succeeds in letting D keep his desired passivity as he investigates the possibilities of salvation through etymology and grammar. Language saves D by presenting inspiring new verbs to him, translations into metaphor of his earlier literal claims. “Imprison me!” he has cried, and language (through its authorial tutor, Donne) whispers to him, “You know, there are other versions of the words you are thinking of using: for ‘imprison’ you could more aptly say ‘enthrall,’ since a ‘thrall’ is a prisoner, and “enthralled” means “(voluntarily) imprisoned by enchantment.” The Muse of Language offers an additional counsel: “And for the forcible ‘rape’ (which must have preceded your unwilled ‘betrothal’ to Satan) you could more properly ask God to ‘ravish’ you; the word indeed issues from the same root as ‘rape’ — rapere — but like ‘rapt’ and ‘rapture’ is metaphorical.” At this moment, transmitting the revelations of the Muse of Language, Donne the poet feels, twice, the joy of the mot juste:

                                   for I,
Except You enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The words “free” and “chaste” cast a light backwards, summing up the whole preceding narrative. By naming the virtues he desires — to be “free” and “chaste” — D confesses his hitherto unnamed sins, which are an enslavement to wrongdoing and sexual promiscuity.

But how was the magical revelation of the “right language” induced in D the sinner? It was, I think, by the one truth in D’s outburst at the turning-point indicated by the changing of the rhyme-scheme: at that moment D recalls a deep past attachment to God, one still present in memory, which he longs to rediscover. The subduing of mood and the drop of voice in his admission “Yet I love You, and would be lovèd fain” measure D’s subsequent despair when he feels himself unloved and in danger of damnation. That he has remembered, amid his frantic demands, his past happiness when he felt loved by God suggests that in his exhaustion he is taking stock of the better past as well as the wretched present.

In his blasting cascade of imperatives, D has been driven into a corner where his vocabulary of wrath is exhausted. Recalling his last mood of happiness, turning his face at last to the God he has been excoriating, remembering the past state in which he loved and was loved before sex and rebellion possessed him, and implicitly confessing his sins and his desire to be free and chaste, he hopes to regain equilibrium in a final “steady state”: “I can be free only when you enthrall me; I can be chaste only when you ravish me.” With “ravish” Donne is invoking the metaphorical sense of “rapere” — to abduct, to carry away — as he does in the Holy Sonnet on his wife’s death. Quoting St. Paul’s recollection of “a man” (probably himself) who was “caught up to the third heaven” (Corinthians 12:2), Donne remarks in Holy Sonnet 17 of his young wife that her soul was “early into heaven ravishèd.”

In the mind of D, as he remembers his happier state, God’s goodness and beauty replace the rival claims of a putatively adult independence and putatively passionate sexual experience. Donne-the-author arranges the final “Shakespearean” couplet in the figure called chiasmus, or “crossing.” In this figure of speech (which always implies a speaker’s intellectual control of his earlier affliction), the etymologically metaphorical verbs become the “outside” brackets, while the “inside” brackets are the adjectives of longed-for virtue — enthrall:free::chaste:ravish. Chiasmus is always a figure of forethought, showing the conscious close of emotional distress. Using “linear” terms of the conditions of his salvation, D would say, “Unless You’enthrall and ravish me, I will never be free and chaste.” Chiasmus, using “bracketing” terms, “locks” the “solution” into the completeness of coming full circle, ratified by the happy discovery of the two metaphorical verbs permitting D to solve his despair while allowing him to regain — without carrying out any activities to save himself — the feeling of being loved by God.

I can imagine that Donne’s whole poem was generated by his delighted discovery of the particular properties and the grammatical parallels of the verbs “enthrall” and “ravish.” Both verbs require a direct object, and as Donne constructs a scene in which “God” is the agent of these verbs, while D is the direct object, the poet obtains the psychological continuation of his speaker’s desire for passivity. If D were to speak here in the first person, he would have to render the facts in the passive voice: “I am enthralled by You”: “I am ravished by you.” Rather, the Son’s radiant presence (as the “Sun”) is indeed the agent, but not by an act of exerted force: rather, the divine light diffuses itself eternally without needing to effect any isolated action in time. When D laments “Yet I love you” in his bafflement, he has not yet realized that God requires nothing of him except to bask in the “Sun’s” shining warmth (erasing his angry wish that God should “burn” him). War — the first metaphorical axis of D’s sinful state — miraculously, in the warmth of God’s uninterrupted “shining,” recedes from memory; and Love — the second axis — mutates from erotic addiction to agape or Christian love, charity.

Granted, to understand “Batter my heart” in this century, the modern reader has to search out some aspects of Christianity in an encyclopedia and check the etymologies of two crucial verbs in a dictionary. But the reader is repaid by being thrust through an electric sequence of tumultuous moods, enacting them in person and experiencing them as virtual events. No other poem will transfuse agitation into the reader in exactly these dimensions, this angry and disturbed and excited doubt of one’s own will as a reliable agent of virtue, followed by the vivid sensation that God will not refuse salvation, but will, by a steady infusion of light, transform spiritual passivity into a cherished mutuality of enthralled self and ravished soul. The linguistic journey through moods so violently conducted and so exquisitely rewarded makes the reader see the speaker of the poem as a recognizable mirror of human anxiety and human sensibility. Anxiety and sensibility, never absent from the psyche, will arouse in readers, in the moment of immense final relief of the poem, a voice almost four hundred years old, making a faithful traversal of their own personal troubled and chaotic — but universal and timeless — moods of shame, perplexity, anger, resentment, and love.