Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God, John Donne – an analysis


There’s a god for just three people? Well that’s pretty specific. And from the looks of things, the author isn’t part of that privileged little circle if he’s having his heart battered. Is it served with chips? (sorry. Grossness in accordance with a rumbly tummy…)

Gut Reaction
Huh. It’s a little sexual, isn’t it?

What does it all mean?
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

I’m not sure what the ‘three-person’ part is about but it sounds like this author is saying hit me harder because currently you’re too gentle. Is he asking his god for some kind of sign to make him ‘believe’ more? Up until now he has ‘loved’ his god in a manner that screams of phoning it in – faith because it’s what is expected perhaps? Only now, he wants something that makes him want to believe/love passionately.

It is entirely possible that I have been reading far too much fanfiction lately, but what if the author is talking to a lover? What if they’ve been going through the motions but what he wants from his lover is something that gives him the conviction to fall completely?

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

If his god ‘batters his heart’ it will make him stronger. If his god overpowers him and uses his power to punish or bend him/his will, he will be made new.

Again, too much fanfiction… this author wants to be overthrown. He wants to be dominated. He wants to be broken and he seems to think by having this… experience… he will rise from the ashes like a phoenix. (I’d like to point out that it isn’t Harry Potter fanfiction I’ve been reading, the phoenix is purely coincidental)

I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

The author uses the simile of the ‘usurp’d town’ as himself, and some analyses point to the asurp’d town being a metaphor extended throughout the poem. If we look at this with religious implications, is the author saying he has been tempted by Satan and desperately wants God to ‘rescue’ him by taking him over?

In my twisted fanfiction land, I’m seeing a person who is torn; he wants this person, or more accurately he wants to want this person, and he’s doing all he can to attract their attention or make them aware of his needs, but it’s not working.

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.

So reason is ‘God’s viceroy’ – surely the normal viceroy of God is something like a priest? But reason is something he feels he should defend, yet it has let him down.


This couplet confuses me. Okay, let’s try again. My reason… my reason, my faith? Is not as strong as it should be, I have doubts? My reason for wanting you (fanfic time) I feel I should be defensive about but I can’t, it’s a lame reason. Or maybe his internal argument is weak and lame and there’s no reason at all behind him not having the love that he wants?

Nope. Still confused.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;

He loves his god, and would willingly receive his love, but is tied to his enemy – Satan? Has he sold his soul, taken up Satanism instead of Christianity and can’t find his way back – is that what he’s begging for, help getting ‘back’? Or is it just the author’s misery at his doubts that make him feel like he’s gone over ‘to the other side’?

Is this a lover’s triangle? The author really, really wants or loves the subject and wants the subject to show that they share their feelings – and they would happily drop everything for them but the thing is, they’re involved with an enemy of their would be-beloved.

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.
So he wants to sever all ties with his god and give himself wholly over to Satan? So he’s begging for god to take him captive so he can’t? He fears his devotion to something he doesn’t want to be devoted to? He’s saying, if you don’t lock me up in your embrace, this is where I’m heading – although I’ll never be free of how you mesmerise me, and my feelings are never innocent, I want you to take me whole?

Fanfic time – it’s that push me pull me aspect, isn’t it? Either take me as I am and make me stay or I’ll walk out of your life forever. Only I’m lying to myself and I’ll always be drawn to you, you’ll never be off of my mind, and my thoughts of you won’t ever be chaste, I’ll be fantasising about you, um, ravishing me, even if I deny it?

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
This appears as both one piece of text or three quatrains followed by a couplet.

Pleading, desperate, wanton?

Suggested rhyme scheme

Line 12 d is in brackets because it could be a half rhyme or an eye rhyme. This is a petrarchan sonnet, a traditionally used in love poetry.

Similes and metaphors
The usurp’d town as the author himself. He’s already been taken over and he knows he can’t change that, but he’s looking for an out.

Author’s relationship with their subject
It seems very much that the author is looking on their subject to be their saviour, however you look at it.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
There is so, so much analysis out there for this poem, you’ll be tripping over yourself with imagery and metaphor.

Signing off
I like this poem more and more each time I read it but I also feel more and more confused by it. There are so many contradictions – I’m already taken over but save me, I love you but I love another, I have reason but I have no reason… I can’t actually tell if it’s deliberately confusing or unintentionally a mind twister – If I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t be virtually stoned by worshippers of John Donne’s work, I’d go as far to say it’s drunken love poetry (oops… too late… unleash the pebbles on me…)
I suppose a lot of the contradictions can come of the confusion that is religion and faith itself. If you have faith, it’s just that, faith – but sometimes you want, you need more, to know that this connection is valid.
The use of sexual language throughout, is that another contradiction? Is it in contrast to religion or a part of it? Is it nothing to do with religion at all (despite it being one of the ‘holy sonnets’) and just about good old-fashioned lust?
There is violence here in the want of the author to be ‘taken’ by the god or the lover that he is speaking to. Only they can make him ‘chaste’ by ‘ravishing him?’ He can only be free if he is a prisoner? Will he only be whole if his is mastered? How can you be free if you are powerless? It’s almost as though he wants all his decisions taken away from him in order to be who he really is. Does… is what he wants from life… to be someone’s bitch??
Well. I think this sonnet raises more questions than it does give answers, it feels like the more you read it the more you get from it. I really like it, and is it really necessary to understand a poem in entirety to enjoy it? Of course not – that is the beauty of poetry: it is up for interpretation. And as much as I’d love John Donne to explain it all – especially the ‘three-person’ god – that is never going to happen. So I shall enjoy it for what it is.



Poets Org
When I read this I think of the song… How could you not think of Closer when you read this poem? It is basically Trent Reznor’s own personal analysis of the poem 🙂


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