|A Collection of
There are other sonnets on the KISS site, but
this page was set up as a collection point for sonnets that do not have
other homes on the site.
In Defense of Students -- On Donne's "Holy Sonnet XIV"
Although this is one of my favorite sonnets,
its vocabulary, imagery, and syntax make it extremely difficult for students
to understand on their own.
Asked what "Batter" means, for example, many
students respond with "mix up," as in cake or cookie batter. That image
does not make much sense, but for students to understand what Donne's speaker
means requires that they bring together "Batter" from the first line, "usurped
town" from the fourth line, and some knowledge of towns in the early 1600's.
And "usurped" (taken, often by force and without legal right) is not a
common word in most students' vocabulary. Once students realize that 17th
century towns were walled and gated, it doesn't take long for one or more
students to realize that "Batter" refers to a battering-ram. The speaker
is not asking God to "mix up' the speaker's heart, but rather he wants
God to batter His way into his heart in a very forceful way.
If "Batter," by chance, does not throw the
students, they meet, still in the first line, an uncommon use of "for"
as a conjunction. This is followed in line two by an uncommon use of "but"
to mean "only," and the "but" introduces an image that is almost totally
unknown to students under thirty. Even for people over thirty, "knock,
breathe, shine, and seek to mend" is unlikely to evoke Donne's intended
image of a tinker, a mender, usually itinerant, of pots and pans. Over
thirty myself, I can still remember dents in my mother's pots and pans.
Today's students have never seen such a thing. Donne's "knock" thus refers
to gently knocking the dented parts back into place, and then the tinker
would breathe on the pans as he proceeded to shine them up. (Students who
wear glasses are usually the first to catch the meaning of "breathe" and
"shine.") Students with some military background sometimes make the connection
to "spit shine," but I note that it would not have been nice, even back
then, to spit on the customer's pots and pans. (Some students catch the
idea of what is going on in this line if I give them the image of knocking
out dents in older cars.)
Students would probably have less of a problem
with the third line if a "So" preceded "That," but that would have ruined
the meter. At the other end of the third line, many students get snagged
by "bend," which simply means "use" here, but "use" would not rhyme with
"mend." Confused and lost by images and syntax beyond their control, most
students miss the beautiful, contrasting parallels between what the speaker
perceives of God as doing, and what he wants Him to do: "knock" rather
than "break," "breathe" rather than "blow," "shine" rather than "burn,"
and "seek to mend" rather than "make me new."
Even the students who have looked up the meaning
of "usurped" usually have trouble understanding what it means here, since
the adjective modifies town in a prepositional phrase that functions as
a simile -- the comparison of the speaker to a town is a long stretch for
most students, especially since they have to try to figure out usurped
by whom? And "to another due"? Even if we straighten out the syntax, the
sentence requires a religious context that not all students have -- I am
due to another (God). Even those students who believe it often have a difficult
time determining that the phrase means "I belong to God (but was usurped
by the Devil)." In line six, the speaker labors, but the students, comparatively
speaking, get a break from the complex syntax and vocabulary.
For most students, however, line seven defies
comprehension. ("Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend.")
For one, it requires religious, literary, and historical background.
As the years pass, it seems that fewer and fewer of my students are aware
of the Christian concept that God gave people the ability to reason in
order to help them choose right over wrong. But even those students who
are aware of the religious concept have problems because "Reason" is a
personification and because the direct object of "should defend" appears
before the verb does. Students, in other words, are well accustomed to
things such as "My head hurts" or "My heart bleeds," but, if they do manage
to get the sentence order straightened out, what are they to make of "Reason
should defend me"? It is not a usurped town, it is confusion city. Words,
words, ungoverned words!
Then, of course, there is the problem of "viceroy."
Some students will recognize it as the name of a cigarette; few know that
it means assistant to the king, or governor. Unlike Britain, of course,
this country has never had viceroys, so we can't really blame the students.
And it seems that fewer and fewer students are studying French -- in the
past, an occasional student of French would note that "roi" means king
and that "vice" probably has the same meaning as it does in "Vice President."
Thus, the student would basically figure out the meaning. But figuring
out the meaning (or looking it up) is only half the battle. How in heck
does the word fit in the sentence?
When I am sure from the long pause that no
one can tell me, I ask if anyone knows what an appositive is. Silence.
I'm usually sitting down during this class discussion. (I can't take it
standing up.) So I get up, trot to the board, and write an example -- "We
are in Williamsport, a city in Pennsylvania." "Ah," come a few (very few)
signs of recognition. And then I sometimes hear, "I remember those. We
studied them in eighth grade." Readers will, I hope, now see why I subtitled
this "In Defense of Students." It is not the students' fault that they
were taught isolated grammatical concepts that were subsequently ignored,
and rarely, if ever applied. The syntactic connection of "viceroy"
to "Reason" having been explained, most students see that the line means
that God gave people the ability to reason as his assistant (governor)
to defend them from the devil. *
Perhaps because too much explanation is coming
too fast, perhaps because they do not have the religious background, it
still takes many students a while to understand the implications of "untrue."
I usually remind students of "Young Goodman Brown," which we read earlier
in the course. Brown, of course, goes on his walk with the devil, "reasoning
as we go." I'll do it just one time. Well, everybody else is doing
it. Reason not only proves weak; sometimes it turns traitor, and reasoning
Some of the vocabulary in the rest of
the poem causes difficulty, but the syntax is fairly easy. Once teachers
can get students beyond the problems with vocabulary, imagery, and syntax,
the sonnet becomes a great example of the masterly use of paradoxes and
of sonnet form to support the speaker's theme. Pleading to God for help,
the speaker feels desperately caught in the struggle between God and the
devil. His frustration is, of course, suggested by his literal statements
and the basic imagery of the poem. But the intensity of that frustration
reverberates through the paradoxes and even the sonnet form.
One person's paradox is another's contradiction,
the primary difference being that it is a paradox if one believes it to
be true. Donne's speaker skillfully makes his plea and shows the difficulty
of his situation by both accepting and pointing to numerous religious paradoxes.
The tension between the apparently contradictory ideas in each paradox
echoes and expands the tension felt by the speaker.
In the first line, the speaker immediately
points to and accepts the most famous of these by addressing God as "three-personed."
The paradox of the Trinity has a long-debated history, with some Christians
totally accepting it, others denying or downplaying it, and still others
attempting to explain it as some sort of oxymoron. The speaker's immediate
acceptance of it is, in effect, a statement of faith, especially since
he later notes that "Reason," which is the only way, other than faith,
to resolve a paradox "proves weak or untrue."
For the speaker, however, faith itself is
not enough, since faith is unable to save him from temptations. Helpless
before the devil, the speaker evokes three other paradoxes, each of which
suggests the supra human, divine power that is needed to "free" him. Thus,
in line three, he begs God to throw him down ("o'erthrow me") so that he
can "rise and stand." The paradoxical situation of the speaker is then
emphasized in the climax of the poem, the last two lines of which each
present a paradox -- I won't be free unless you enslave me, and I won't
be chaste unless you ravish me. The pull between the opposing poles of
the paradoxes represent the pull between God and the devil. The speaker
is caught, helpless, between them and can be saved only by God's grace.
Like the paradoxes, the sonnet's very form
resonates with the speaker's frustrating situation. He wants to be God's,
but he is possessed by the devil. The sonnet "wants to be" Italian, but
it is also English. An Italian sonnet consists of an octave (eight lines)
and a sestet (six lines), with a "turn" in meaning from the octave to the
sestet. An English sonnet, on the other hand, is composed of three quatrains
and a couplet. Often the quatrains are distinguishable in meaning or imagery,
and the final couplet present a thematic, unifying idea.
The two types of sonnet are also basically distinguishable
by the pattern of their rhyme schemes. The Italian maintains a consistent
pattern in the octave, and a different pattern in the sestet. The rhyming
words are conventionally identified by letters, such that, for example,
an Italian pattern for the octave might be abba cddc. The pattern
for the sestet might then be efg efg (or ee ff gg). An English
sonnet might have the pattern abba cddc effe gg. Note that the distinguishing
lines are lines nine through twelve -- do they follow the pattern established
by the preceding eight, or do the create a separate pattern with lines
thirteen and fourteen?
When we examine the pattern of "Holy Sonnet
XIV," we find that it is neither Italian or English, but somewhere in between:
Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you a
Although this is clearly a sonnet, the rhyme scheme of lines nine through
twelve neither follows the pattern of the preceding eight, nor forms a
distinct pattern with the last two lines. In its rhyme scheme, therefore,
this sonnet is trapped between the Italian and English in the same way
that the speaker is trapped between God and the devil.
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. a
I, like an usurped town, to another due, c
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end. d
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue. c
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy: f
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I f **
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. g
An argument can be made that the imagery in
the poem likewise leaves it midway between Italian and English. In complex
poems such as this one, one's first glance is often confused, but a second
glance suggests that the structure of the imagery is Italian. The octave
presents the martial imagery of God battering his way like an army into
a usurped town. The sestet then turns to marital imagery -- "love," "betrothed,"
Further examination, however, suggests that
it may not be that simple. The first eight lines are clearly more related
to each other than they are to lines nine through twelve, but this "octave"
can be perceived as two quatrains. The first focuses on God and presents
what the speaker wants God to do; the second focuses on the speaker and
explains why he wants God to do it. If we then look at the last two lines,
they can be seen, not as part of a sestet, but rather as a couplet that
summarizes the entire poem. Line thirteen, with its reference to "enthrall"
and "free" may summarize the first two quatrains, and the final line summarizes
the third quatrain. As with the rhyme scheme, the imagery leaves this sonnet
hanging between Italian and English, God and the devil.
Students often feel that there is a major gap
between the real, and serious problems in their personal lives and the,
to them, meaningless literature that we ask them to explore. More often
than we might expect, students' problems are problems of belief. Students
to whom we present this sonnet, after all, are usually in their mid teens
to early twenties, a time in our lives when most of us questioned our belief
systems. If we can get students beyond the syntactic and vocabulary problems
in this sonnet, if we can give them the necessary historical and religious
background, they may well find the sonnet not only artistic and extremely
well done, but also very meaningful.
* A major point of this essay, of course, is that within
a KISS curriculum students should, at Level Five if not before, have learned
how to make the syntactic connection on their own.
** Some say that in Donne's time "I" rhymed with "enemy";
others claim that it was an acceptable "near rhyme." I make no claim to
being a scholar of Donne's poetry, but personally I prefer the "near" or
even non rhyme since it suggests the dissonance felt by the speaker between
him ("I") and the devil ("enemy").
on the Sonnet Form -- Italian, English, or Both?
In a short e-mail correspondence, I was informed
that my interpretation of the structure of this poem is incorrect. The
implication seemed to be that I am misleading students. The correspondent,
identified (if I remember correctly) only as Jane, informed me that this
is simply an English sonnet. Oddly like many grammarians, Jane did not
offer any explanations or justification -- she simply said that Italian
sonnets can have any rhyme scheme, but that this one is English. At the
time of the correspondence I was busy and had forgotten that this page
was on the web. (I have hundreds of them.) So in my last message I suggested
that her interpretation was too rigid and asked which of my pages she was
referring to. I never heard from her again. I mention this correspondence
not only because it interested me, but also because it reflects the rigid,
either/or mind-set of too many people (including teachers).
In the process of selecting some Shakespearean
sonnets for inclusion on this site, I ran across the following comment
by Stephen Spender that is relevant to this question. Discussing Shakespeare's
Sonnet # 94, Spender states that
...the poem takes the form of a general statement about the
virtues of the great and powerful, in the octave and then, in the sestet,
applies this to the young man." ["The Alike and the Other," in The Riddle
of Shakespeare's Sonnets. ed. Edward Hubler. NY: Basic Books, 1962.
Although some of the rhymes in lines 1-12 of "Sonnet # 94" are near,
or "half-rhymes," the sonnet clearly has the abab cdcd efef gg pattern
of an English sonnet. Spender, however, is a widely acknowledged literary
critic. Thus, if Spender can discuss the "octave" and "sestet" of "Sonnet
# 94," I don't see any reason why students cannot discuss Donne's "Holy
Sonnet XIV" in the same terms. In preparing Shakespeare's "Sonnet
# 146" for this site, I noted that it too has an English rhyme scheme
but can, even should, be discussed in terms of an Italian octave and sestet.
If Jane is a teacher, I feel sorry for her students.