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.
John Donne, Holy Sonnet
Reflection – One more day of poetry, then on to other stuff! I’m not a huge Donne fan, to be honest, but have always found this one to be rather moving. It captures so very well the reality of our resistance to God, the desire we carry within us that God should overcome that resistance and that we be His entirely at last, and the fact that we of ourselves do not have to power to overcome that resistance.
The images used—a city under siege, a woman betrothed to a loathed enemy—are telling. The violent imagery of the first stanza suggests Jacob’s wrestling with the angel; the last couplet is downright disturbing in its violent wording, yet there it is.
This poem raises questions about the nature of freedom and grace and discusses them in a way that some would consider Calvinist—the soul of the pre-destined one being overpowered by the action of God, freedom essentially becoming an illusion in this presentation.
Well, you could read the poem that way, and if you wish push it to the extremes of Calvinist theology—absolute corruption of human nature into sin, absolute necessity of God to act, therefore the action of God is only given to his favored pre-destined souls, and so forth.
I read the poem as a Catholic, and so see in it strong echoes of John of the Cross, the mystical tradition of the Carmelites, and that strong Augustinian stress on the utter necessity of God’s grace to save and restore the human person. In that, there is much to be meditated upon regarding the nature of human freedom and the intersection of God’s action and our response.
‘Except you enthrall me, never shall be free’ is a most profound statement. We do tend to think that freedom means unencumbrance, means that nothing and no one has any absolute claim on us. This is a profound spiritual mistake, one which in fact delivers us over to the most base slavery, which is slavery to the winds and whims of desire, fancy, and fashion. We are not strong enough, in an essential metaphysical way, to stand in the kind of freedom we imagine to be the human ideal. When we cast off the yoke of God in the name of human freedom, we end up the worst and most degraded of thralls, trafficked to the highest bidder for our passions without any capacity to resist or any means of escape.
It is the great paradox, only learned by experience, that the servitude of God is the doorway into absolute and utter human liberty, the surrender of one’s own self-will the road into freedom and full joyous human life. The slave traders of the human person are the passions, the unfettered desires; it is only in their fettering and harnessing that the person is emancipated and walks free.
Donne’s poem reflects on all this, with great poetic beauty. I must say, too, without lapsing into inappropriately public self-revelation, that this sonnet captures my own spiritual experience and journey pretty accurately. And this is one of the great gifts of poetry, why I am a proud poetry geek and will occasionally lapse into a sonnet on this blog. Poetry gives words to the deepest level of human experience and apprehension of reality, that which cannot be expressed in simple prose but has to be voiced in meter and rhyme, image and allusion. That is the function of poetry, that its abiding value for us.