“Batter My Heart”: Violence and the Sublime in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14

Sonia Kotiah
University of Mauritius, Reduit , Mauritius

Volume 7, Number 3, 2015 I Full Text PDF


In examining the sublime as recurring literary motif, this article proposes a philosophical reading of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14. This metaphysical poem posits a subjective persona whose spiritual dilemma is reflected by a violent desire to preserve individual autonomy and defy divine authority followed by eventual recognition of and submission to God’s will. Acknowledging that the notion of sublime is multi-faceted, the paper discusses how the sublime is mediated by violence in Holy Sonnet 14. The study is divided into three sections. While the first part provides a broad assessment of violence in Donne’s sonnets, the second part focuses on the creative and destructive characteristics of the sublime in Holy Sonnet 14. The third part then connects the sublime to Derridean aporia. Finally, the conclusion sums up the main aspects of the study.

Keywords: Donne, Metaphysical Poetry, sublime, violence


John Donne’s nineteen Holy Sonnets, originally published as Divine Meditations, represent violent conflict as a necessary aspect of any struggle towards self, societal or religious definition. Given that he observes both the Petrarchan octave/sestet and the English couplet, Donne’s commitment to the sonnet style remains largely conventional. The Holy Sonnets are nevertheless paradoxical poems which reflect a ritualistic confrontation with God and spiritual understanding. Moving beyond their traditional layout, these metaphysical poems are powerful in their imagery and marked by deep emotional bonds. They are poems of intimate and fertile violence, of internal wounds which are involved in the making of the “man of flesh as well as of spirit” (Baumlin 2004: 393).

Focusing closely on Holy Sonnet 14, the article argues that Donne’s characteristic mixture of anguish, despair and hope reinstates a form of violence which culminates in sublime experience. As stated by Thomas Huhn, “the achievement of the sublime is that it makes domination pleasurable and violence beautiful or rather: sublime” (1995: 269). Donne’s poetic evocations of conflict in the relationship between the individual and religion are often ambiguous and lead to sublime enunciations. His depictions of violence both in terms of the relationship with God and in one’s relationship with oneself are therefore usually sublime ones – that is they are creative as well as destructive. In a similar context, Jahan Ramazani discusses the fact that “the sublime transforms the painful spectacle of destruction and death into a joyful assertion of human freedom and transcendence” (1989: 163).

According to Kenneth Holmqvist and Jaroslaw P?uciennik, the fact that the sublime can be organized under a wide repertoire enhances meanings ranging from the aesthetic, the ethical, philosophical, psychological, political, linguistic and rhetorical (2002: 718). Given that Holy Sonnet 14 engages with violence in the guise of defiance, fear, awe and wonder, this paper chooses to focus on the sublime as a literary motif. After all, the recurring violence in Donne’s Holy Sonnets ascertains a latent discomfort vis-à-vis religion. Set in the metaphysical discourse characteristic of the seventeenth century British literary scene, these poems incorporate specific religious references which establish and affirm the existence of spiritual dilemmas.

The agitated nature of the I-persona’s utterances in most of the sonnets clearly indicates a leaning towards brutality and instability. “I run to death,” states the speaker in Holy Sonnet 1 (611 L3). The violence follows a distinct pattern in Holy Sonnet 5 where a particularly aggressive speaker invokes divinity, “And burn me, O Lord, with a fiery zeal” (612 L13). The “scattered bodies” (612 L4) mingling with “Thy blood” (612 L14) in Holy Sonnet 7 evoke a further example of the problematic relationship between pain/death and transcendence/joy. Holy Sonnet 10 pushes the notion of sublime to more ambitious ends by conversing with and defying Death, “Death, thou shalt die” (612 L14). Basically, Donne’s Holy Sonnets involve an active I-persona seeking to evade and at times confront a divine centre, an authority. The result is one of implicit violence towards the assumed “centre”, the “three-personed God” (613 L1) evoked in Holy Sonnet 14Full Text PDF

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