Breaching the Walls

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Many of us still flinch at the memory of high school English, especially our initial exposure to “great poetry.”

Great poetry is not often easy to grasp, let alone appreciate.  It doesn’t always rhyme and rarely appears in Hallmark cards, let alone pop music or everyday conversation. 

Such is the work of John Donne (1573-1631), one of history’s great poetic wordsmiths. 

At the age of 42 Donne studied for the Anglican priesthood.  Up to that point he had lived with reckless abandon.  Having pursued numerous love affairs, he now began a love affair with God, one that uniquely prepared him for the greatest trial of his life.

Donne was the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral when London was swept by three consecutive waves of plague.

Funeral followed funeral.  Ultimately one third of the city was lost.  Pondering the bells that commemorated each death, Donne wrote, “No man is an island… any man’s death diminishes me…  Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 

After his wife Anne succumbed to illness, he poured out his grief in just five words:  “John Donne.  Anne Donne.  Undone.”

The poet wrestled with the task of surrendering his heart to God in the midst of such loss.  Out of his spiritual gloom emerged what came to be known as the Holy Sonnets.  A sonnet is a 14-line poem, each line typically boasting 10 syllables.  The most famous of the Holy Sonnets is called “Batter My Heart.”

Donne pictures his heart as a castle surrounded by impregnable walls.  How will God ever get in?

He begs God to knock down those walls, to batter his heart as a battering ram might shatter thick parapets. 

Why does this have to happen?  He identifies himself as conquered territory, “an usurped tower.”  He belongs not to God but to the Enemy, to whom he feels “betrothed.”

Donne writes with the anguish of someone wanting to be madly in love with God, but who feels trapped somewhere between spiritual mediocrity and brazen rebellion.

Therefore, with poetic expressions bordering on violence and brutality, he pulls no punches:  Do whatever it takes, Lord.  Hold nothing back.  Break me down.  Take me to yourself.  I’m all yours.

Modern ears may struggle with Donne’s medieval turns of phrase.  But don’t give up at first reading.

It’s worth journeying through these lines – the last three of which are rightly regarded as one of the most intimate, impassioned prayers ever set down in the English language.

Batter my heart, three-personed 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 tower, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your victory in me, me should defend,
But is captivated, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed 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.

Are you up for a real challenge? 

Memorize this sonnet.  Take your time and make this 400-year-old treasure your own. 

Think about each word.  Imagine yourself as the spiritual prisoner, begging God to set you free through whatever means necessary.

It’s worth the effort. 

Because no matter how we felt back in high school English, there’s a reason “great poetry” came to be known as “great” in the first place.