Donne uses graphic and violent imagery throughout the poem as a way of showing his utter desperation. This imagery is used in an exaggerated way to convey Donne’s strong desire for God, as well as implying that there is something else that is hindering his ability to allow God in himself. In using the metaphor “batter my heart” in the first line, Donne is implying that he wants God to use his power like a battering ram to enter his heart. This gives a strong indication that there is some unknown force – be it sin, evil, or the devil – preventing Donne himself from allowing God to enter.
He refers to God as the “three-personed God,” alluding to the Bible’s teaching of God as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Donne’s complaint is that God is not being aggressive enough in how he is dealing with him; the Father knocks, the Holy Spirit breathes, and the Son shines his light upon him, but Donne wants him to use his power more aggressively to “mend” him, help him become “new,” and force the evils out of him. The progression to violent imagery shows Donne’s desperation; he no longer wants God “knock,” but is asking him to “break” the door down, not simply “breathe” but to “blow,” and not “shine,” but to “burn.
The use of alliteration with the words “break,” “breathe” and “blow” help in drawing attention to their severity, and emphasizing the extent of Donne’s desperation. He believes that in using these destructive actions, God will free him from his weaknesses and make him new again. In the second quatrain, it becomes clear that the first four lines are meant to be taken metaphorically, rather than literally. Donne likens his heart to a city that has been overtaken, and he wants God to be aggressive in taking it back.
This expands upon the indication of the unknown force; Donne’s heart is the city that has been taken captive, and God is the savior that he wants to break down the gate and take it back by force. It becomes obvious in this quatrain that the previously unknown force holding Donne back is his sense reason and rationality. He shows that even his mind has failed him in his attempts to be close with God. Donne’s reason is what should be fighting for him in his battle and defending him, but instead is captured, shows weakness, and even lies to him.
He suggests that although he believes God is the rightful ruler of his heart, his rationality has been impaired such that he cannot defend Him and let Him in. The sestet begins with further reinforcement of the notion that Donne wants God back in his life, no matter how difficult it may be. He begins by stating that even though his spiritual life is currently in a state of struggle, he still has a deep affection of God and wants to love and be loved by Him. His state of desperation is the result of this struggle. Donne quickly returns to the shocking imagery that has been prevalent throughout, claiming he is “betrothed” to the enemy.
This claim of engagement to the devil is a paradox; he is not actually going to marry the devil, but at the time feels unwillingly more connected to God’s enemies and their ways than to God and God’s ways. He asks God to “divorce” him, to “untie or break” the engagement he has with the devil. At the end of the prayer, Donne uses two more paradoxes to explain how deep of a connection he wants to feel with God. He begs for God to imprison him to set him free and his feels as though God’s prison is the only way in which he can be truly free of his weaknesses, and pure of evils.
He also begs to be ravished and filled with delight so that he may become pure, which carries some sexual imagery. As with the metaphor in the first quatrain, this is not a literal request; he simply wants to be convinced of the power of God, so that he can have a close and loving relationship with Him. These contradictions show a deeply emotional affection towards God, and when taken figuratively are very effective in conveying his message of desperation. Although “Batter My Heart, Three-person’d God” is filled with graphic and violent imagery, John Donne is not attempting to be crude or inappropriate.
Donne is simply explaining his own tremulous relation with God, and uses the violent imagery as a means to show how desperate he has become in his mission to bring God back into his life. If he allows God to do whatever it takes, even if it means pain and the loss of his very freedom, he knows God can bring him into a close, loving relationship with Him and make him into the person he thinks God wants him to be. So he can pray, “Batter my heart,” “break, blow, burn,” “imprison me,” “enthrall” and “ravish” me, for he believes his God is a loving, pure, kind, and just “three-person’d God” and he trusts Him with his very heart, soul, and life.