Poem-A-Day: John Donne

So for some of us, this is a holy weekend. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday — and some of us were paying attention to Maundy Thursday too. For some of us, there will be a lot of candy involved. Resuming the indulgence in our recent sacrifices. Eggs. Springy animals. Wearing white again. Meeting up with friends, coping with family. Commenting on the beautiful weather. Prayer. Reflection. Chocolate, chocolate everywhere, and not an ounce uneaten.

When I think about holy poems, I turn to John Donne, one of my favorite poets of the English Renaissance. His trajectory through life led him to become a priest in the Church of England, but he was a poet first, and one whose attention to matters carnal was just as pronounced as his attention to matters spiritual later.

Good Friday is about passion. When I was growing up in the Catholic Church, that word carried with it challenging baggage: it was both a thing to love and a thing to despise, a thing to aspire toward and a thing to fear. No matter how you sliced the connotation, it was a basket full of conflicting images, conflicting impulses, conflicting directives.

In my Catholic school, at Good Friday service, a boy from the eighth grade was selected each year to the dubious honor of playing Christ in the Stations of the Cross. He was led through the Stations before the entire student body, the faculty, the administration; he carried a wooden cross larger than he was; he was guided by two of his male peers, dressed as acolytes; by the end of the service they had stripped his white robes to his waist, so that he would stand before the community, pale and freckled chest bared, arms draped over the cross leaning against his back, his eyes always — always — lowered in what felt to me more like shame than prayer. We were silent, watching, more still in our observation than children ever otherwise were.

The spiritual passion of John Donne’s poetry at times rivaled the carnal passion of his love poetry from before he accepted the cloth. The following sonnet exemplifies this same contradiction I learned through a life both spiritual and linguistic: that passion can be hideously exalting, gloriously demeaning, both a craving and a deeply felt pain.

***

Batter my heart, three-person’d God

 

Batter my heart, three-person’d 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 usurp’d town to another due,
Labour 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.

***

For some astute analysis of this poem, check out the Interesting Literature blog.

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