And suddenly I panic: the tenth sonnet, and we’re running out of time, and the great poems clamour at the gates. What about us, say the rest of Shakespeare and Milton, and their Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries. No room for Samuel Daniel? And what about the great George Herbert?
And we still have to get to the age of Wordsworth, and Keats and Shelley. And make it to Gerard Manley Hopkins. And the Twentieth Century, there are stacks of great sonnets other than the two we started with. And what about our contemporaries, does nobody write sonnets any more?
Doomed, I tell you! Doomed!
But we can’t go forward until we’ve dealt with John Donne’s ‘Batter my heart…’
Donne was a bit of a lad in his youth, a lover and a philosopher, whose early poems are energetic exercises in sailing close to the wind. In maturity, he took holy orders and became Dean of St Paul’s in London. His ‘holy sonnets’ take the violence and surprise and ‘strong lines’ of his love poetry and turn them to his religious experience. The love of paradox and self-contradiction is the foundation of this great cry for creative destruction…
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,
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.