Religious Poetry. The Speaker's Relation to God in Donne's "Batter my Heart" and Herbert's "The Collar"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

22 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Melanie W. (Author)



1. Introduction

2. Historical background

3. Analysis
3.1 “Batter my Heart”
3.2 „The Collar“

4. Comparison

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

After the great poetry in the 13th century, which was highly influenced by the Franciscan religion, the English religious lyric found a new age in the 17th century. Two of the main poets of this time, also called “metaphysical poets”, are John Donne (1572-1631) (cf. Beer 35ff.) and George Herbert (1593-1633) (cf. Beer 55ff.), whose poems will be analyzed in this term paper (cf. Esch 1). Reading “Batter my Heart” (Donne) and “The Collar” (Herbert) raises not only the question of religiosity but also of the speaker’s relation to God. Apart from the religious content, there are also stylistic devices, which are crucial for the time of metaphysical poetry. But, before it comes to an analyze, there will be given a short overview about the historical background, the importance of religion for the poets at that time and their impact on poetry to understand the meaning of their poems in a better way. Finally, there will be made a comparison of the two poems concerning the way they deal with religiosity and how they implement their idea of the speaker’s relation to God.

2. Historical background

“About the beginning of the seventeenth century, appeared a race of writers, that may be termed the metaphysical poets (Beer 2).” Dr Johnson who quoted that description in his “Life of Cowley” wanted to define a style of writing of a certain group of poets, which was sometimes also described as strong-lined (Cf. Beer 2). John Donne, whose poem will be analyzed and discussed later on, led this certain group of poets, George Herbert among them. His life was characterized by religiosity as well as Donne`s life. Donne, who was born a few years earlier, was brought up in the Catholic faith. Although he made terrible experiences within the Catholic Church (his uncle was sentenced to death because of being a Jesuit and his brother was put into prison for harboring a priest), he examined his religious standpoint in early years. Nevertheless, for a long time, he doubted that he ever would be worthy of being a priest and rather wanted to start a secular career until 1615 when he finally was ordained at St Paul`s (Cf. Beer 38f.). He became “one of the greatest preachers and developed over the years into a man of deep spirituality […] But he virtually ceased to be a poet (Beer 39).” Nonetheless, he wrote some of the major poems in the period of metaphysical poets before his priesthood.

Another religious man in the movement of those poets was, as already mentioned, George Herbert, who was a religious man, too. He grew up in a family of convinced devout Anglicans and his mother wanted him to take Holy Orders but, as well as Donne, he rather wished to get advancement in secular business like Court circles were he could not be successful. First in 1625, he decided to enter the Church influenced by Donne who went through the same decisions. Years later, he was ordinated deacon but because of different personal circumstances, he could not function in the way he was supposed to. After his marriage, he finally became a priest. He always wrote poems even in the service of God because he assumed his talent to be a gift (Cf. Beer 55f.).

Finally, Donne and Herbert do have more in common than ‘only’ the fact that they belonged to a group of writers that is called “metaphysical poets”. Both of them were religious man who were applied in the service of God and wrote about religiosity in their poems. Consequently, the meaning of religious elements in literature has a strong impact at that time but over the years, the question of the real existence of religious, even devotional poetry has risen from different sides. Dr Jonson, for instance, described the problem in the way that it was not the fault of the poets that religious literature failed. He rather made itself the problem (Cf. Esch 16):

“Contemplative piety, or the intercourse between God and the human soul, cannot be poetical. Man admitted to implore the mercy of his Creator and plead the merits of his Redeemer is already in a higher state than poetry can confer (Esch 16).”

He further mentions that the topics of religious poetry are faith, thanks, regret and request, which are human being conducts to the Maker and have nothing to do with poetry. To declare religious feelings, there is nothing more necessary than the simplest expression, which makes it so great. Poetry would only loose its power when it is used to express something that is more perfect than itself. Consequently, religious poetry might not be existent (Cf. Esch 17). Others, as T.S Eliot, think differently about that topic and account religious poetry not only existent but also real and great: “There are those for whom … the English devotional verse of the seventeenth century …[is] finer than that of any other country or religious communion at the time (Beer 28).” Certainly, the period of the metaphysical poets was a religious age in which the Church played an important role in public as well as in private life so that it obviously also occurred in literature but could the metaphysical poets accomplish their will to write religious poetry? And if so, what was the reason therefore? How did they create the relation between themselves and God?

In the following analysis, the fact of religiosity in poems at the time of metaphysical poets will be examined and religious elements especially between the speaker and God should be emphasized in Donne and Herbert’s poems so that there might be more clarity about the religious literature and its existence in metaphysical poetry.

3. Analysis

To analyze the two mentioned poems, it is important to outline the content and ascertain the form and language, which might be closely linked with the question of piety in metaphysical poetry. Also crucial is the attitude of the persona to God, which can be found out with the help of the reflection of content and style in the following analysis.

3.1 “Batter my Heart”

The poem “Batter my Heart” by John Donne was first published in 1633, two years after his death (Cf. Burrow xvi.) as most of his poems but probably written and already in circulation as a manuscript between 1609 and 1611. It is seen as one of his “Holy Sonnets” which are all more or less about the human’s position between sin and mercy (Cf. Esch 46). Consequently, it can be seen as a metaphysical poem, which is written as a sonnet and deals specifically with a speaker who prays to God to ask for battering his heart to get it reshaped by the Lord.


The poem begins with the speaker asking God to batter, in the sense of attacking, his heart to restore his soul in the following because he has engaged with the enemy. He wants his Creator to free him from the evil side to secure his eternal salvation. Consequently, the poem is the speaker’s request to God.


The sonnet contains 14 lines and is divided into two quatrains (one octave) and one sestet. Using five feet to a line, the metrical scheme is an iambic pentameter (Cf. Spörl 28) and the rhyme scheme is abba, abba, cdcd, ee, which is a fusion of two different types of sonnets. The first octave matches the first part of an Italian (Petrarchan) sonnet and the sestet corresponds with the last part of the English sonnet (Cf. Spörl 50ff.). Here, Donne uses a mixture, which is typical for his improvisation. The first eight lines have the same rhyme scheme; an embracing rhyme and also the next four lines belong together and cohere with an alternate rhyme. These three units also share different contents. The first eight lines deal with the struggle of the speaker and his request to his Creator to batter his heart, which describes a problem. After that, there used to be a turn in the third quatrain, followed by a solution in the last couplet, which brings the idea of the octave and sestet together. The turn in this poem is described by the image of an intimate relationship and the solution in the last two lines are represented through the speaker’s wish to be enslaved by God to be free. At this point, it becomes obvious that the form of the poem also goes in line with its content so that the form can be meaningful concerning the speaker’s attitude towards God.


The type of language often states the content in some kind of concealed manner but if the consumer reads between the lines, the meaning might become clearer, which will be attempted in the following.

In the first quatrain, the speaker asks for the penalization by God, which has not happened yet so that it is described with a clustering of verbs: “knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend (l.2)”[1] He speaks to the “three-personed God (l.1)” to emphasize his sincerity, which means not only the Creator as the God-Father, but also his son Jesus Christ whom he sent to earth to die for the human race and the Holy Ghost who came through the people to strengthen their believe. These verbs describe gentle sanctions by God, which is not to equate with the speaker’s demand to “batter” his heart that expresses a stronger meaning. In contrast to these gentle and harmless verbs, stand the verbs “to break, blow, burn, and make me new (l.4)” as a comparison in exact parallelism (Cf. Esch 50). Here the speaker says what he really expects by God in a metaphorical way. At this point, the reader might notice that the verbs are consistent with the expectations of the Trinity of the Lord. So, the God-Father knocks but should actually break, the Holy Ghost is associated with breathe but ought to blow the message of God and the Son is linked with the lights that shine from his halo, but should burn like fire as the speaker expects God in his trinity to penalize him. Furthermore, it is significant that Donne uses alliterations for his verbs “break, blow, burn (l.4)” to direct one’s attention to the importance of this destructive tendency. Finally, in the first quatrain, the speaker asks God to treat him violently so that he is able to “rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend / your force to […] make me new (l.3-4)” He also makes his position and will clear: It is his goal to grow from the suffer he wishes God does to him.

In the second quatrain with the same rhyme scheme, the speaker compares himself to a captured town: “I, like an usurped town (l.5)”. The word like is a sign for a simile, which describes his situation as slave to sin. He might be prisoned by Satan like a captured town. His only opportunity to be set free is God battering his heart, but the speaker is not able to led God in: “Labour to’ admit you; but oh, to no end (l.6)”. The expression oh is the first spontaneous sign of the speaker, which could stand for the desperation of him so that he led this sound out without any control of what he is saying. Another sign for his desperation might be the double occurrence of the word me in line 7. He only thinks about his own situation. With that, the persona approaches God directly again describing his situation that he cannot defend himself from evil although God gave the people the rationality to do it by themselves. At that point, the speaker does not believe in himself as a creation of God and in consequence not in God himself, too, which describes the problem that, as already mentioned, occurs often in the second quatrain of a sonnet.


[1] All quotes with corresponding lines references of the poems „Batter my Heart“ and „The Collar“ including the poems in the appendix are obtained by Colin Burow’s „Metaphysical Poetry“.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Religious Poetry. The Speaker's Relation to God in Donne's "Batter my Heart" and Herbert's "The Collar"
Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald
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ISBN (Book)
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17th Century, Religion, Poetry, God, Relation, Donne, Batter my heart, Herbert, The Collar
Quote paper
Melanie W. (Author), 2014, Religious Poetry. The Speaker's Relation to God in Donne's "Batter my Heart" and Herbert's "The Collar", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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