Thoughts On A Poem I Didn't Understand

This is a poem by John Donne, an English poet and pastor from the late 16th and early 17th century. It’s Holy Sonnet XIV. If you don’t understand it, don’t worry. I didn’t either. (That’s no surprise though, I rarely understand poetry. And old language, I rarely understand that either.)

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 O, to no end.

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved 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.

I’m not good with poetry. I don’t understand it. Even after reviewing it for as long and thoroughly as we did in the class I read it for, I still didn't understand it. Crazy, I know. It just doesn't click with me. But, fortunately, I live with someone who does understand poetry. And fortunately, (this time) this person is very stubborn. Sam was determined after class last Thursday that she was going to make me understand the poem... She was successful. I understand it now. And I really like it.

Basically, what he is saying is that he has sin in his life that he can’t get rid of. He is taken over by the enemy. The enemy owns him. So he’s calling on God to overtake him, to imprison him, to break and mend him. In the last two lines he says that he will never be free unless God captures him, and he’ll never be without sin unless God takes him by force.

There is a lot more to the poem, but my goal here is not to explain the whole thing. What I want to do is talk about the overall theme of it and how it applies to the Christian life.

Every Christian goes through this struggle of trying to get rid of their sin. Even Paul talks about it. (Romans 7:15) But, for some reason, we can never do it. This is why, as Donne illustrates, we have to give ourselves to God.

This is a concept that, in the past couple years, I have been learning more and more about. And one that I am gradually finding more and more important. What I’ve realized is that the reason we can never overcome our sin is that sin is not our problem. Sin is the symptom. Our problem is that we have a broken relationship with God. The brokenness of the relationship pushes us toward sin. To rid ourselves of sin we have to restore that relationship and then continually build it. Only then will we be able to overcome our sin. The odd part is, it then won’t be us, but Christ in us changing the way we live.

I like to think of this in terms of light and darkness. The Bible speaks in these terms quite often. Think about it - sin is darkness. What do you do to get rid of darkness? You don’t try to push the darkness away. That’s impossible. What you do is turn on the light. The light, by nature, overcomes the darkness.

If this is true, why is it that we always try to push the sin out of our lives? Why not focus on the light? Drawing your focus away from the sin is the only way to get rid of it. And this is what I think Donne is talking about in the poem. He’s praying to God, “overtake me,” “bring in the light to overcome my darkness.” He was never going to live right, until the Light overwhelmed him.

What are some ways that have helped you to bring light into your life?

P.S. More on this topic to come in later posts.

The Bible Says There Is No God

So... I'm Starting a Blog...