Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God
By John Donne
Several poets have used the sonnet form to write testaments to their God. Of all of them I consider John Donne to be the best. His poetry is abruptly visual and passionate. It is love poetry in a religious context. But what it makes it even more remarkable, or makes it easier to understand is how heretical it was when it was written. That John Donne is remembered as a great Elizabethan poet, rather than a Catholic martyr, is either a consequence of the wealth and influence of his family or the appreciation of his talent.
Donne was born, in 1572, into a wealthy Catholic family in England. His mother was related to the martyr Sir Thomas More, and her brother, Donne’s uncle Jasper Heywood, was the head of the Jesuit mission in England. These were dangerous years to be a Catholic in England, a period of extreme persecution. Queen Elizabeth had proclaimed it high treason for a Catholic priest to be found anywhere in the realm. Catholic priests who were captured were brutally executed in a way to create fear and control by the Church of England. The punishment for Catholic martyrs was to be hanged, then taken down while still alive but incapacitated, their genitals cut off and their bowels torn out.
In 1583 Jasper Heywood was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Donne’s mother visited him. In an attempt to assist him in preparing a defense, she smuggled a fellow Jesuit, William Weston, into the Tower in disguise, taking along her twelve-year-old son as part of the plan, hoping that a child would ally the guards’ suspicions a Jesuit priest was entering.
As a teenager Donne attended Oxford. However completing a university degree was unthinkable, because it would involve renouncing Catholicism and proclaiming the Church of England’s articles of faith. Donne left Oxford before graduating and traveled abroad. In 1592 he returned and attended Lincoln’s Inn—a law college and finishing school for prosperous young men. A portrait painted at this time shows him wearing crucifix-shaped earrings, an insult to Protestants, and the painting bears a Spanish motto, Antes muerto que mudado (Sooner dead than changed)—a defiant assertion of his faith, the language as provocative as his poetry was later to be.
Donne’s poetry does not arise from an imagined peril, but instead was based on very real threats. In May 1593 his brother, Henry, one year younger, was arrested for sheltering a young Catholic priest, William Harrington. Harrington was condemned and executed as described. Henry, was found guilty of a felony for harboring a known Catholic priest, but escaped the same fate.
It is remarkable to consider how dangerous words can be. The enduring fame of Donne and enjoyment of his poetry is due in my mind to the vivid imagery and religious zeal. His poetry shares his faith, defiance, devotion and courage through his art. And no one, not even on pain of death, was going to take his faith from him.
Holy Sonnets: I am a little world made cunningly
by John Donne