Though now remembered for his poetry, Donne was in his own day, and in the decades following his death, renowned as a preacher — Dr. Donne. His sermons were fiery, with titles like “Death’s Duel” (which was, in fact, his last sermon, preached just days before he died, probably from stomach cancer). There’s always, in Donne, a tension between Jack Donne — rake, lady’s man, incorrigible wit– and Dr. Donne, the deeply spiritual orator wrestling with his faith and with death itself. All his writing, however, shows a mind never at rest; it’s full of paradox, and flexible, inventive language.
Worship and desire often find unusual objects in Donne’s poetry. When he writes about women, the devotion is nearly saintlike; he addresses them as he would his God. On the other hand, his devotional poetry burns with all the passion of erotic desire. It’s just one of the reasons why Donne is so compulsively readable.
Here’s Holy Sonnet X (sometimes given as XIV), known conventionally by its first line, “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 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.
Amazing, right? Just look at the paradox in the last line! And the treatment of God as a ravishing lover — brilliant impudence.