From the time of the English Renaissance to the time of the Restoration, English history and literature experienced an insurmountable amount of turmoil, the rise and fall of monarchial dynasties, the constant pressure between Protestants and Catholics, as well as changes in literary techniques and literary subjects. From the height of the English Renaissance to the beginning of the English Civil War, the Cavalier poets reigned, their erotic romantic poems enlightening the charisma of the age. Yet even during the diffusion of profligate poetry, the Church of England still had a sway in the English culture to the degree that some of English literature’s greatest poets wrote both erotic and religious poetry, particularly John Donne. While the former is certainly worthy of an essay, this essay will focus more on the latter, with two particular poems in mind. This essay will seek to compare John Donne’s holy sonnet “Batter my Heart” and George Herbert’s “The Altar” in their ways of describing the contrite nature of the sinning speaker and how both speakers entreat God to make them new.
First of all, both poems describe a contrite sinner, a sinner in desperate need of grace. In John Donne’s poem, he describes his own state of sin:
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captivated, and proves weak and untrue…
But I am betrothed unto your enemy (lines5-8,10).
He desires to “admit” or trust in God but cannot because his spirit is “captivated” by the devil. His spiritual state is such that he cannot return to God on his own volition. Such is the state of the sinner in Donne’s poem.
In Herbert’s poem, the sinner is only briefly described in the terms of God’s salvific power and one other time in terms of his own futile efforts to praise God. George Herbert first mentions the state of the contrite sinner in the very center of the emblem poem, “A HEART alone/ is such a stone,/ As nothing but/ Thy power doth cut” (lines 5-8). Of course this alludes to the biblical idea that the heart is desperately wicked and sinful and only God’s Grace can redeem it. He acknowledges that God’s power is the only one is save him. His second description of the state of sin is in the base of the altar where he says, “That, if I chance to hold my peace,/ These stones to praise thee may not cease” (lines 13-14). He acknowledges man’s duty to praise God but also takes into account the fact that men are sinners and will fail at times to praise God. Yet even if they fail, God will raise up others, even the stones, to praise Him. Herbert only hints at the sinner’s state in this poem but the majority of this poem is spent repenting from sin and turning to God in humility.
The second commonality the two poems share is recognition that God alone can save them from their sin nature. Donne realizes this throughout the poem and his logic for such knowledge is evident in the structure of the poem. His first few lines, “Batter my heart, three personed God; for you/ As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend” state a desire for God to break his spirit. In line four he gives the reason, “Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new”; he desires for his heart to be renewed after the likeness of Christ and to made free from the bondage of sin (line 14). However, there is a dilemma; “I… Labor to admit you, but O, to no end…Reason…is captivated, and proves weak or untrue” (lines 6-8). He cannot do this on his own and that is why he cries for Almighty God’s help. George Herbert states this in lines five through eight, “A HEART alone/Is such a stone,/ As nothing but/ Thy power doth cut” . Here he states that only God can pierce the heart of diamond that he possesses. Although the line “No workman’s tool hath touched the same” states that God has made him, it can be taken to mean another statement no work of man can touch or save his heart.
The third and most vividly painted commonality between the two poems is the desire to be broken in spirit by God. Both writers know that God desires a contrite heart (Matthew 5, Psalm 51 and Psalm 34) and that such a heart declares our need of Christ. Donne uses very forceful language to implore God for him to create a broken spirit within him. He uses a series of imperatives, “batter my heart”, “o’erthrow me”, “break”, “blow”, “burn”, “make me new”, “divorce me”, and “untie or break that knot again” to signify that he really wants God to melt his heart for the sin in it and become humbled to the dust that Christ may accept his repentance. Such imperatives are not exactly the words one would normally ask or command someone to enact upon oneself. Plainly speaking, they aren’t nice words and it would seem odd that Donne would use them in his poem. But poetry uses very strong language to get its point across and to move for immediate action. I think Donne uses that language to give us a greater sense of the gravity of one’s sin. Herbert’s language of desiring brokenness is a bit different and much more silent than Donne’s imperatives. His subtle language uses the image of an altar to do the same thing that Donne did. However, Herbert’s state of brokenness may be more advanced than Donne’s since he uses a different verb tense. Herbert states, “A broken ALTAR, O Lord, thy servant rears,/Made of a heart, and cemented with tears” (line 1-2). This basically denotes that Herbert’s heart is already broken and now he’s offering it to God. Donne’s heart needed to be broken, hence the imperative verbs. Herbert still acknowledges the goodness of a broken heart since it now “meets in this frame/ To praise thy Name” (lines 11-12). Furthermore, Herbert desires that, “Oh let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,/ And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine” (lines 15-16). Here he desires that the sacrifice of Christ he administered to him just as John Donne desires in his poem “Take me to you, imprison me” (line 12). Here both poets desire to be the possession of God that they may enjoy his love.
The poems of John Donne and George Herbert are very different in their manner of using language, especially religious language. Donne is much more violent or forceful than Herbert and uses the idea of battering a heart into submission while Herbert uses delicate language to reflect the pious and quiet nature of a contrite heart; a heart that, being made of stone, can only be broken by God. Furthermore, the religious states of the speakers are quite different; Donne’s poem reflects a man deeply in need of forgiveness as if he is on the brink of destruction. Herbert’s quiet, calm poem is reflective of a man who has been forgiven and, though he still needs forgiveness and grace, is on the mend and speaks of praising God. Despite their differences, the two poems are very similar since they discuss they describe a sinner in need of forgiveness and grace, the recognition that God alone can save them, and the desperate plead for God’s grace.