Content Category

Literary Criticism

Abstract/Description

In John Donne’s devotional lyric, “Batter my heart,” the unnamed speaker of the poem creates a rhetorical argument to convince deity to intervene ever more aggressively in his personal salvation. Published after the poet’s death in 1633, the poem climaxes with shocking language: the speaker begs God to “ravish” him in order to save him (ll. 14). This frightening and seemingly blasphemous request has incited controversy among literary scholars. Some argue that the line serves as a metaphor for the difficulty of submitting individuality to divine will. Others contend that the poem illustrates the inherent problems in applying human understanding to infinite wisdom. I argue that Donne uses rhetorical tools, which were widely understood by his contemporaries, to create a persona whose emotions overpower his reason, whose argument reveals a character devoid of virtue. By rereading this poem with an understanding of the Renaissance rhetorical tradition, the final shocking line of the poem reveals the speaker’s poor judgment, not an indictment of the unknowability of God.

Origin of Submission

as part of a class

Faculty Involvement

Nancy Christiansen

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Vice Presented as Virtue: A Rhetorical Analysis of John Donne’s “Batter My Heart”

In John Donne’s devotional lyric, “Batter my heart,” the unnamed speaker of the poem creates a rhetorical argument to convince deity to intervene ever more aggressively in his personal salvation. Published after the poet’s death in 1633, the poem climaxes with shocking language: the speaker begs God to “ravish” him in order to save him (ll. 14). This frightening and seemingly blasphemous request has incited controversy among literary scholars. Some argue that the line serves as a metaphor for the difficulty of submitting individuality to divine will. Others contend that the poem illustrates the inherent problems in applying human understanding to infinite wisdom. I argue that Donne uses rhetorical tools, which were widely understood by his contemporaries, to create a persona whose emotions overpower his reason, whose argument reveals a character devoid of virtue. By rereading this poem with an understanding of the Renaissance rhetorical tradition, the final shocking line of the poem reveals the speaker’s poor judgment, not an indictment of the unknowability of God.