Saturday, February 16, 2008

An unveiled gaze reveals and reflects the brightness of God.

While cleaning my apartment, I found this sonnet by John Donne in the program from the opera, Dr. Atomic. I'm sharing it with you with my interpretation interspersed. This is how I teach poetry, reading it phrase by phrase according to the punctuation rather than by line breaks, translating and discussing meaning as I go along. As I read the poem to myself, it stopped me up short and I was actually compelled to sit down and explicate it. I share it with you as an exercise in keeping my gaze unveiled.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God

Imperative tense, otherwise known as command form: beat me up, God. Such impertinence, to order God around. And to order a loving God to do violence? Cheeky. Why would someone risk getting fresh with God? When they have nothing else to lose: desperation.

For you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend

The God he interacts with is gentle, respectful.

That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me and bend your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.

Treat this like Yoda talk. The first phrase would normally end the sentence as explanation for the first part, which begins, "o'erthrow me." More demands for God to act aggressively, but this time with a twist. Re-creation is included in the list of violations Donne wants brought upon himself. Could that really be in the same category as destruction? The brutality is requested so that he may rise and stand, which confirms our earlier speculation that this is a man who has been knocked down. Sounds like cracking some eggs to make omelets.

I, like an usurpt town, to another due, labour to admit you, but oh, to no end, reason your viceroy in me, me should defend, but is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.

I am like a town that has been invaded and has been scared into paying my tribute to my conqueror so even though I want to allow you entrance and even though you have sent a representative that lives inside of my city, she has been bound and can't defend me from the invaders.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain

Despite my failure, I love you and desire to be loved by you.

But am betroth'd unto your enemy

But I am engaged to be a life-partner to evil.

Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again

Defy societal conventions. Or use society's rules to get me out of this mess. If that doesn't work, just ignore the rules and do something drastic.

Take me to you, imprison me, for I except you enthrall me, never shall be free, nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

I will never be free or be able to act rightly until you bring me under your spell, incapable of making decisions for myself. Do not give me any choice in the matter, not matter how much I fight. Do this.
And that's where the poem ends: with a grammatical command that sounds to our emotional ears like a plea.

This whole poem is about paradox. Paradox is a single statement that holds within its whole parts that contradict each other.

Donne ends the poem with a contradiction, using sexual language, arguably the most powerful of languages that our animal bodies can communicate with. He cannot be a virgin unless he is raped. However, almost as long as the word "ravish" has been in existence and meant "to take by force" it has been had the dual meaning of "to cause ecstasy." Images of romance novel covers come to mind with a woman protesting and fainting into some stud's advances. He wants God to bring him the joy that can only come once all control has been relinquished.

The poem does not resolve itself into a happy ending. He does not conclude that God will do these things. He simply puts his requests out there. Have you ever begged a lover not to do something? Or to do something? It is a helpless feeling. To know that you might have to continue to live in whatever unresolved state you've gotten yourself into because you cannot control anyone but yourself and must rely on their love for you to motivate their actions. Do they love you enough to do it? The dual pain of the unsolved problem AND the new sense of unimportance to someone who is important to you seems unbearable.

Yet, usually we bear it. Somehow.

And it isn't usually about how much they love us. A million mitigating factors could keep them from doing what we want them to do, not the least of which is that what we want may not be best thing for the relationship.

Like Donne, sometimes I wish God would deliver me from this Hell of a gift we call Free Will. I feel so fragile sometimes when it seems like my choices have been wrong. Attempts to defend myself from further uncertainty and consequent dread lead me to make more bad choices: yelling at people who love me and keeping to myself in my heartache instead of seeking out comfort.

Batter my heart, God, so that I do not continue breaking it all by myself.

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