In honour of National Poetry Month, I thought I would reveal my favourite poem and why you shouldn’t marry the Devil behind God’s back.
My first experience with Donne’s work was in secondary school when, for GCSE English Literature we were tasked with writing an essay on “The Flea”. I despised this poem. I still do. It details the protagonist trying to justify a sexual liaison with a woman by commenting on the way their blood is intermingled within the body of a flea. For some reason in the poet’s mind this already makes them bound by fluid so why not take it a step further and consummate this merging. I was happy to note that the woman in question destroyed the flea and with it hope for Donne. During the class we weren’t given any context as to Donne as a person, therefore, in my mind, I imagined an aristocrat with an obnoxious personality and God complex. I at least got the ‘God’ part right. Donne was an Anglican priest and cleric to the Chuch of England, a fact I learnt in college when I was presented with his poem Divine Meditation 14 ( also known as Holy Sonnet 14 or ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’). Retrospectively this changed the way I viewed “The Flea”, knowing it was now written secretly by a Man of God made it seem ‘sinful’, and therefore more intriguing than it has first appeared. The subject matter now wasn’t just crude it was secretive and seemingly went against the beliefs of the poet. “Divine Meditation 14” keeps to the theme of sexuality from “The Flea” but rather than the poem being an unpersuasive pick up it is actually deeply metaphysical and psychological. For those who have never come across the poem here it is:
There is so much to dissect from this sonnet, the first noteworthy thing is that it is a sonnet with the love interest being God himself. This is a love letter to the Holy Father in its most simple form about an affair Donne is having with the Devil. This description alone should explain why it is such an amazing poem, the premise is not about skepticism but rather a strong believe that evil itself can anthropomorphise. The Devil has overtaken Donne’s mind and soul, much like his sinful lust in “The Flea” he has become bound to the pleasures of the flesh. In doing so he needs God to forgive him and help him divorce from the Devil’s grasp. However, he does not simply pray quietly by his bedside for deliverance but rather demands that god “ravish” him, whilst also beating and breaking him into submission. This kind of violence is what you would expect from a wrathful God punishing sinners but this desire for the sinner to be punished is rarely explored in poetry that I have witnessed when speaking of the divine. A tortured priest caught between a love for God and a craving for sin is a striking dynamic. This sonnet can easily be read as a prayer although it holds no pleasantries but rather is brutal and desperate. The sexual undertones to the poem is especially bizarre for one addressing God and this mixture of sex and violence, reminding us it is deeply human. ‘fascinating to see a poem that does not shy away from the poet revealing themselves in all their shame, the fact it was written by a priest makes it all the more hard hitting. Overall this poem is my favourite and has been since I first laid eyes on it. Little did I know Donne could write such mastery at GCSE, maybe I would have been more forgiving of one so in need of forgiveness.
Let me know below what your favourite poem is!
Side photo credit: ‘Michael defeats Satan’ by Waiting for the Word