John Donne cries in anguish about his inability to please God. Concurring with Paul’s flesh-vs.-spirit war described in Romans 6-8, the metaphysical poet says that God has been too gentle in dealing with him.
Something more drastic is needed “knocking, breathing, shining and seeking to mend.” Donne says nothing less than a violent overthrow can help him, beset by sin. In witty oxymoron, he says, “I’ll never be able to stand unless you knock me down.”
Despite the war talk, the poem is about love. It is a holy sonnet. “Dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,” he says. But such love is troubled by a triangle. I “am betroth’d unto your enemy,” and only a divorce can resolve.
The poem is chock-full of conceits, startling — even disturbing — paradoxes. But it ends with the most striking. For Donne to be free, God must imprison him. For Donne to be (spiritually) chaste, God must ravish him (insinuation: rape). So violence, love, unfaithfulness and longing for faithfulness are all tied into one.
This is the human condition. Temptation lays hold of even the best of us. Serving God, then, is desiring to do so and praying for God’s help. Here’s the whole sonnet: