John Donne is one of the many poets of his time who wrote religious poetry. The way he writes sets him apart from the other poets as he manages to successfully subvert the traditional conventions to his own ends.
Each of the religious poems "Batter my heart" and "Hymne to God, my God, in my sicknesse" shows Donne's verbal dexterity, manipulation of the conventional form and use of a variety of textual features.
For the religious sonnet "Batter my heart" the conventional form is that the writer would adopt a subservient tone. Donne manipulates this form by adopting an aggressive, commanding tone.
In this poem God is called upon, like a blacksmith transforming metal, to fix the misshapen sinner. The speaker professes that he is conquered by sin and needs to be released. God is then called upon again to show the sinner love and save the speaker.
The opening quatrain lines of the poem contain a multitude of strong monosyllabic verbs eg "Batter, breake, blow, burn that displays a forceful alliteration on "b". These verbs each emphasise the idea and imagery of banging in a blacksmiths shop, God is perceived to be the blacksmith; moulding the sinner. Donne sees himself as an imperfect piece of metal.
In line 3
"That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee, and bend"
Donne uses a paradox to show that only by being assaulted by god can he imagine himself worthy of God's attention. This paradox helps to convey the underlying violent theme.
In the second quatrain
"I, like an usurpt town..."
Donne uses metaphysical conceit to compare himself to a town that has been taken over by an invading force, the devil. This conceit further helps to convey the violent/military themes and imagery.
In the last four lines of the sonnet Donne uses a double paradox.
"Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you 'enthrall mee, never shall be free..."
In the first paradox the speaker implores God that he needs to be enslaved to be free. The second paradox states
"Nor ever chast, except you ravish me..."
imploring God that the speaker can't be virginal until God ravishes him. The double paradox further conveys the violent imagery and themes. They also finish his sustained argument that for the speaker to be pure, God needs to be violent.
Three main themes are explored in this poem. The first theme is of God being a blacksmith, repairing damaged metal; behind this is the idea of God as the creator.
The second theme is of violence and of the military. This is conveyed through the use of such words as "usurpt town, Captiv'd" etc.
The third theme is in sexual terms of domination through marriage and sexual conquest. This theme is conveyed through the use of words such as "ravish mee, imprison me" etc.
Donne creates word chains through the use of three distinctive themes. These word chains link the language and help to create an enjambment within the poem.
Another religious poem, not unlike "Batter my heart", that Donne subverts is called "Hymne to God, my God, in my sicknesse". The conventional form for this spiritual lyric is that the speaker adopts a subservient tone towards God. Donne manipulates this form by assuming an aggressive and commanding tone.
In this poem the speaker is gravely ill and indicates that the tumultuous winds of life will eventually overwhelm his frail body, and that to obtain happiness in heaven he must pass through the misery and suffering of life.
In the first stanza the imager of music is consistent through the use of words such as "instrument, tune, quire of saints". The line
"I tune the instrument at the dore"
suggests that perhaps it is his body and soul that is Gods instrument, to administer faith to. This stanza also begins the first person narration of the poem. This use of first person narrating gives the poem a subjective view that shows a personal side of the speaker.
The second stanza has consistent imagery of maps and geography of the world. The consistent use of imagery creates a flow between paragraphs. In line 2 he states "and I their mapp", whish displays a metaphysical conceit of Donne to a map. This conceit conveys the doctor's vain attempts to cure him before he dies. He compares his body to a map of the stars because physicians strive to understand his body just as cosmographers hope to gain insight into the stars.
In stanza 2, lines 10 and 11 it states
"...By these streights to die,
I joy, that in those straits, I see my west;"
The use of streight and strait displays a pun as the first (streight) meant straightened or bad circumstances and the second (strait) meant a channel of water. The second sentence of that quote displays an oxymoron as Donne links happiness with death. "West" in that sentence symbolises the end of the day as well as death. The textual features, in this stanza, create a flow between the paragraphs as well as continuing the argument.
In the third stanza there is a consistent imagery of the bible and God. This is conveyed through the use of words such as "Adam, Japhet, Cham, Sem" etc. The reference to "both Adams", meaning the sinful Adam and the saved Adam, are both found in the speaker.
In the last line of the poem
"Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down"
a paradox is shown, by saying that pain and suffering in a normal world is needed to attain happiness in the afterlife. This paradox ends the argument by conveying the last vital point; it also brings the poem to a conclusion.
Even within a conventional form it is possible for a witty poet to subvert the conventions. John Donne was able to do that in his religious poems "Batter my Heart" and "Hymne to God, my God, in my sicknesse". His use of manipulation both set him apart from his fellow intellectuals and made his poems timeless.