from HOLY SONNETS.
Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
– John Donne (1572–1631)
This emotionally dramatic and deeply spiritual text by John Donne is one of the most intense and ecstatic expressions in English verse of the desire for God and of the spiritual struggle between allegiance to God and allegiance to His “enemie”; a concentrated portrait of spiritual warfare experienced by many who seek earnestly after their God. I was first introduced to this text by the composer John Eaton, one of my composition professors during my doctoral studies at Indiana University, and had been searching for nearly 15 years for an opportunity to set the text. A commission from the Dale Warland Singers provided the opportunity for which I had been waiting.
Donne’s poem is full of many rich images that lend themselves wonderfully to choral treatment. In this musical setting I sought to amplify the images in the text and, in particular, to capture the many movements toward and away from God that lend intense movement to the text. I resolved to resist the obvious text painting of the opening’s violent images in favor of establishing a restrained atmosphere of “excruciating beauty,” as the initial marking in the score indicates, and to allow the music to follow the ebb and flow of the text, culminating in a rapturous, ecstatic ascent to God that begins at the text, “Divorce me, ‘untie, or break…,” and that ends at the final words, “…except you ravish mee.” The music in this final section is based on a transformation of the opening section of the work. Thus, after a series of unfulfilled, interrupted attempts to reach out to God, the text and the music represent a breakthrough that ultimately reaches upward beyond the previous attempts, although not altogether fulfilled, yet filled with such momentum and hope that the ascent is somehow certain.