So - the goal for the next 30 days: something about poetry in the blog every day.
I first thought it would be fun to travel through the month with poems I've loved in the order I've loved them - but my brain does not remember chronologically - so you'll just have to settle for scattered memories and new finds.
This first poem I share is one that made me love the use of rich words in poetry. I was in high school when I read this poem and as I discovered the denotations and connotations of unfamiliar words the poem became more and more meaningful. I read this poem so many times as a teenager I practically memorized it.
Holy Sonnet, Number 14
John Donne (1572-1631)
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 oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
but is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am bethroth’d unto your enemy:
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
It was that last part that got me. "never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me." It's startling imagery - when you consider the word ravish. Ravish is destruction. Earlier in the poem the speaker uses the simile of a town - and ravished towns are destroyed. The coastal towns of Japan that were hit with a tsunami have been ravished. Towns throughout history that were subject to the forceful invasion of military forces have been ravished. These towns are not free - they are broken and destroyed and humbled.
But even beyond the image of a town - there is the other comparison in this poem. A person betrothed to one and desiring another. There is image of a lover - a human - claiming that being ravished will lead to being chaste - pure.
A person who is ravished? That means rape. And while I am blessedly not qualified to discuss the horrors of rape - and the 2011 version of myself challenges the word choice and authority of the 17th century author to use ravish and chaste in the same line and brings a whole host of modern culturally sensitive issues to the table when reading this poem - in 2000 when I read this poem I just thought the dichotomy was startling, powerful, and poetic. It made me love words and their layered meanings and the way we as humans can express ourselves in beautiful ways that will carry messages that last for centuries.
(side note: I just looked up ravish in the etymology dictionary and it seems that at the time the poem was written there could have also been another meaning to ravish: in the sense of "enchanting" it is attested from early 15c., from notion of "carrying off from earth to heaven" (early 14c.). It is an interesting addition to the many layers of this word. )