A Poet Worth Pondering

Michael Metzger

To become the best poet possible, I recommend pondering some of the best poets.

Last week was about how we become the best poets possible. I’ve found inspiration in reading some of the best poets through the ages. This includes John Donne (1571-1631), considered one of the great poets of the British tradition.

I’m drawn to Donne because he thought deeply about our spiritual and physical longings, especially how our bodies tell God’s story. He also recognized how our modern age often seems to see sexuality as more a barrier than a means to spiritual maturity.

This is what makes many modern readers, especially evangelicals, hesitant about Donne. His love poetry is so openly sexy. Donne connects sometimes scandalous love poetry and incisive spiritual verse. We see this is one of his most popular poems, “Batter My Heart.”


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,

Labor 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 lov’d 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.

“The Ecstasy” is another one of Donne’s most popular poems. In it, Donne unfolds his theme that pure, spiritual (i.e., real) love can exist only in the bond of souls established by the bodies. Bodies and souls are inextricably united. Donne criticizes the platonic lover who excludes the body and emphasizes the soul, something that is common in pietistic believers (soul important; body not so much). Here is a portion of Donne’s “The Ecstasy.”

To’our bodies turn we then, that so

Weak men on love reveal’d may look;

Love’s mysteries in souls do grow,

But yet the body is his book.

And if some lover, such as we,

Have heard this dialogue of one,

Let him still mark us, he shall see

Small change, when we’are to bodies gone.

In the opinion of many, John Donne became a great poet because he believed truth could not be approached by a linear pattern (such as today’s popular observation, interpretation, application model). Rather, truth must approached by ascending a rugged path which circles and circles and circles around “a huge hill” as it approaches its goal. “Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will Reach her, about must and about must go.[1] This is similar to how N. T. Wright said we approach truth: it lies along the “spiraling path” of dialogue “between the knower and the thing known.”[2] I call it ascending meadows.

I admit these images can be rather esoteric to many modern Christians. It might be why one critic said Donne’s preaching was “like the peace of God: it surpasses all understanding.” I can’t speak to Donne’s preaching, but I know his poetry makes me want to become the best poet possible. That’s why I enjoy reading him. You might too.

[1] John Donne, Satyre, III.

[2] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, (Fortress Press, 1992), 35.


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