Donne: § 12. Paradoxes, Problems and other Prose Writings.

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. John Donne.

§ 12. Paradoxes, Problems and other Prose Writings.

Donne’s earliest prose writings were, probably, the Paradoxes and Problems which he circulated privately among his friends. The Burley MS. contains a selection from them, sent to Sir Henry Wotton with an apologetic letter, in which Donne pleads that they were made “rather to deceive time than her daughter truth, having this advantage to escape from being called ill things that they are nothings,” but, at the same time, adjures Wotton “that no copy shall be taken, for any respect, of these or any other my compositions sent to you.” It was Donne’s son who first issued them in 1652, printed so carelessly as, at times, to be unintelligible. Like everything that Donne wrote, they are brilliant, witty and daring, but, on the whole, represent the more perverse and unpleasant side of his genius. His other prose works are: a tract on the Jesuits, very similar in tone and temper to the Paradoxes, entitled Ignatius his Conclave: or, His Inthronisation in a late Election in Hell, which was published anonymously, the English version about 1610, the Latin in 1611; the serious and business-like Pseudo-Martyr, issued with the author’s name in; 1610; BIA[char]ANATO? A Declaration of that Paradoxe or Thesis that Self-Homicide is not so Naturally Sinne that it may never be otherwise; the Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, and Several Steps in my Sickness, digested into Meditations, Expostulations and Prayers, published in 1624; the Essays in Divinity, printed by his son in 1651; and the sermons. 42
All Donne’s minor or occasional writings, except the rather perfunctory Essays in Divinity, partake of the nature of paradoxes more or less elaborately developed. Even Pseudo-Martyr irritated the Roman Catholic controversialist who replied to it by its “fantastic conceits.” Of them all, the most interesting, because bearing the deepest impress of the author’s individuality, his strange moods, his subtle reasoning, his clear good sense, is BIA[char]ANATO?. It is not rightly described as a defence of suicide, but is what the title indicates, a serious and thoughtful discussion of a fine point in casuistry. Seeing that a man may rightly, commendably, even as a duty, do many things which promote or hasten his death, may he ever rightly, and as his bounden duty, consummate that process—may he ever, as Christ did upon the cross (to this Donne recurs more than once in the sermons), of his own free will render up his life to God?

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. John Donne.

§ 13. Sermons.

But Donne’s fame as a prose writer rests not on these occasional and paradoxical pieces, but on his sermons. His reputation as a preacher was, probably, wider than as a poet, and both contributed to his most distinctive and generally admitted title to fame as the greatest wit of his age, in the fullest sense of the word. Of the many sermons he preached, at Whitehall, at St. Paul’s as prebend and as dean, at Linocln’s inn, at St. Dunstan’s church, at noblemen’s houses, on embassies and other special occasions, some five were issued in his lifetime; and, after his death, three large folios were published by his son containing eighty (1640), fifty (1649) and twenty-five (1669) sermons respectively. Some are still in manuscript. 44
In Donne’s sermons, all the qualities of his poems are present in a different medium; the swift and subtle reasoning, the powerful yet often quaint imagery; the intense feeling; and, lastly, the wonderful music of the style, which is inseparable from the music of the thought. The general character of the sermon in the seventeenth century was such as to evoke all Donne’s strength, and to intensify some of his weaknesses. The minute analysis of the text with a view to educing from it what the preacher believed to be the doctrine it taught or the practical lessons it inculcated, by legitimate inference, by far-fetched analogy, or by quaint metaphor, was a task for which Donne’s intellect, imagination and wide range of multifarious learning were well adapted. The fathers, the schoolmen and “our great protestant divines” (notably Calvin, to whom, in subtlety of exposition, he reckons even Augustine second) are his guides in the interpretation and application of his text; and, for purposes of illustration, his range is much wider—classical poets, history sacred and secular, saints’ legendaries, popular Spanish devotional writers, Jesuit controversialists and casuists, natural science, the discoveries of voyagers and, of course, the whole range of Scripture, canonical and apocryphal. It is strange to find, at times, a conceit or allusion which had done service in the love poems reappearing in the texture of a pious and exalted meditation. In the sermons, as in the poems (where it has led to occasional corruptions of the text), he uses words that, if not obsolete, were growing rare—“bezar,” “defaulk,” “triacle,” “lation”—but, more often, he coins or adopts already coined “inkhorn” terms—“omnisufficiency,” “nullifidians,” “longanimity,” “exinanition.” 45
Breadth and unity of treatment in seventeenth century oratory are apt to be sacrificed to the minute elaboration of each head, and their ingenious, rather than luminous and convincing, interconnection. But Donne’s ingenuity is inexhaustible, and, through every subtlety and bizarre interpretation, the hearer was (and, even to-day, the reader is) carried forward by the weight and force of the preacher’s fervid reasoning. Much of the Scriptural exegesis is fanciful or out of date. The controversial exposure of what were held to be Roman corruptions and separatist heresies has an interest mainly for the historian. In Donne’s scholastic, ultra-logical treatment, the rigid skeleton of seventeenth century theology is, at times, presented in all its sternness and unattractiveness. From the extremest deductions, he is saved by the moderation which was the key-note of his church, and by his own good sense and deep sympathy with human nature. But Donne is most eloquent when, escaping from dogmatic minutiae and controversial “points,” he appeals directly to the heart and conscience. A reader may care little for the details of seventeenth century theology and yet enjoy without qualification Donne’s fervid and original thinking, and the figurative richness and splendid harmonies of his prose in passages of argument, of exhortation and of exalted meditation. It is Donne the poet who transcends every disadvantage of theme and method, and an outworn fashion in wit and learning. There are sentences in the sermons which, in beauty of imagery and cadence, are not surpassed by anything he wrote in verse, or by any prose of the century from Hooker’s to Sir Thomas Browne’s:
The soul that is accustomed to direct herself to God upon every occasion; that, as a flower at sun-rising, conceives a sense of God in every beam of his, and spreads and dilates itself towards him in a thankfulness in every small blessing that he sheds upon her; that soul that as a flower at the sun’s declining contracts, and gathers in and shuts up herself, as though she had received a blow, whensoever she hears her Saviour wounded by an oath, or blasphemy, or execration; that soul who, whatsoever string be strucken in her, base or treble, her high or her low estate, is ever tun’d towards God, that soul prays sometimes when it does not know that it prays.
The passage on occasional mercies (LXXX. 2); the peroration of the sermon on “a better resurrection” (LXXX. 22); the meditations on death, as the leveller of earthly distinctions, or the portal to a better life; the description of the death “of rapture and ecstasy” (LXXX. 27) are other passages which illustrate the unique quality, the weight, fervour and wealth, of Donne’s

XI. John Donne.

§ 14. Letters.

Donne’s letters to his friends and patrons were as much admired in and after his life-time as everything else he wrote. A few of them were issued in the first editions of the poems; a larger collection, carlessly edited and in no order, was published by his son in 1651; the interesting letters written to Sir George More and Sir Thomas Egerton were first published in Kempe’s Losely Manuscripts; the Burley MS. contains one or two of an earlier date. Thus, they cover, though much more lightly at some parts than at others, the whole of his life from the Cadiz expedition to the year of his death. Like his poems, they paint the brilliant and insolent young man; the erudite and witty, but troubled and melancholy, suitor for court favour and office; the ascetic and fervent saint and preacher. And this is their chief interest. For some time, Donne held the position, almost, of the English épistolier, collections of the “choicest conceits” being made, in commonplace books, from his letters as well as his poems. But they were not well fitted to teach, like Balzac’s, the beauty of a balanced and orderly prose, though they far surpass the latter in wit, wisdom and erudition. Their chief interest is the man whom they reveal, the characteristically renascence “melancholy temperament,” now deep in despondence and meditating on the problem of suicide, now, in his own words, kindling squibs about himself and flying into sportfulness; elaborating erudite compliments, or talking to Goodere with the utmost simplicity and good feeling; wordly and time-serving, noble and devout—all these things, and all with equal sincerity.

XI. John Donne.

§ 15. His Position and Influence.

The relation of Donne to Elizabethan poetry might, with some justice, be compared with that of Michael Angelo to earlier Florentine sculpture, admitting that, both as man and artist, he falls far short of the great Italian. Just as the grace and harmony of earlier sculpture were dissolved by the intense individuality of an artist intent only on the expression in marble of his own emotions, so the clear beauty, the rich ornament, the diffuse harmonies of Elizabethan courtly poetry, as we can study them in The Faerie Queene, Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis, Astrophel and Stella or England’s Helicon, disappear in the songs and satires and elegies of a poet who will not accept Elizabethan conventions, or do homage to Elizabethan models, Italian and French; but puts out to discover a north-west passage of his own, determined to make his poetry the vivid reflection of his own intense, subtle, perverse moods, his paradoxical reasonings and curious learning, his sceptical philosophy of love and life. It cannot be said of Donne, as of Milton, that everything, even what is evil, turns to beauty in his hands. Beauty, with him, is never the paramount consideration. If beauty comes to Donne, it comes as to the alchemist who

glorifies his pregnant pot,
If by the way to him befall
Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal.
From the flow of impassioned, paradoxical argument, there will suddenly flower an image or a line of the rarest and most entrancing beauty. But the tenor of his poetry is witty, passionate, weighty and moving; never, for long, simply beautiful; not infrequently bizarre; at times even repellent. 48
And so, just as Michael Angelo was a bad model for those who came after him and had not his strength and originality, Donne, more than any other single individual, is responsible for the worst aberrations of seventeenth century poetry, especially in eulogy and elegy. The “metaphysical” lyrists learned most from him—the conquering, insolent tone of their love songs and their splendid cadences. In happy conceit and movement, they sometimes excelled him, though it is only in an occasional lyric by Marvell or Rochester that one detects the same weight of passion behind the fantastic conceit and paradoxical reasoning. But it is in the complimentary verses and the funeral elegies of the early and middle century (as well as in some of the religious poetry and in the frigid love poems of Cowley) that one sees the worst effects of Donne’s endeavour to wed passion and imagination to erudition and reasoning. 49
And yet it would be a mistaken estimate of the history of English poetry which either ignored the unique quality of Donne’s poetry or regarded its influence as purely maleficent. The influence of both Donne and Jonson acted beneficially in counteracting the tendency of Elizabethan poetry towards fluency and facility. If Donne somewhat lowered the ethical and ideal tone of love poetry, and blighted the delicate bloom of Elizabethan song, he gave it a sincerer and more passionate quality. He made love poetry less of a musical echo of Desportes. In his hands, English poetry became less Italianate, more sincere, more condensed and pregnant in thought and feeling. The greatest of seventeenth century poets, despite his contempt for “our late fantastics,” and his affinities with the moral Spenserians and the classical Jonson, has all Donne’s intense individuality, his complete independence, in the handling of his subjects, of the forms he adopts, even of his borrowings. He has all his “frequency and fulness” of thought. He is not much less averse to the display of erudition, though he managed it more artfully, or to the interweaving of argument with poetry. But Milton had a far less keen and restless intellect than Donne; his central convictions were more firmly held; he was less conscious of the elements of contradiction which they contained; his life moved forward on simpler and more consistent lines. With powers thus better harmonised; with a more controlling sense of beauty; with a fuller comprehension of “the science of his art,” Milton, rather than Donne, is, in achievement, the Michael Angelo of English poetry. Yet there are subtle qualities of vision, rare intensities of feeling, surprising felicities of expression, in the troubled poetry of Donne that one would not part with altogether even for the majestic strain of his great successor.

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