Donne & Petrach + Donne’s influence

XI. John Donne.

§ 1. Donne’s Relation to Petrarch.

FROM the time of Wyatt, Surrey and their contemporaries of the court of Henry VIII, English lyrical and amatory poetry flowed continuously in the Petrarchian channel. The tradition which these “novices newly crept out of the schools of Dante, Ariosto and Petrarch” brought from Italy, after languishing for some years, was revived and reinvigorated by the influence of Ronsard and Desportes. Spenser in The Shepheards Calender, Watson with his pedanticEKATOMIIA[char]IA and Sidney with the gallant and passionate sonnets to Stella, led the way; and thereafter, till the publication of Davison’s Poetical Rapsody, in 1602, and, subsequently, in the work of such continuers of an older tradition as Drummond, the poets, in sonnet sequence or pastoral eclogue and lyric, told the same tale, set to the same tune. Of the joy of love, the deep contentment of mutual passion, they have little to say (except in some of the finest of Shakespeare’s sonnets to his unknown friend), but much of its pains and sorrows—the sorrow of absence, the pain of rejection, the incomparable beauty of the lady and her unwavering cruelty. And they say it in a series of constantly recurring images: of rain and wind, of fire and ice, of storm and warfare; comparisons

With sun and moon, and earth and sea’s rich gems,
With April’s first born flowers and all things rare,
That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems;

allusions to Venus and Cupid, Cynthia and Apollo, Diana and Actaeon; Alexander weeping that he had no more worlds to conquer, Caesar shedding tears over the head of Pompey; abstractions, such as Love and Fortune, Beauty and Disdain; monsters, like the Phoenix and the Basilisk. Here and there lingers a trace of the metaphysical strain which, taking its rise in the poetry of the troubadours, had been most fully elaborated by Guinicelli and Dante and Cavalcanti, the analysis of love in relation to, and its effect on, the heart of man and its capacity for virtue:

The sovereign beauty which I do admire,
Witness the world how worthy to be praised!
The light whereof hath kindled heavenly fire
In my frail spirit by her from baseness raised.

But the most prevalent reflective note derives not from Petrarch and Dante, but, through Ronsard and his fellow-poets of La Pléiade, from Catullus and the Latin lyrists: the pagan lament for the fleetingness of beauty and love—Ronsard’s

Ah, love me love! we may be happy yet,
And gather roses while ’t is called to-day,

Shakespeare’s

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
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The poet who challenged and broke the supremacy of the Petrarchian tradition was John Donne. Occasionally, when writing a purely complimentary lyric to Mrs. Herbert or lady Bedford, Donne can adopt the Petrarchian pose; but the tone and temper, the imagery and rhythm, the texture and colour, of the bulk of his love songs and love elegies are altogether different from those of the fashionable love poetry of the sixteenth century, from Wyatt and Surrey to Shakespeare and Drummond. With Donne, begins a new era in the history of the English love lyric, the full importance of which is not exhausted when one recognises in Donne the source of the “metaphysical” lyric as it flourished from Carew to Rochester. Nor was this Donne’s only contribution to the history of English poetry. The spirit of his best love poetry passed into the most interesting of his elegies and his religious verses, the influence of which was not less, in the earlier seventeenth century perhaps even greater, than that of his songs. Of our regular, classically inspired satirists, he is, whether actually the first in time or not, the first who deserves attention, the first whose work is in the line of later development, the only one of the sixteenth century satirists whose influence is still traceable in Dryden and Pope. Religio Laici is indebted for some of its most characteristic arguments to Donne’s “Kind pity checks my spleen”; and Pope found in Donne a satirist whose style and temper were closer in essential respects to his own than those of the suave and urbane Horace. For evil and for good, Donne is the most shaping and determining influence that meets us in passing from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century. In certain aspects of mind and training the most medieval, in temper the most modern, of his contemporaries, he is, with the radically more pedantic and neo-classical Jonson, at once the chief inspirer of his younger contemporaries and successors, and the most potent herald and pioneer of the school of poetic argument and eloquence.

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.

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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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