John Donne: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 2

By A. J. Smith; Catherine Phillips | Go to book overview

32.

Anon.,Academy

1897

In a review of Augustus Jessopp's biography of John Donne (1897), a reviewer claims that both Donne's sermons and his poetry are 'too demanding for the intellectual laziness of the present day' (Academy, 4 December 1897, pp. 474-5).

The typical modern, who wants to lie and let the plums of poetry fall into his mouth, had better hold aloof from Donne. He throws out teeming suggestions of ideas, and expects the reader to pursue, amplify, and make them his own….

Poets, especially, can receive from Donne's poetry abundant fertilisation. This was the case in his own day; he was the cause of indefinitely more poetry in others than he wrote himself. Crashaw, and Cowley, and the whole of the 'Cavalier lyrists', drew directly or indirectly from Donne. It was he who sowed, it was they who reaped. We doubt whether he ever wrote a completely fine poem. Let him be on fire with emotion, his intellectual subtilising in small matters choked the fiery current with icy blocks.

Here, for instance, is the opening of a two-stanza poem which probably refers to one of his enforced separations from the girl he eventually married. He must have been fervid with feeling; and the opening is worthy to be ranked with the great sonnet of Drayton, if not with the great sonnets of Shakespeare:

So, go, break off this last lamenting kiss,
Which sucks two souls, and vapours both away.
Turn, thou ghost, that way, and let me turn this;
And let ourselves benight our happiest day.

But this beautiful passionate commencement incontinently sub-sides into an arrangement of coldly ingenious conceits. When he felt deepest, Donne's intellect was an overpowering barrier against the impetuous current of feeling. Most happy lines and stanzas are to be cited from him; he is a poet to be read, and loved, and judiciously imitated; none can study without learning from him; he is, in our opinion (Milton, of course, excluded), the poet fullest of primal genius in his time, except Crashaw. Yet this admirable and many-sided genius is only for the judicious. He has, we must iterate,

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