John Donne: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 2

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

46.

Anon.,Academy

1900

An anonymous article, characteristic of attitudes at the time, was published in the Academy in 1900. Donne's poetry was summarized in a literary context and biographically in the usual three periods: early manhood, marriage 1601 to taking orders 1615, and 'the Dean of St Paul's' ('The Poetry of John Donne', Academy, 15 December 1900, pp. 608-9.)

Broadly speaking, Jacobean lyric, and still more Caroline lyric, is less of temperament than of convention. Felicities of expression, of music, of courtesy, it has in good measure; it charms and delights. But it lacks the intimate interest of personality. It is built upon common forms, and is everything rather than immediate and human. From this condemnation, if you think it a condemnation, you will exempt John Donne. It would be almost true to say that John Donne's temperament became the Jacobean convention. Nothing can be more misleading than to remember that his poems were first printed in 1633. For half a century they had been potent in MS. There is Walton's word for it, and Ben Jonson's, that they were written, so far as secular, by his twentieth or twenty-fifth year. This must not be pressed too literally, but it is clear that his style was already formed in the great 'nineties, the spacious days between the coming of the Armada and the coming of the Stuarts. And then it was unique. Among the contemporaries of his early manhood, Donne's sole affinities are with Marlowe. Metaphysical, rugged, and obscure, dowered with a macabre imagination and a white-heat of passion, he was an entirely new note in a literature dominated, outside the drama, by the distant influence of Spenser. The pretty fancies of sonnetteers, song-writers, and pastoralists he passed on one side, and witched les jeunes with a new and poignant lyric, imperfect in technique and full of extravagant conceits, lending itself as all strongly marked styles lend themselves, to formal imitation, but in his hands, at least, the fascinating reflex of an undeniable personality. He did not print, for his ambitions were in the world of state, not that of letters; but his precious verses filled innumerable common-place books, and that they set the poetic

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