The Oxford scholar Janet Spens discovered a disquieting likeness between her own age and the early seventeenth century (Two Periods of Disillusion, 1909, pp. 3-41).
[Spens argues that the similar spirit of the two eras accounts for Donne's likeness to some late nineteenth-century poets.]
The fundamental grief alike of the late nineteenth century and of the early seventeenth century is that we are not truly living, and it is taken for granted that emotion is life.
The idea is expressed most directly by Donne, 'who casts', says Mr Gosse, 'his shadow over the whole century'. Donne is the epitome of what is most characteristic of his time, and his extraordinary resemblance to Browning on the one hand and to Arnold on the other is highly significant. A certain allowance must be made, of course, for the method of expression, but if this is done he appears at times amazingly modern and intimate. Donne is full of the idea of man's corruptness and littleness, and his explanation is that the men of the day are of the Afterborn. His cry is almost exactly the same as Arnold's, that we are pigmies, miserable shadows of our forefathers. Like Arnold he is inconclusive, for though for himself his quest ended in conscious and perfect satisfaction, his final vision was not uttered in poetry, and even taking his prose there is a chasm of thought and feeling over which no bridge is thrown. For us therefore he remains an 'imperfect speaker', but all the nearer to us, perhaps, because of his uncertainty.
The key to Donne's nature is an insatiable thirst for intense spiritual existence. He scarcely sees the external world at all. One of the few passages in which inanimate nature is mentioned is the description in the 'Anatomy' of the new made Earth, and its beauty for the poet depends entirely on shimmering and changeful colour.
When Nature was most busy, the first week
Swaddling the new-born earth, God seemed to like
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Publication information: Book title: John Donne: The Critical Heritage. Volume: 2. Contributors: A. J. Smith - Editor, Catherine Phillips - Editor. Publisher: Routledge. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 1996. Page number: 295.
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