John Donne: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 2

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

97.

Rupert Brooke

1913

Brooke (1887-1915), established critic as well as poet, had championed Donne's poetry from his schooldays. 1 He now reviewed Grierson's edition of Donne's poems ('John Donne', Poetry and Drama, 1 (1913), 185-8).

Donne is the one poet who demands a commentary, not for allusions, but, sometimes, for his entire train of thought. And in the same way he is the one poet who requires a perfect text, for (it is a minor merit) all his lines always 'mean something'….

Donne was labelled, by Johnson, a 'metaphysical' poet; and the term has been repeated ever since, to the great confusion of critics. Mr Grierson attempts to believe that it means erudite, and that erudition is one of the remarkable and eponymous characteristics of Donne's poetry. It rested on erudition, no doubt, as Mr Grierson has valuably shown; but it was not so especially erudite-not so erudite as the writings of Ben Jonson, a far less 'metaphysical' poet. But the continual use of this phrase may have aimed vaguely at a most important feature there is in Donne's poetry. He is the most intellectual poet in English; and his intellectualism had, even, sometimes, a tendency to the abstract. But to be an intellectual poet does not mean that one writes about intellectual things. The pageant of the outer world of matter and the mid-region world of the passions came to Donne through the brain. The whole composition of the man was made up of brain, soul, and heart in a different proportion from the ordinary prescription. This does not mean that he felt less keenly than others; but when passion shook him, and his being ached for utterance, to relieve the stress, expression came through the intellect. Under the storm of emotion, it is common to seek for relief by twisting some strong stuff. Donne, as Coleridge said, turns intellectual pokers into love-knots. An ordinary poet, whose feelings find far stronger expression than a common man's, but an expression according to the same prescription, praises his mistress with some common idea, intensely felt:

Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air,
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars!

-359-

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