John Donne: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 2

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


E.P. Rhys (1859-1946), Anglo-Welsh editor and writer, was a mining-engineer who from 1886 devoted his time to writing. After working freelance, he joined the staff of Constable's as editor of the Camelot Classics series and the Everyman Library of Classics. He wrote two novels and some volumes of verse. In a chronological survey of English lyric poetry he gave three pages to Donne (Lyric Poetry, 1913, 195-9).

[Rhys developed a single idea, which is that Donne's verse unpredictably mingles 'intense melody' with dullness. He conventionally contrasts some passages from the Songs and Sonnets to bring out the disparity between Donne's 'ideal verse' and 'his forced note', playing off the opening of 'Love's Deity' against lines 11-13 of the same poem, and 'the curious imaginative passages' of stanzas 3-5 of 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning' against stanza 1 of 'The Broken Heart'.

Rhys supposes that Donne's extreme unevenness follows from his attempts to 'assimilate reflective ideas to the primary emotions', which failed partly because 'he was not able to perceive where the line between the song of passion confessed and the doctor's diagnosis should be drawn', but more because he tried to use in his verse 'not the philosophical results of thought…but the processes themselves'. Moreover Donne could not equate 'his own amorous superpropensities' with 'his struggling religious instincts'; Rhys quotes lines 61-72 of 'The Ecstasy' to prove it, albeit with due acknowledgement of a remarkable attempt: Tf the lyric could ever succeed in fusing subjective, introspective subject-matter, and yet keep true pitch, one would say that Donne of all men was the poet to accomplish it.' Then Donne was fatally impeded by his wit, which is 'quick of thought and subtle to a degree' and yet 'juggles with ideas and words, and surprises by its caracoles', in a way that must inhinit spontaneous inspiration. Nonetheless, 'At his best his achievement is surpassingly fine-finer than we perceive at once.'

Rhys particularly praises the Holy Sonnets, which are 'conceited in passages, and erratic in detail' yet 'vital in thought and style'. He


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John Donne: The Critical Heritage - Vol. 2
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