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The Poetry of John Donne

ROBIN SKELTON

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THE poetry of John Donne has had so great an effect upon later writers, and is so knotted with allusions and paradoxes, that it is tempting, in discussing his work, to adopt a largely historical or exegetical approach. Such an approach is extremely rewarding, but can lead to false evaluations in that a poet's most influential or philosophically profound work may not be his best, or most deeply characteristic. The 'poetic' quality of a poem derives from its total structure, and not from its 'message' only, and not from its relationship with other poems of its time. Nevertheless, in attempting to examine the structural characteristics of Donne's work, we cannot but find it useful to see the context in which they were developed, if only to put ourselves in sympathy with the poet's problems.

At the time Donne began his work English Poetry could be regarded as suffering from several disorders. The lyric writers were beautifully and subtly modulating the language in order to provide songs suitable for the composers to set. This meant that they could not risk too startling an originality. The sung verse can never carry the same amount of intellectual weight as the spoken one, and it is essential for the listener to be able to identify easily and surely a single emotional key. Thus a conventional, highly decorative and graceful, vocabulary and diction became characteristic of what has been called 'The Golden Age of English Lyricism'. The language of lyric poetry became simply a series of stock emotional gestures. This is true also, to some extent, of all the poems written in the Petrarchan tradition. The conventional machinery of reluctant Mistress and complaining lover, and the equally conventional vocabulary of sighs, vows, and tears shed in an ideal setting, caused the language of passion frequently to come very near to the language of sentimental affectation. More importantly, there was little attempt to present the real complexities of any human involvement in an emotional relationship. The poems existed at a distance from actuality. This

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