John Donne: His Flight from Mediaevalism

By Michael Francis Moloney | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
THE MIND OF DONNE: THE NEW SCIENCE

THAT DONNE'S spiritual history is indissolubly knit with the development of his artistic career and that his artistic career is a type and a symbol of that vast and startling transformation whereby the Mediaevalism of sixteenth century English letters became the modernism of the seventeenth century--on these points I shall insist again and again. Before Donne, most of English poetry is tinctured with the thought and feeling of the Middle Ages--is in truth mediaeval in all that reflects its essential attitude toward the great underlying problems of human belief and human conduct. After Donne, English poetry is essentially modern in its rejection of the solutions which the Middle Ages had evolved for those same problems. He bridges the gap between the Elizabethans and Milton, catching, fleetingly, an echo or an odor of the older epoch, but his face is turned in the direction of the grim and sightless Titan under whose shadow three centuries and a half of subsequent literary tradition still rests. For John Donne is, in a very real sense, the first of the moderns in the world of letters as Bacon is the first of the moderns in the world of ideas.

But while Donne is the first of the moderns in the world of letters, it would be a fallacy to attempt to study him through the glass of the present. Epochs wax and wane and the life of man is but a moment, whereas such sweeping changes in habits of thinking as came over the western world in the seventeenth century were long in preparation and could not be effected in a year or in a decade. The human mind is naturally conservative, relinquishing slowly ideas which it has acquired through the passing of centuries, and the new attitudes and new beliefs which are subsumed during the period of change are in themselves, inevitably, a mingling of the fading and the crescent ages. Particularly was this true as Mediaevalism yielded before the advancing tread of Modernism. Humanism and the Renaissance were not born Pallas-like from the brain of a time-bestriding Zeus; rather as Burdach says, "Durch starke Fäden hängen sie mit dem Mittelalter zusammen, das sehr langsam, eigentlich erst im 17. Jahrhundert, wirklich überwunden wird."1

____________________
1
Konrad Burdach, Reformation, Renaissance, Humanismus, Berlin: Verlag von Gebrüder Paetel, 1918, p. 143.

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