John Donne: His Flight from Mediaevalism

By Michael Francis Moloney | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
DONNE'S MYSTICISM

THAT DONNE was not a mystic has already, in a cursory way, been suggested. Actually, if a deep-rooted division of his mind and heart between the rival claims of the mediaeval synthesis and Renaissance naturalism has been successfully established, it follows as an inescapable conclusion that he could have been none. For whatever the words mystic and mysticism may mean today, however far they may be removed in their ordinary connotations from the precise and positive significance which they once possessed, in Donne's time they were applied to a mood made possible and fecundated by the complete unity of the mediaeval consciousness.

Nevertheless, there has been a rather general agreement among critics in calling Donne a mystic. From Gosse to Williamson, a roll call of those who have written significantly of him will reveal that for the most part they have assumed mysticism to be one of his distinguishing characteristics while attributing a variety of meanings to the term. One of the most plausible statements on this point is that of Gosse:

The most illustrious of Donne's indirect disciples was Crashaw, the greatest of English mystics. Without the example of Donne, Crashaw would have written in a totally different manner, but the influences at work in the modelling of his genius are largely exotic also. He was seduced by the gorgeous and sensuous conceits of Marini, the worst of masters, but was saved from destruction by the Spanish neo-platonists. Donne wrote his chief poetry too early to be disturbed by the Spiritual Works: of St. John of the Cross, which were posthumously published in 1616, but these entered into the very blood of Crashaw, while to the great St. Teresa he owed as much, nay, probably more, than Donne himself had done. The intensity of Donne's style at its best, and the mental concentration which he had taught, lent themselves peculiarly well to the expression of transcendental spiritual emotion. Indeed, in England, mysticism has always since the reign of Elizabeth spoken in the voice of Donne. The Spanish illuminates combined with the English master to impress upon the burning heart of Crashaw an ecstasy which found speech in some of the most exquisite utterances of the seventeenth century, and it is only fair, while we deplore the dulness of much of the verse which claimed descent from Donne, to remember that he was at least equally the forerunner and "only begetter" of those "large draughts of intellectual day," those throbbing and flaming phrases of divine hyperbole, which place the name of Crashaw, an Englishman,

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John Donne: His Flight from Mediaevalism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page i
  • Foreword 7
  • Contents 11
  • Chapter I - The Life and Times 13
  • Chapter II - The Mind of Donne: the New Science 47
  • Chaptep III - Mediaeval Synthesis and Renaissance Dichotomy 69
  • Chapter IV - Donne and the Rival Idealisms 105
  • Chapter V - The Heart of the Struggle 129
  • Chapter VI - Donne's Mysticism 165
  • Chapter VII - In the Wake of Donne 196
  • Chapter VIII - Summary 210
  • Bibliography 214
  • Index 220
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