John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

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The Dramatic Element in Donne's Poetry

by Pierre Legouis

That Donne possessed dramatic power has generally been acknowledged.1 Indeed, one of the generation that came to manhood in the last decade of the sixteenth century might be credited with some measure of the instinct at work in Shakespeare and so many lesser playwrights, even before he had given evidence of it. In his fervid youth Donne was "a great Frequenter of Plays," 2 though the theaters probably found in him


"The Dramatic Element in Donne's Poetry." From Donne the Craftsman, by Pierre Legouis ( Paris, 1928). Reprinted by permission of the author. [The pages reprinted (pp. 47-61 and 71-9) form the third section of Professor Legouis' defence of Donne as an artist. They omit his interpretation of "The Ecstasy" as a dramatic poem. This has, given rise to so much controversy that to reprint it would have necessitated printing rebuttals. For a summary of the debate, see my article "The Argument about 'The Ecstasy,'" Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies, edited by Herbert Davis and Helen Gardner ( Oxford, 1959). Professor Legouis approves this omission and has also kindly supplied me with some corrections and minor alterations of the text for this reprint. Ed.]

Edward Dowden, New Studies in Literature ( London, 1895), p. 103, goes near to denying it: "Touches of dramatic power are rare in Donne, whose genius was lyrical and meditative, not that of a dramatist; but in this Elegy ["By our first strange and fatall interview . . ."] there is one touch which might seem of triumphant power even if it had occurred in a tragedy of Webster." The remark applies to ll. 50-54; when I am gone on my continental journey, the lover says to his mistress, do not

in bed fright thy Nurse
With midnight startings, crying out, oh oh,
Nurse, ô my love is slaine, I saw him goe
O'r the white Alps alone; I saw him I,
Assail'd, fight, taken, stabb'd, bleed, fall and die.

The passage is very beautiful and moving but it is not strictly dramatic since the lover merely conjures up a vision of the future as in "The Apparition" (see infra).

Sir Richard Baker, Chronicle of the Kings of England ( 1730), p. 424, quoted in Grierson, Poems, ii. 172. Grierson also quotes a verse letter, addressed to Donne c. 1600 by "William Cornwaleys," which contains the lines:

If then for change of howers you seem careles,
Agree with me to lose them at the playes.


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