John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

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Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century

by C. S. Lewis

The great central movement of love poetry, and of fiction about love, in Donne's time is that represented by Shakespeare and Spenser. This movement consisted in the final transmutation of the mediaeval courtly love or romance of adultery into an equally romantic love that looked to marriage as its natural conclusion. The process, of course, had begun far earlier--as early, indeed, as the Kingis Quhair--but its triumph belongs to the sixteenth century. It is most powerfully expressed by Spenser, but more clearly and philosophically by Chapman in that underestimated poem, his Hero and Leander. These poets were engaged, as Professor Vinaver would say, in reconciling Carbonek and Camelot, virtue and courtesy, divine and human love; and incidentally in laying down the lines which love-poetry was to follow till the nineteenth century. We who live at the end of the dispensation which they inaugurated and in reaction against it are not well placed for evaluating their work. Precisely what is revolutionary and creative in it seems to us platitudinous, orthodox, and stale. If there were a poet, and a strong poet, alive in their time who was failing to move with them, he would inevitably appear to us more "modern" than they.

But was Donne such a poet? A great critic has assigned him an almost opposite role, and it behoves us to proceed with caution. It may be admitted at once that Donne's work is not, in this respect, all of a piece; no poet fits perfectly into such a scheme as I have outlined--it can be true only by round and by large. There are poems in which Donne attempts to sing a love perfectly in harmony with the moral law, but they are not very numerous and I do not think they are usually his best pieces. Donne never for long gets rid of a mediaeval sense of the sinfulness of sexuality; indeed, just because the old conventional division be

"Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century." The latter part of an essay contributed by C. S. Lewis to Seventeenth-Century Studies Presented to Sir Herbert Grierson ( Oxford, 1938), pp. 73-84. Reprinted by permission of the author and The Clarendon Press. [For a modification of the views expressed here, see C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century ( Oxford, 1954), pp. 546-551. Ed.]


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