John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Helen Gardner | Go to book overview

Donne and Seventeenth Century Poetry

by J. B. Leishman

In the historical consideration of literature there are three dangers against which we should be continually on our guard: the danger that we may lose sight of the larger differences and distinctions through concentrating too much attention upon the subsidiary ones; the danger that we may pervert these subsidiary distinctions into antitheses; the danger that within these subsidiary distinctions we may insist too much upon identity and too little upon difference. In the present field of study we have, on the one hand, heard perhaps too much of a School of Jonson and a School of Donne, of the classical and the so-called metaphysical strains in seventeenth century poetry, and not enough of those larger differences between the characteristic nondramatic poetry of the Age of Elizabeth and that of the Jacobean and Caroline periods, differences in which both Jonson and Donne equally share; while on the other hand, we have had, perhaps, too many generalizations about the so-called metaphysical poets and not enough insistence on the very important differences between them. It is, indeed, easier to perceive certain obvious differences between the poetry of Donne and Jonson than to perceive certain important resemblances, just as it is easier to perceive certain superficial resemblances between, say, Donne and Crashaw than to become aware of their fundamental differences. The ultimate purpose of such generalizations, classifications, and distinctions is to increase awareness, to enable us, by analysis and comparison, to achieve a clearer recognition, a more intense appreciation, of the peculiar virtue, the essential thisness, of whatever literature we may be studying; this, though, is a strenuous task, and most of us, I fear, tend unconsciously to manipulate these generalizations, classifications, and distinctions, disregarding here, overemphasizing there, until we have spread over every

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"Donne and Seventeenth Century Poetry." Chapter I of The Monarch of Wit, by J. B. Leishman, 5th edition, revised ( London , 1962). Copyright 1951 by Hutchinson's University Library. Reprinted by permission of the author, the Hutchinson Publishing Group, and Hillary House Publishers, Ltd. [With the author's approval the footnotes have been reduced. Ed.]

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