John Donne: His Flight from Mediaevalism

John Donne: His Flight from Mediaevalism

John Donne: His Flight from Mediaevalism

John Donne: His Flight from Mediaevalism

Excerpt

This study, save for certain revisions, was submitted as a doctoral thesis to the English faculty of the University of Illinois in June, 1939. As one in a long list of recent studies of John Donne, it is essentially an effort at evaluation--perhaps revaluation--of one of the most significant figures of the late English Renaissance. Nothing new has been here added to the materials of the Donne legend. Whatever of freshness the study may have comes from what I believe to be an original approach to the interpretation of familiar matter. Perhaps this will sound presumptuous since a decade ago on the occasion of the tercentenary of Donne's death, T. S. Eliot declared that the Donne vogue had reached its apogee--". . . Donne's poetry is a concern of the present and the recent past, rather than of the future." Coming from one of the most significant and suggestive of modern critics of Donne, Eliot's statement would seem final and definitive, and yet Donne will not down. If, indeed, as a fructifying influence on other poets he is less to be reckoned with than he was in the earlier years of the century, he definitely retains his attraction for scholars and students of literary history.

Criticism of Donne has covered a wide range since his modern revival was begun by Grosart's edition of the 1870's. At one extreme stands the facile judgment of Courthope who, with typical nineteenth century self-assurance, was content to study Donne through nineteenth century eyes. At the other stands that of Mary Paton Ramsay whose French dissertation, Les doctrines médiévales chez Donne, appearing in 1917, advanced the rather startling theory that Donne was a true child of the Middle Ages and that he was to be understood only by tracing his origins to their mediaeval sources. The abyss which separates the critical position of Miss Ramsay from that of Courthope is to be explained only by the recognition of an irreconcilable divergency between their respective evaluations of the civilization to which Donne was heir. The heart of that civilization, of course, was the Thomistic philosophy, the resurgence of which in the twentieth century has been described by A. E. Taylor:

If an educated Englishman had been asked a hundred years ago who are the great original philosophical thinkers of the modern world, what answer . . .

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