DONNE AND THE ELIZABETHANS
THERE is a tendency to think of Donne as the great iconoclast who, single-handed, overthrew the tyranny of Petrarch and replaced the outworn conventions of Elizabethan poetry by a new strain of realism. Donne is technically an Elizabethan; he began writing his Songs and Sonets, his Elegies and his Satires as early as 1593, so that his early verse was contemporaneous with the sonnets, lyrics and pastorals which have been discussed elsewhere, and he led the field in satire, which was not produced in quantity until the appearance of the first three books of Hall Virgidemiarum in 1597. In this concluding chapter, therefore, I shall attempt to relate Donne to the main stream of Elizabethan poetry, and to define what is new and what traditional in his verse.
Elizabethan poetry was a highly formal art: that is to say, it expressed its meaning through accepted conventions and formal poses. If a poet wrote about love, he did it in the Petrarchan or the anti-Petrarchan modes; if he wished to describe a wooing or to attack the Court, he would do it through the mouths of shepherds and shepherdesses. For this purpose, the Kinds offered him a set of recognized patterns corresponding to any aspect of human experience with which he might wish to deal, just as rhetoric offered him a formal diction with which to express anything he wanted to say. There is the closest affinity in function and purpose between rhetoric and the Kinds.
There were both advantages and disadvantages in writing in this way. On the one hand, poetry gained in intensity from the exclusion of all irrelevant matter; young love is more idyllic and passion more undilutedly passionate in the Elizabethan lyric than in any other form of verse. On the other hand, the complexity of Elizabethan poetry suffered through the separation of modes of feeling which, in real life, usually accompany one another. In the Canterbury Tales, for example, high, low, comic and serious