MEDIAEVAL SYNTHESIS AND RENAISSANCE DICHOTOMY
IF IT IS a critical fallacy to find in Donne a confusion of mind resulting from the supposed recoil of mediaeval philosophic thought before the advance of the new learning, particularly before the impact of the new astronomy of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, there remains to be considered a problem far more pertinent to Donne as a Renaissance artist--the problem growing out of the clash between the mediaeval aesthetic and the rejection of that aesthetic by the new age.
The mystical aesthetic which the Middle Ages inherited from a long line of Christian thinkers, beginning with St. Augustine and including among other luminaries Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugo of St. Victor, and, of course, St. Thomas himself, had been given its supreme poetic manifestation by Dante almost three hundred years before Donne was born. But it did not disappear with Dante, although it was never again to find so eloquent an advocate; rather, it continued to attract devotees during the last of the mediaeval centuries, as indeed it has since. For this aesthetic could not become an entirely negligible thing so long as the mediaeval metaphysic continued to link the seen and the unseen worlds. The one found its rationale in the other. But there came a time when an alien spirit was introduced into the mediaeval scene, a spirit with which the unity of the mediaeval vision was not reconcilable. Among the effects which that "vast perturbation" called the Renaissance had upon the western world not the least significant was its severance of the union which the scholastics had predicated between the world of flesh and the world of spirit. The results of that severance were deep and lasting, and they are particularly evident in Donne. To see them in their full significance it will be profitable, I think, to review in some detail the relevant principles of mediaeval thought and the specific nature of the Renaissance reaction.
Ruskin, who has, perhaps, done more than any other single individual to interpret to the modern mind the spirit of the mediaeval arts, insisted that the end of those arts came with the rise of the spirit of negation which, startlingly enough, revealed itself first in one of the most Christian of painters.