THE HEART OF THE STRUGGLE
IN THE PRECEDING chapters I have attempted to indicate Donne's relation to the agitated intellectual and spiritual atmosphere which was the milieu of the men of his generation. I have pointed out that it is not in an obvious scepticism arising out of the displacement of the Ptolemaic by the Copernican astronomy (of which Courthope makes so much) but in a far subtler and deeper scepticism reaching the marrow of the poet's being that the answer to the riddle of Donne is to be found.
For there is a Donne riddle. A poetic genius of disturbing power and originality, Donne has been and continues to be, outside of those esoteric circles to whose worship, as Saintsbury remarked, his works peculiarly lend themselves, regarded as a broken, a fragmentary poet; as a forger of splendid single lines and isolated phrases who was somehow incapable of sustained accomplishment. A universal judgment is not to be lightly rejected, and yet, aside from Shakespeare, it may be doubted whether any English poet of the Renaissance has attained the heights of pure poetry oftener than he. The number of his lines which are not only quotable but which now sing and again burn their way into the reader's consciousness is astounding. There are, for example, in the whole gamut of Elizabethan lyricism, few passages which, for unpretentious felicity, for unadorned grace so seldom associated with Donne's name, surpass this couplet from the twelfth Elegie,
Time shall not lose our passages; the Spring
How fresh our love was in the beginning,
in which even the inversion becomes musical; or this line from the fourth Elegie,
I taught my silkes, their whistling to forbeare,
where the sibilants, liquids, and short vowels, combine to weave their fluid magic.
If these passages exemplify that peculiar capacity of the born lyricist to combine words into haunting rhythms which open vistas to the reader's mind scarcely suggested by the words themselves,