IN THE WAKE OF DONNE
STRANGE, unhappy, at war with himself and with his cultural heritage--religious, aesthetic, mystic--which, try as he would at times, he could not entirely reject, the figure of Donne remains one of the most enigmatic in the history of English poetry. The loose designation of this sombre genius as the leader of the "metaphysical school" has done much to obscure his real significance as a literary influence. The English Muse has ever had an antipathy for "schools," a generalization to which Donne affords no exception:
The line of the Metaphysicals in the seventeenth century becomes distinct in the influence of poet upon poet, deriving more or less directly from Donne, but remaining a thing of Individuals rather than of a school, till it attains something like critical consciousness in the mind of Dryden. Nowhere else in the criticism of the century shall we find a hint of a school of poets headed by Donne, much less of the Metaphysical school.1
But if Donne founded no school, his influence was for that very reason the more pervasive. For a school connotes restrictions--the adherence of a particular group of principles, the allegiance of a small group of devotees, the devotion of an esoteric cult of worshippers. The figure of Donne, on the contrary, bulks too large to be confined in any such circumscribed manner. His "school" is, in reality, made up not alone of the Herberts, Marvel, King, Carew, Vaughan, Cowley, Townshend, and other lesser poets of his own century. If I am not entirely mistaken, his troubled accents have fixed the mood in which by far the majority of English poets since his day have sung.
T. S. Eliot has suggested that perhaps there is, after all, no break between Donne and the Elizabethans:
If so shrewd and sensitive (though so limited) a critic as Johnson failed to define metaphysical poetry by its faults, it is worth while to inquire whether we may not have more success by adopting the opposite method: by assuming that the poets of the seventeenth century (up to the Revolution) were the direct and normal development of the precedent age; and without prejudicing their case by the adjective "metaphysical" consider whether their virtue was not something permanently valuable, which subsequently disappeared, but ought not to have disappeared.2