Metaphysical to Augustan: Studies in Tone and Sensibility in the Seventeenth Century

By Geoffrey Walton | Go to book overview

THE TONE OF BEN JONSON'S POETRY

IT IS WELL KNOWN that Pope imitated the opening couplet of Jonson Elegie on the Lady Jane Pawlet, Marchion: of Winton:

What gentle ghost, besprent with April deaw, Hayles me, so solemnly, to yonder Yewgh?

in his own opening couplet of the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady:

What beck'ning ghost, along the moonlight shade Invites my steps, and points to yonder glade:

The similarity and the difference between the grand style of Pope and the slightly Spenserian language of Jonson on this occasion are obvious. I have chosen to begin with a reference to this piece of plagiarism, however, because these two poems may be taken to mark, in so far as there are any beginnings and ends in literature, the limits of my study, and because the debt draws pointed attention to the dignified and courteous tone of Jonson's poetry, especially in his occasional verses. Several lines of elegy, which often intersect and blend, run between Jonson's epitaphs and formal eulogies and Pope's poem, which seems to gather up into itself all the various threads, the earlier Metaphysical and philosophic meditation of Donne, the formality of Cowley on Crashaw, the tenderness of Cowley on Hervey, the satire of Dryden in the ode on Anne Killigrew and the elegiac of Milton on the same Lady Jane.1 Pope inherited a large measure of Metaphysical wit coming from Donne, but the predominant aspect of his genius, the Augustan decorum, can be traced back to Donne's contemporary, Jonson.

____________________
1
Dr F. R. Leavis has analysed the Pope's poem in Revaluation, chap. III.

-23-

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