John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Helen Gardner | Go to book overview

John Donne

by George Saintsbury There is hardly any, perhaps indeed there is not any, English author on whom it is so hard to keep the just mixture of personal appreciation and critical measure as it is on John Donne. It is almost necessary that those who do not like him should not like him at all; should be scarcely able to see how any decent and intelligent human creature can like him. It is almost as necessary that those who do like him should either like him so much as to speak unadvisedly with their lips, or else curb and restrain the expression of their love for fear that it should seem on that side idolatry. But these are not the only dangers. Donne is eminently of that kind which lends itself to sham liking, to coterie worship, to a false enthusiasm; and here is another weapon in the hands of the infidels, and another stumbling-block for the feet of the true believers. Yet there is always something stimulating in a subject of this kind, and a sort of temptation to attempt it. . . .

The circumstances of his life do not greatly concern us here; nor does that part--an eminent and admirable part--of his work which is not in verse. But it does concern us that there is a strange, though by no means unexampled, division between the two periods of his life and the two classes of his work. Roughly speaking, almost the whole of at least the secular verse belongs to the first division of the life, almost the whole of the prose to the second. Again, by far the greater part of the verse is animated by what may be called a spiritualized worldliness and sensuality, the whole of the prose by a spiritualism which has left worldliness far behind. The conjunction is, I say, not unknown: it was specially prevalent in the age of Donne's birth and early life. It has even passed into some-

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"John Donne." Preface by George Saintsbury to The Poems of John Donne, edited by E. K. Chambers, 2 vols. ( London, 1896). Reprinted in G. Saintsbury, Prefaces and Essays ( London, 1933). Reprinted by permission of Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. [A summary account of Donne's life, now seriously out-of-date, has been omitted between the first and second paragraphs. Saintsbury's quotations are from Chambers' text ( The Muses' Library) which followed the second edition of Donne's poems ( 1635) and modernized the spelling. They differ, therefore, from quotations in the majority of the essays that follow which are taken from Grierson's text ( 1912), based on the first edition ( 1633) and preserving its spelling. Ed.

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