John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Helen Gardner | Go to book overview

Donne's Love-Poetry

by Herbert J. C. Grierson

Donne's love-poetry is a very complex phenomenon. The two dominant strains in it are these: the strain of dialectic, subtle play of argument and wit, erudite and fantastic; and the strain of vivid realism, the record of a passion which is not ideal nor conventional, neither recollected in tranquillity nor a pure product of literary fashion, but love as an actual, immediate experience in all its moods, gay and angry, scornful and rapturous with joy, touched with tenderness and darkened with sorrow--though these last two moods, the commonest in love-poetry, are with Donne the rarest. The first of these strains comes to Donne from the Middle Ages, the dialectic of the Schools, which passed into mediaeval love-poetry almost from its inception; the second is the expression of the new temper of the Renaissance as Donne had assimilated it in Latin countries. Donne uses the method, the dialectic of the mediaeval love- poets, the poets of the dolce stil nuovo, Guinicelli, Cavalcanti, Dante, and their successors, the intellectual, argumentative evolution of their canzoni, but he uses it to express a temper of mind and a conception of love which are at the opposite pole from their lofty idealism. The result, however, is not so entirely disintegrating as Mr. Courthope seems to think: "This fine Platonic edifice is ruthlessly demolished in the poetry of Donne. To him love, in its infinite variety and inconsistency, represented the principle of perpetual flux in nature." 1 The truth is rather that, owing to the fullness of Donne's experience as a lover, the accident that made of the earlier libertine a devoted lover and husband, and from the play of his restless and subtle mind on the phenomenon of love conceived and realized in this less ideal fashion, there emerged in his poetry the suggestion of a new philosophy of love which, if less transcendental than

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"Donne's Love-Poetry." From an Introductory Essay on "The Poetry of Donne" in The Poems of John Donne, edited by Herbert J. C. Grierson, 2 vols. ( London, 1912), vol. ii, pp. xxxiv-xlix. Reprinted by permission of The Clarendon Press.
1
History of English Poetry ( London, 1903), iii. 54. Mr. Courthope qualifies this statement somewhat on the next page: "From this spirit of cynical lawlessness he was perhaps reclaimed by genuine love," and so on. But he has, I think, insufficiently analyzed the diverse strains in Donne's love-poetry.

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