John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Helen Gardner | Go to book overview

Donne's Relation to the Poetry of His Time

by Mario Praz

There are few themes more harped on by sixteenth century poets than the time-honored one of the love-dream. Its formula, as it was broadcast throughout Europe by the Italian sonneteers, amounted to this: the poet dreams that his cruel beloved has relented and comes to solace him, but just when he is about to enjoy this godsend, sleep forsakes him. This being the bare outline, one was left an extensive choice of trimmings. You could start with a brief and elegant description of night, or with a complaint addressed to Sleep, or with a cry of joy: "Is this the fair hair . . . ?" combined with the usual Petrarchan description of the lady; if you were at pains how to fill up the quatrains, mythology came to your rescue, with Morpheus, Endymion and Diana, Ixion, and similar pleasant purple patches; or you could quibble on the disappearance of the sun, and the rise of that other sun, the beloved, in the dead of night. When, in the eighties of the sixteenth century, Thomas Watson picked up (from the Latin poems of Hercules Strozza) "this kinde of invention . . . usuall among those that have excelled in the sweetest vaine of Poetrie," he set out with a mythological embroidery on the circumstances of his dream:

In Thetis lappe, while Titan tooke his rest,
I slumbring lay within my restless bedde,
Till Morpheus us'd a falsed soary jest,
Presenting her, by whom I still am ledde:
For then I thought she came to ende my wo,
But when I wakt (alas) t'was nothing so.

Alas, vain hope! Like Ixion's

____________________
"Donne's Relation to the Poetry of His Time." Originally contributed by Mario Praz to A Garland for John Donne, edited by Theodore Spencer ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1931); revised and enlarged for inclusion in The Flaming Heart, by Mario Praz ( New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958). Copyright © 1958 by Mario Praz. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Harvard University Press.

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