John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Helen Gardner | Go to book overview

John Donne: a Reconsideration

by J. E. V. Crofts

Donne came of age in 1593, at that uncomfortable moment when the gale of Elizabethan enthusiasm had nearly blown itself out and a chill was in the air. He was in time to take part in the last "heroick" exploit of the age, the capture of Cadiz ( 1596); but in the next year its glories were effaced by the miserable Islands Voyage and the outbreak of those open factions and animosities which darkened the remaining years of the reign. It was the age of Hamlet: indeed, if we suppose Hamlet to have been thirty at the date of the play, Donne was exactly his con- temporary. "This goodly frame, the Earth, seemes to me a sterrill Prom- ontory; this most excellent Canopy the Ayre. . . . why, it appeares no other thing to mee, then a foule and pestilent congregation of vapours." No more of Petrarch now; no more talk of Plato and the Divine Idea. The smart young man now plucked his hat over his eyes; wrote gritty satires in a Roman vein; and joined that School of Darkness presided over by Raleigh, where fierce young atheists read papers questioning and abolishing everything under the sun. Gloriana still reigned; and in districts remote from the capital the horns of her Elfland were still to be heard faintly blowing; but in London the pageant was paling under the light of an intellectual dawn, and her surviving knights and seneschals were revealed as a group of tired and pouchy-faced old men standing about the throne of a dreadfully painted old woman. Even the most radiant stars of her legend were losing their fire: even Astrophel, it was said, had been "no pleasant man in countenance, his face being spoilt with pimples."1 And into this scene of disillusionment and dwindling

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"John Donne: A Reconsideration." (Original title: "John Donne.") Contributed by J. E. V. Crofts to Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, vol. xxii ( Oxford, 1937). Reprinted by permission of the author. [ Professor Crofts's quotations from Donne's poems are mainly taken from E. K. Chambers' text (The Muses' Library, 1896), but he does not follow its punctuation exactly and at times appears to be quoting from memory. Ed.]

1
Jonson, "Conversations with Drtimmond," Works, ed. Herford and Simpson, vol. i ( Oxford, 1925), p. 139.

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