John Donne: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Helen Gardner | Go to book overview

John Donne in Meditation

by Louis L. Martz

The Anniversaries are not usually treated as whole poems. For one thing, the biographical facts underlying these poems lead readers to approach them with suspicion, since they were written in memory of the daughter of Donne's generous patron, Sir Robert Drury--a girl who died in her fifteenth year, and whom Donne admits he never saw.1 As a result, the elaborate eulogies of Elizabeth Drury are frequently dismissed as venal and insincere, while interest in the poems centers on those passages which reflect Donne's awareness of the "new philosophy," on explicitly religious portions, or on any portions which provide illustrative quotations for special studies of Donne and his period.

Such fragmentary appreciation of the poems has, I think, hampered an understanding of their full significance. For each poem is carefully designed as a whole, and the full meaning of each grows out of a deliberately articulated structure. Furthermore, a close reading of each poem shows that the two Anniversaries are significantly different in structure and in the handling of Petrarchan imagery, and are consequently different in value. The First Anniversary, despite its careful structure, is, it must be admitted, successful only in brilliant patches; but I think it can be shown that the Second Anniversary, despite some flaws, is as a whole one of the great religious poems of the seventeenth century.

Let us look at the structure of the First Anniversary: An Anatomie of the World. Wherein, By occasion of the untimely death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and the decay of this whole World is represented. The poem is divided into an Introduction, a Conclusion, and five distinct sections which form the body of the work. Each of these five sections is subdivided into three sections: first, a meditation on some aspect of "the frailty and the decay of this whole world"; second, a eulogy of Elizabeth

____________________
" John Donne in Meditation." Part of chapter 6 of The Poetry of Meditation, by Louis L. Martz ( New Haven, 1954), pp. 220-3, 228-48. Copyright 1954 by the Yale University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Yale University Press. [In order to allow this section of Professor Martz's study to stand alone, I have made some slight alterations in the text and expanded some references. Ed.]
1
Donne, Letters ( 1651), p. 219.

-152-

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