Donne and the Limits of Lyric
So much has been written about Donne's metrical roughness that a comprehensive survey of commentary upon what the poet himself called "my words masculine perswasive force" would parallel the whole course of his reputation. Aside from the disagreements of his contemporaries about his metrical style—the strictures of a Jonson, the complex praise of a Carew—we can trace even in the revived but canonical twentieth-century phase of Donne's career a shift from an acceptance of Jonson's famous "not keeping of accent" to the commendation of it as a positive and unique virtue. Even though Jonson may have been complaining to Drummond of Hawthornden about the slightly more than fashionably irregular verse of the satires and even as, in twentieth-century criticism, a Browningesque rather than a Tennysonian sense of verbal music in verse began to be praised, Grierson, writing before 1912, would find it necessary to apologize for "a poetry, not perfect in form, rugged of line and careless in rhyme" as being yet "a poetry of an extraordinary arresting and haunting quality, passionate, thoughtful, and with a deep melody of its own." That "deep melody" of speech has since almost become a cliché of Donne criticism; it is used with force and clarity by the editor of a recent college text edition:
To begin with, despite the absence of any facile smoothness of versification, the lines have a strange and original music, derived largely from an imitation of the accents of emotionally heightened conversation.... Donne's metrical control is of an astounding virtuosity, although that virtuosity is generally in the service of drama rather than of song.