Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
John Donne (1572–1631)
[John Donne was born in London in 1572, his father being a tradesman or merchant of means, his mother a daughter of Heywood the epigrammatist, and a relation of Sir Thomas More. He was brought up in a Roman Catholic circle, if not actually as a Roman Catholic; but was admitted at Hart Hall, Oxford. Perhaps (for Walton could hardly be wrong here, though later biographers doubt) he was also entered at Cambridge. He travelled, and became a member of Lincoln’s Inn in 1592, now definitely casting in his lot with the English Church; but it was long before he took orders. He went the Cadiz voyage in 1596, and on his return became a member of the household of Lord Keeper Egerton. Here he fell in love with and clandestinely married Anne More or Moore, a connexion of the Lord Keeper’s wife. Her father, Sir George, was very angry, and procured Donne’s dismissal and imprisonment; but this difficulty blew over. Donne would apparently have chosen lay preferment, but, though he was a favourite with James the First, none came, and at length, in 1615, he took orders. The king made him his chaplain, and he received several livings and the readership of Lincoln’s Inn. His wife, whom he idolised, died in 1617, and his heart seems to have been broken: his appointment to the Deanery of St. Paul’s in 1621 making no change in the ascetic and mystical tincture which his life and thought had taken. He held his post ten years, and died on the 31st March 1631. Of his various poems nothing need be said here, and, indeed, few of them were published during his life. His first published work was prose—a treatise entitled Pseudo Martyr—written at the king’s desire to reconcile Roman Catholics to the oath of allegiance (1610). He also wrote essays, “devotions,” and miscellaneous tractates, of which the chief, not published till after his death, was a paradox on suicide, entitled Biathanatos. But his principal work in prose is composed of sermons which fall but little short of the second hundred in number. It is unlucky that the only full edition of his works, that of Alford in 1839, is not complete, and is very badly done.]  1
THE CHARACTERISTICS of Donne’s voluminous and now little read prose are not on the whole very different from those of his strange and frequently exquisite but far less voluminous and better known verse. The differences, indeed, are little more than might be expected to be caused by the variation of subject and the advance of years, If he seldom, in prose, reaches the highest efforts of his unique imagination in verse, the removal of the restraints of verse frees his prose for the most part from the extreme obscurity and the labyrinthine conceit of his poetry. The latter traits appear chiefly in his Letters. These are sometimes charming, and they often display the wit with which Coleridge (in the modern sense rather than that in which the word was used of Donne by his own contemporaries) credits him. But elsewhere they are far from clear, and the forlorn condition, dateless and of uncertain address, in which we sometimes have them, aggravates their difficulty. The chief fault of the Sermons is again different. There are magnificent passages in them, but these passages are too often brief, and hardly separable from the context. They sometimes contain the germ of much more elaborate things written subsequently; for instance, one of Jeremy Taylor’s most celebrated pieces—that on the fragility of human life and health—is little more than an amplification of Donne. But something of the same want of perfect command of his wide learning, his profound thought, his soaring imagination, which mars the Poems, appears likewise in the Sermons. It is sometimes rather hard for the modern reader to discern what Donne, in modern phrase, is “driving at”; and the same reader is apt to be teased and annoyed by the perpetual running accompaniment of Protestant and Papist controversy, natural and indeed inevitable in the time and circumstances, but too omnipresent, and yet not sufficiently raised to the great scale. The learning also, like the imagination, may seem not sufficiently under control.  2
  But the saving grace of Donne, in prose as in poetry, is the strength and savour of his quality, in the strict sense of the word. In this quality he has no rival in English; no rival, I think, anywhere except in the author of the Confessions. Donne, indeed, and St. Augustine stand almost alone in the temper of thought and sentiment which a youth of passion followed by a middle age of devotion has impressed upon them, and which utters itself perpetually in their style. Even the translators of the Confessions have not been able entirely to obliterate the tone of mingled asceticism and regret for things quite other than ascetic which echoes from page after page of the original; and this same tone is found in Donne, heightened and deepened during his later days to an almost unearthly pitch by the death of his wife and the bodily feebleness which seems to have come on him. Many who know little else about him know the strange fancy which caused him to have his portrait painted coffined and shrouded, as well as Walton’s description of the famous last sermon, from which an extract is given below. But this same sentiment or mixture of sentiments pervades his work as an undertone even where it does not come to the surface. It is a tone which, in a younger man, or less constantly maintained in less voluminous work by a man of equal experience of life, might arouse a strong suspicion of insincerity. But such a suspicion would be utterly out of place in the case of Donne.  3
  In the minor particular of quaintness he is more on a par with others of his time; but here also he excels them. Even the most careless reader must note in him expressions of a racy oddity not surpassed by Fuller or Burton, by Glanville or Browne. “False and fashional Christians”; “ragefully”; “Who would be loth to sink by being over freighted with God, or loth to overset by having so much of that wind the breath of the Spirit of God.” These are but specimens of the things that meet the mere turner-over of the Sermons passim and without the trouble of minute attention. A little, but a very little, more may be required to do justice to the extraordinary profundity of Donne’s thought, and the accuracy of his observations of human nature, such as that given in our last extract, which might be taken as a motto describing the sin or mental disease which in the Middle Ages men called “accidia.” “In a dark sadness indifferent things seem abominable or necessary, being neither; as trees and sheep to melancholy night-walkers have unproper shapes.” But the most careful reading will be the best repaid by discoveries of this sort. And before long the reader will perceive, everywhere rising from the page, and expressed in it with a power extremely rare in prose, and not very common even in poetry, that mood which has been already referred to:—a mood in which the memory of bygone earthly delights blends inextricably with the present fervour of devotion, and which to a fancy resembling his own might suggest a temple of Aphrodite or Dionysus turned into a Christian church, and served by the same priest as of old, with complete loyalty to his new faith, but with undying consciousness of the past.  4
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