Verse > John Donne > The Poems of John Donne
John Donne (1572–1631).  The Poems of John Donne.  1896.
Introduction by George Saintsbury

THERE is hardly any, perhaps indeed there is not any, English author on whom it is so hard to keep the just mixture of personal appreciation and critical measure as it is on John Donne. It is almost necessary that those who do not like him should not like him at all; should be scarcely able to see how any decent and intelligent human creature can like him. It is almost as necessary that those who do like him should either like him so much as to speak unadvisedly with their lips, or else curb and restrain the expression of their love for fear that it should seem on that side idolatry. But these are not the only dangers. Donne is eminently of that kind which lends itself to sham liking, to coterie worship, to a false enthusiasm; and here is another weapon in the hands of the infidels, and another stumbling-block for the feet of the true believers. Yet there is always something stimulating in a subject of this kind, and a sort of temptation to attempt it.
  To write anything about Donne’s life, after Walton, is an attempt which should make even hardened écrivailleurs and écrivassiers nervous. That the good Izaak knew his subject and its atmosphere thoroughly; that he wrote but a very few years after Donne’s own death; and that he was a writer of distinct charm, are discouraging things, but not the most discouraging. It is perhaps only those who after being familiar for years with Donne’s poems, of which Walton says very little, make subsequent acquaintance with Walton’s presentment of the man, who can appreciate the full awkwardness of the situation. It is the worst possible case of pereant qui ante nos. The human Donne whom Walton depicts is so exactly the poetical Donne whom we knew, that the effect is uncanny. Generally, or at least very frequently, we find the poet other than his form of verse: here we find him quite astoundingly akin to it.  2
  The attempt however has to be made, and it shall be made with as little expenditure of art on matter 1 as possible. John Donne, the son of a London merchant and a lady, who was the daughter of John Heywood, and of the house of Sir Thomas More, was born in or about the year 1573. It is thought, but not certainly known, that all his secular poetry, satiric and erotic, was written before the end of the century, and probably most of it before he was five-and-twenty. His education, both in secular and religious matters, appears to have been peculiar. His family were of the old faith, and it is said to have been for this reason that he took no degree at either Oxford or Cambridge, though he was a member of both Universities, entering Hart Hall at Oxford in his eleventh year, and, so Walton tells us, removing to Cambridge in his fourteenth. His father soon died, and he, inheriting no inconsiderable portion, was transferred to Lincoln’s Inn, perhaps after an experience of foreign travel. Walton will have it that before he was twenty, he, having never actually professed the Romish faith, argued himself out of his tendency to it by study. But this is perhaps rather questionable. What is certain, though vaguely certain, is, that he was for some years a traveller and a man of pleasure, if not actually a soldier. He went with Essex to Cadiz in 1596, and visited the Azores, journeying also in Italy, and in Spain. He is thought to have spent his fortune in these wanderings.  3
  The institution of great men’s households, which then prevailed, provided a kind of additional liberal profession for men of parts and gentle but not distinguished birth; and Donne, on his return to England, joined the household of Chancellor Sir Thomas Egerton, afterwards Lord Ellesmere. Here he met Anne More, Lady Egerton’s niece and daughter of Sir George More, Lieutenant of the Tower. A clandestine marriage (1601) followed, with the result of great wrath on Sir George’s part, the dismissal of Donne from Egerton’s service, and his incarceration with his two friends, Samuel and Christopher Brooke (both poets, and the first afterwards Master of Trinity), who had helped his love-affairs. These troubles he won through, and at last was re-united to his wife with Sir George’s blessing, but none of his money. So the pair had to take up their abode with a certain Francis Wolley of Pirford, at whose death, after a short residence at Peckham and Mitcham, Donne transferred his family to the house of Sir Robert Drury in London. He also accompanied Sir Robert on an embassy to France. It is this journey in reference to which a famous apparition story is told. There is no positive evidence to show why Donne, whose strong theological leanings must have been obvious to everybody, and who had, according to Walton, received in the middle of his troubles the offer of a considerable preferment from Dean, afterwards Bishop, Morton, did not take orders earlier. But he told Morton that the irregularities of his early life prevented him, and the tenor both of his sacred and profane works makes it probable that this was a vera causa. Still there are other facts which show that he had not abandoned the hope of secular office, legal or other, until he reached middle life. At any rate it was not till 1615 that the express desire of the king (coupled with his sacred Majesty’s equally express refusal, even at Somerset’s desire, to make him anything else) induced him to take orders. James at once made him his chaplain, but for a time did not confer any benefice on him; and the heaviest calamity of his life, the death of his wife, to whom he was passionately attached, fell on him in 1617. But Lincoln’s Inn made him its preacher (Cambridge had conferred the degree of D.D. on him two years earlier), and he again went on a diplomatic expedition, this time with Lord Hay to Germany. At last, in Nov. 1621, he was made Dean of St. Paul’s, and other preferments falling in, he became a comparatively rich man. But he held these offices not quite ten years, and died, after a long illness (in the course of which he had the strange but characteristic fancy of being painted in his shroud), on March 31, 1631. Broken health, the loss of his wife, the bitterness to a man who must have known himself to be one of the greatest intellects of the age, of hopes delayed till long past middle life, and no doubt also sincere repentance for and reaction from youthful follies, will account for much of the almost unparalleled melancholy which appears in his later works, and seems to have characterized his later life. But a considerable residue remains for natural idiosyncrasy, and for the influence of the Renaissance, the peculiar pessimism of which was perfectly different from that of classical times, and from that of our own day, and can only be paralleled by the spirit of Ecclesiastes.  4
  The circumstances of his life however do not greatly concern us here; nor does that part—an eminent and admirable part—of his work which is not in verse. But it does concern us that there is a strange, though by no means unexampled, division between the two periods of his life and the two classes of his work. Roughly speaking, almost the whole of at least the secular verse belongs to the first division of the life, almost the whole of the prose to the second. Again, by far the greater part of the verse is animated by what may be called a spiritualized worldliness and sensuality, the whole of the prose by a spiritualism which has left worldliness far behind. The conjunction is, I say, not unknown: it was specially prevalent in the age of Donne’s birth and early life. It has even passed into something of a commonplace in reference to that Renaissance of which, as it slowly passed from south to north, Donne was one of the latest and yet one of the most perfect exponents. The strange story which Brantôme tells of Margaret of Navarre summoning a lover to the church under whose flags his mistress lay buried, and talking with him of her, shows, a generation before Donne’s birth, the influence which in his day had made its way across the narrow seas as it had earlier across the Alps, and had at each crossing gathered gloom and force if it had lost lightness and colour. Always in him are the two conflicting forces of intense enjoyment of the present, and intense feeling of the contrast of that present with the future. He has at once the transcendentalism which saves sensuality and the passion which saves mysticism. Indeed the two currents run so full and strong in him, they clash and churn their waves so boisterously, that this is of itself sufficient to account for the obscurity, the extravagance, the undue quaintness which have been charged against him. He was “of the first order of poets”; but he was not of the first amongst the first. Only Dante perhaps among these greatest of all had such a conflict and ebullition of feeling to express. For, as far as we can judge, in Shakespeare, even in the Sonnets, the poetical power mastered to some extent at the very first the rough material of the poetic instinct, and prepared before expression the things to be expressed. In Dante we can trace something of the presence of slag and dross in the ore; and even in Dante we can perhaps trace faintly also the difficulty of smelting it. Donne, being a lesser poet than Dante, shows it everywhere. It is seldom that even for a few lines, seldomer that for a few stanzas, the power of the furnace is equal to the volumes of ore and fuel that are thrust into it. But the fire is always there—over-tasked, over-mastered for a time, but never choked or extinguished; and ever and anon from gaps in the smouldering mass there breaks forth such a sudden flow of pure molten metal, such a flower of incandescence, as not even in the very greatest poets of all can be ever surpassed or often rivalled.  5
  For critical, and indeed for general purposes, the poetical works of Donne may be divided into three parts, separated from each other by a considerable difference of character and, in one case at least, of time. These are the Satires, which are beyond all doubt very early; the Elegies and other amatory poems, most of which are certainly, and all probably, early likewise; and the Divine and Miscellaneous Poems, some of which may not be late, but most of which certainly are. All three divisions have certain characteristics in common; but the best of these characteristics, and some which are not common to the three, belong to the second and third only.  6
  It was the opinion of the late seventeenth and of the whole of the eighteenth century that Donne, though a clever man, had no ear. Chalmers, a very industrious student, and not such a bad critic, says so in so many words; Johnson undoubtedly thought so; Pope demonstrated his belief by his fresh “tagging” of the Satires. They all to some extent no doubt really believed what they said; their ears had fallen deaf to that particular concord. But they all also no doubt founded their belief to a certain extent on certain words of Dryden’s which did not exactly import or comport what Mr. Pope and the rest took them to mean. Dryden had the knack, a knack of great value to a critic, but sometimes productive of sore misguiding to a critic’s readers—of adjusting his comments solely to one point of view, to a single scheme in metric and other things. Now, from the point of view of the scheme which both his authority and his example made popular, Donne was rather formless. But nearly all the eighteenth-century critics and criticasters concentrated their attention on the Satires; and in the Satires Donne certainly takes singular liberties, no matter what scheme be preferred. It is now, I believe, pretty well admitted by all competent judges that the astonishing roughness of the Satirists of the late sixteenth century was not due to any general ignoring of the principles of melodious English verse, but to a deliberate intention arising from the same sort of imperfect erudition which had in other ways so much effect on the men of the Renaissance generally. Satiric verse among the ancients allowed itself, and even went out of its way to take, licences which no poet in other styles would have dreamt of taking. The Horace of the impeccable odes writes such a hideous hexameter as—
        “Non ego, namque parabilem amo Venerem facilemque,
and one of the Roman satirists who was then very popular, Persius, though he could rise to splendid style on occasion, is habitually as harsh, as obscure, and as wooden as a Latin poet well can be. It is not probable, it is certain, that Donne and the rest imitated these licences of malice prepense.
  But it must be remembered that at the time when they assumed this greater licence, the normal structure of English verse was anything but fixed. Horace had in his contemporaries, Persius and Juvenal had still more in their forerunners, examples of versification than which Mr. Pope himself could do nothing more “correct”; and their licences could therefore be kept within measure, and still be licentious enough to suit any preconceived idea of the ungirt character of the Satiric muse. In Donne’s time the very precisians took a good deal of licence: the very Virgils and even Ovids were not apt to concern themselves very greatly about a short vowel before s with a consonant, or a trisyllable at the end of a pentameter. If therefore you meant to show that you were sans gêne, you had to make demonstrations of the most unequivocal character. Even with all this explanation and allowance it may still seem probable that Donne’s Satires never received any formal preparation for the press, and are in the state of rough copy. Without this allowance, which the eighteenth century either did not fare or did not know how to give, it is not surprising that they should have seemed mere monstrosities.  8
  The satiric pieces in which these peculiarities are chiefly shown, which attracted the attention of Pope, and which, through his recension, became known to a much larger number of persons than the work of any other Elizabethan Satirist, have the least share of Donne’s poetical interest. But they display to the full his manly strength and shrewd sense, and they are especially noticeable in one point. They exhibit much less of that extravagant exaggeration of contemporary vice and folly which makes one of their chief contemporaries, Marston’s Scourge of Villainy, almost an absurd thing, while it is by no means absent from Hall’s Virgidemiarum. We cannot indeed suppose that Donne’s satire was wholly and entirely sincere, but a good deal in it clearly was. Thus his handling of the perennial subjects of satire is far more fresh, serious, and direct than is usual with Satirists, and it was no doubt this judicious and direct quality which commended it to Pope. Moreover, these poems abound in fine touches. The Captain in the first Satire—
        “Bright parcel-gilt with forty dead men’s pay—”
the ingenious evildoers in the second—
                            “for whose sinful sake,
Schoolmen new tenements in hell must make—”
the charming touch at once so literary and so natural in the fifth—
                    “so controverted lands
’Scape, like Angelica, the striver’s hands,”
are only a few of the jewels five words long that might be produced as specimens. But it is not here that we find the true Donne: it was not this province of the universal monarchy of wit that he ruled with the most unshackled sway. The provinces that he did so rule were quite other: strange frontier regions, uttermost isles where sensuality, philosophy, and devotion meet, or where separately dwelling they rejoice or mourn over the conquests of each other. I am not so sure of the Progress of the Soul as some writers have been—interesting as it is, and curious as is the comparison with Prior’s Alma, which it of necessity suggests, and probably suggested. As a whole it seems to me uncertain in aim, unaccomplished in execution. But what things there are in it! What a line is—
        “Great Destiny, the Commissary of God!”
What a lift and sweep in the fifth stanza—
        “To my six lustres almost now outwore!”
What a thought that—
        “This saul, to whom Luther and Mahomet were
Prisons of flesh!”
And the same miraculous pregnancy of thought and expression runs through the whole, wen though it seems never to have found full and complete delivery in artistic form. How far this curious piece is connected with the still more famous ‘Anniversaries,’ in which so different a stage of “progress” is reached, and which ostensibly connect themselves with the life and death of Mrs. Elizabeth Drury, is a question which it would be tedious to argue out in any case, and impossible to argue out here. But the successive stages of the ‘Anatomy of the World,’ present us with the most marvellous poetical exposition of a certain kind of devotional thought yet given. It is indeed possible that the union of the sensual, intellectual, poetical, and religious temperaments is not so very rare; but it is very rarely voiceful. That it existed in Donne’s pre-eminently, and that it found voice in him as it never has done before or since, no one who knows his life and works can doubt. That the greatest of this singular group of poems is the ‘Second Anniversary,’ will hardly, I think, be contested. Here is the famous passage—
                    “Her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say her body thought”—
which has been constantly quoted, praised, and imitated. Here, earlier, is what I should choose if I undertook the perilous task of singling out the finest line in English sacred poetry—
                                “so long
As till God’s great Venite change the song—”
a Dies Iræ and a Venite itself combined in ten English syllables.
  Here is that most vivid and original of Donne’s many prose and verse meditations on death, as—
                                “A groom
That brings a taper to the outward room.”
  Here too is the singular undernote of “she” repeated constantly in different places of the verse, with the effect of a sort of musical accompaniment or refrain, which Dryden (a great student of Donne) afterwards imitated on the note “you” in Astræa Recluse, and the Coronation. But these, and many other separate verbal or musical beauties, perhaps yield to the wonder of the strange, dreamy atmosphere of moonlight thought and feeling which is shed over the whole piece. Nowhere is Donne, one of the most full-blooded and yet one of the least earthly of English poets, quite so unearthly.  11
  The Elegies, perhaps better known than any of his poems, contain the least of this unearthliness. The famous ‘Refusal to allow his young wife to accompany him as his page,’ though a very charming poem, is, I think, one of the few pieces of his which have been praised enough, if not even a little overpraised. As a matter of taste it seems to me indeed more open to exception than the equally famous and much “fie-fied” ‘To his mistress going to bed,’ a piece of frank naturalism redeemed from coarseness by passion and poetic completeness. The Elegies again are the most varied of the divisions of Donne’s works, and contain next to the Satires his liveliest touches, such as—
        “The grim, eight-foot-high, iron-bound, serving-man,
That oft names God in oaths, and only than” (i.e., then)—
or as the stroke—
        “Lank as an unthrift’s purse.”
  In Epithalamia Donne was good, but not consummate, falling far short of his master, Spenser, in this branch. No part of his work was more famous in his own day than his ‘Epistles’ which are headed by the ‘Storm’ and ‘Calm,’ that so did please Ben Jonson. But in these and other pieces of the same division, the misplaced ingenuity which is the staple of the general indictment against Donne, appears, to my taste, less excusably than anywhere else. Great passion of love, of grief, of philosophic meditation, of religious awe, had the power to master the fantastic hippogriff of Donne’s imagination, and make it wholly serviceable; but in his less intense works it was rather unmanageable. Yet there are very fine things here also; especially in the Epistle to Sir Henry Goodyere, and those to Lucy Countess of Bedford, and Elizabeth Countess of Huntingdon. The best of the ‘Funeral Elegies’ are those of Mrs. Boulstred. In the Divine Poems there is nothing so really divine as the astonishing verse from the ‘Second Anniversary’ quoted above. It must always however seem odd that such a poet as Donne should have taken the trouble to tag the Lamentations of Jeremiah into verse, which is sometimes much more lamentable in form than even in matter. The epigram as to Le Franc de Pompignan’s French version, and its connection, by dint of Jeremiah’s prophetic power, with the fact of his having lamented, might almost, if any Englishman had had the wit to think of it, have been applied a century earlier to parts of this of Donne. The ‘Litany’ is far better, though it naturally suggests Herrick’s masterpiece in divine song-writing; and even the ‘Jeremiah’ ought not perhaps to be indiscriminately disapproved. The opening stanzas especially have a fine melancholy clang not unknown, I think, as a model to Mr. Swinburne.  13
  But to my fancy no division of Donne’s poems—the ‘Second Anniversary’ always excepted—shows him in his quiddity and essence as do the Lyrics. Some of these are to a certain extent doubtful. One of the very finest of the whole, ‘Absence, hear thou my protestation,’ with its unapproached fourth stanza, appeared first in Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody unsigned. But all the best authorities agree (and for my part I would almost go to the stake on it) that the piece is Donne’s. In those which are undoubtedly genuine the peculiar quality of Donne flames through and perfumes the dusky air which is his native atmosphere in a way which, though I do not suppose that the French poet had ever heard of Donne, has always seemed to me the true antitype and fulfilment by anticipation of Baudelaire’s
        “Encensoir oublié qui fume
En silence à travers la nuit.”
Everybody knows the
        “Bracelet of bright hair about the bone”
of the late discovered skeleton, identifying the lover: everybody the perfect fancy and phrase of the exordium—
        “I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost,
Who died before the god of Love was born.”
But similar touches are almost everywhere. The enshrining once for all in the simplest words of a universal thought—
                “I wonder by my troth what thou and I
Did till we loved?”
The selection of single adjectives to do the duty of a whole train of surplusage—
        “Where can we find two better hemispheres
Without sharp north, without declining west?”—
meet us, and tell us what we have to expect in all but the earliest. In comparison with these things, such a poem as ‘Go and catch a falling star,’ delightful as it is, is perhaps only a delightful quaintness, and ‘The Indifferent’ only a pleasant quip consummately turned. In these perversities Donne is but playing tours de force. His natural and genuine work re-appears in such poems as ‘Canonization,’ or as ‘The Legacy.’ It is the fashion sometimes, and that not always with the worst critics, to dismiss this kind of heroic rapture as an agreeable but conscious exaggeration, partly betrayed and partly condoned by flouting-pieces like those just mentioned. The gloss does not do the critic’s knowledge of human nature or his honesty in acknowledging his knowledge much credit. Both moods and both expressions are true; but the rapture is the truer. No one who sees in these mere literary or fashionable exercises, can ever appreciate such an aubade as ‘Stay, O Sweet, and do not rise,’ or such a midnight piece as ‘The Dream,’ with its never-to-be-forgotten couplet—
        “I must confess, it could not choose but be
Profane to think thee anything but thee.”
If there is less quintessence in ‘The Message,’ for all its beauty, it is only because no one can stay long at the point of rapture which characterizes Donne at his most characteristic, and the relaxation is natural—as natural as is the pretty fancy about St. Lucy—
        “Who but seven hours herself unmasks”—
the day under her invocation being in the depths of December. But the passionate mood, or that of mystical reflection, soon returns, and in the one Donne shall sing with another of the wondrous phrases where simplicity and perfection meet—
        “So to engraft our hands as yet
  Was all our means to make us one,
And pictures in our eyes to get
  Was all our propagation.”
Or in the other dwell on the hope of buried lovers—
        “To make their souls at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay.”
  I am not without some apprehension that I shall be judged to have fallen a victim to my own distinction, drawn at the beginning of this paper, and shown myself an unreasonable lover of this astonishing poet. Yet I think I could make good my appeal in any competent critical court. For in Donne’s case the yea-nay fashion of censorship which is necessary and desirable in the case of others is quite superfluous. His faults are so gross, so open, so palpable, that they hardly require the usual amount of critical comment and condemnation. But this very peculiarity of theirs constantly obscures his beauties even to not unfit readers. They open him; they are shocked, or bored, or irritated, or puzzled by his occasional nastiness (for he is now and then simply and inexcusably nasty), his frequent involution and eccentricity, his not quite rare indulgence in extravagances which go near to silliness; and so they lose the extraordinary beauties which lie beyond or among these faults. It is true that, as was said above, there are those, and many of them, who can never and will never like Donne. No one who thinks Don Quixote a merely funny book, no one who sees in Aristophanes a dirty-minded fellow with a knack of Greek versification, no one who thinks it impossible not to wish that Shakespeare had not written the Sonnets, no one who wonders what on earth Giordano Bruno meant by Gli eroici Furori, need trouble himself even to attempt to like Donne. “He will never have done with that attempt,” as our Dean himself would have unblushingly observed, for he was never weary of punning on his name.  15
  But for those who have experienced, or who at least understand, the ups-and-downs, the ins-and-outs of human temperament, the alternations not merely of passion and satiety, but of passion and laughter, of passion and melancholy reflection, of passion earthly enough and spiritual rapture almost heavenly, there is no poet and hardly any writer like Donne. They may even be tempted to see in the strangely mixed and flawed character of his style, an index and reflection of the variety and the rapid changes of his thought and feeling. To the praise of the highest poetical art he cannot indeed lay claim. He is of course entitled to the benefit of the pleas that it is uncertain whether he ever prepared definitely for the press a single poetical work of his; that it is certain that his age regarded his youth with too much disapproval to bestow any critical care on his youthful poems. But it may be retorted that no one with the finest sense of poetry as an art, could have left things so formless as he has left, that it would have been intolerable pain and grief to any such till he had got them, even in MS., into shape. The retort is valid. But if Donne cannot receive the praise due to the accomplished poetical artist, he has that not perhaps higher but certainly rarer, of the inspired poetical creator. No study could have bettered—I hardly know whether any study could have produced—such touches as the best of those which have been quoted, and as many which perforce have been left out. And no study could have given him the idiosyncrasy which he has. Nos passions, says Bossuet, ont quelque chose d’infini. To express infinity no doubt is a contradiction in terms. But no poet has gone nearer to the hinting and adumbration of this infinite quality of passion, and of the relapses and reactions from passion, than the author of ‘The Second Anniversary’ and ‘The Dream,’ of ‘The Relique’ and ‘The Ecstasy.’
Note 1. It should be observed that the matter is still to a great extent inaccessible. The dates and facts in the next three pages have been kindly corrected by the Editor, in accordance with researches later than Walton’s.  G. S. [back]
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