JOHN DONNE was born in London in 1573, of a Catholic family; through his mother he was related to Sir Thomas More and Heywood the epigrammatist. He was educated partly at Oxford and partly at Cambridge, and was designed for the law, but relinquished the study in his nineteenth year. About this period of his life, having carefully considered the controversies between the Catholics and Protestants, he became convinced that the latter were right, and became a member of the established church. The great abilities and amiable character of Donne were early distinguished. The Earl of Essex, the Lord Chancellor Egerton, and Sir Robert Drury, successively befriended and employed him; and a saying of the second of these eminent persons respecting him is recorded by his biographers — that he was fitter to serve a king than a subject. He fell, nevertheless, into trouble, in consequence of secretly marrying the daughter of Sir George Moore, lord lieutenant of the Tower. This step kept him for several years in poverty, and by the death of his wife, a few days after giving birth to her twelfth child, he was plunged into the greatest grief. At the age of forty-two, Donne became a clergyman, and soon attaining distinction as a preacher, he was preferred by James I. to the deanery of St Paul's; in which benefice he continued till his death in 1631, when he was buried honourably in Westminster Abbey.
The works of Donne consist of satires, elegies religions poems, complimentary verses, and epigrams: they were first collected into one volume by Tonson in 1719. His reputation as a poet, great in his own day, low during the latter part of the seventeenth, and the whole of the eighteenth century, has latterly in some degree revived. In its days of abasement, critics spoke of his harsh and rugged versification, and his leaving nature for conceit: Dryden even hints at the necessity of translating hum into numbers and English. It seems to be now acknowledged that, amidst much rubbish, there is much real poetry, and that of a high order, in Donne. He is described by a recent critic as "imbued to saturation with the learning of his age," endowed "with a most active and piercing intellect — an imagination, if not grasping and comprehensive, most subtle and far-darting — a fancy, rich, vivid, and picturesque — a mode of expression terse, simple, and condensed — and a wit admirable, as well for its caustic severity, as for its playful quickness — and as only wanting sufficient sensibility and taste to preserve him from the vices of style which seem to have beset him. Donne is usually considered as the first of a series of poets of the seventeenth century, who, under the name of the Metaphysical Poets, fill a conspicuous place in English literary history. The directness of thought, the naturalness of description, the rich abundance of genuine poetical feeling and imagery, which distinguish the poets of Elizabeth's reign, now begin to give way to cold and forced conceits, mere vain workings of the intellect, a kind of poetry as unlike the former as punning is unlike genuine wit. To give an idea of these conceits — Donne writes a poem on a familiar popular subject, a broken heart. Here he does not advert to the miseries or distractions which are presumed to be the causes of broken hearts, but starts off into a play of conceit upon time phrase. He entered a room, he says, where his mistress was present, and
At one first blow did shiver it [his heart] as glass.
Then, forcing on his mind to discover by what means the idea of a heart broken to pieces, like glass, can be turned to account in making out something that will gingle on the reader's imagination, he proceeds thus:
Yet nothing can to nothing fall,
Nor any place be empty quite,
Therefore I think my breast hath all
Those pieces still, though they do not unite:
And nose, as broken glasses show
A hundred lesser faces, so
My rags of heart can like, wish, and adore,
But after one such love can love no more.
There is here, certainly, analogy, but then it is analogy which altogether fails to please or move: it is a mere conceit. Perhaps we should not be far from time truth, if we were to represent this style as the natural symptoms of the decline of the brilliant school of Sackville, Spenser, and Shakspeare. All the recognised modes, subjects, and phrases of poetry, introduced by them and their contemporaries, were now in some degree exhausted, and it was necessary to seek for something new. This was found, not in a new vein of equally, rich ore, but in a continuation of the workings through adjoining veins of spurious metal.
It is at the same time to be borne in mind, that the quality above described did not characterise the whole of the writings of Donne and his followers, These men are often direct, natural, and truly poetical — in spite, as it were, of themselves. Donne, it may be here stated, is usually considered as the first writer of that kind of satire which Pope and Churchill carried to such perfection. But his satires, to use the words of a writer already quoted, are rough and rugged as the unhewn stones that have just been blasted from time quarry.
The specimens which follow are designed only to exemplify the merits of Donne, not his defects.