1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Donne

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 1:201-04.



JOHN DONNE was born in London, in the year 1573. He sprung from a Catholic family, and his mother was related to Sir Thomas More and to Heywood the epigrammatist. He was very early distinguished as a prodigy of boyish acquirement, and was entered, when only eleven, of Harthall, now Hertford College. He was designed for the law, but relinquished the study when he reached nineteen. About the same time, having studied the controversies between the Papists and Protestants, lie deliberately went over to the latter. He next accompanied the Earl of Essex to Cadiz, and looked wistfully over the gulf dividing him from Jerusalem, with all its holy memories, to which his heart had been translated from very boyhood. He even meditated a journey to the Holy Land, but was discouraged by reports as to the dangers of the way. On his return he was received by the Lord Chancellor Ellesmere into his own house as his secretary. Here he fell in love with Miss More, the daughter of Sir George More, Lord-Lieutenant of the Tower, and the niece of the Chancellor. His passion was returned, and the pair were imprudent enough to marry privately. When the matter became known, the father-in-law became infuriated. He prevailed on Lord Ellesmere to drive Donne out of his service, and had him even for a short time imprisoned. Even when released he continued in a pitiable plight, and but for the kindness of Sir Francis Wooley, a son of Lady Ellesmere by a former marriage, who received the young couple into his family and entertained them for years, they would have perished.

When Donne reached the age of thirty-four, Dr. Merton, afterwards Bishop of Durham, urged him to take orders, and offered him a benefice, which he was generously to relinquish in his favour. Donne declined, on account, he said, of some past errors of life, which, "though repented of and pardoned by God, might not be forgotten by men, and might cast dishonour on the sacred office."

When Sir F. Wooley died, Sir Robert Drury became his next protector. Donne attended him on an embassy to France, and his wife formed the romantic purpose of accompanying her husband in the disguise of a page. Here was a wife fit for a poet! In order to restrain her from her purpose, he had to address to her some verses, commencing, "By our strange and fatal interview?" Isaak Walton relates how the poet, one evening, as he sat alone in Paris, saw his wife appearing to him in vision, with a dead infant in her arms — a proof at once of the strength of his love and of his imagination. This beloved and admirable woman died in 1617, a few days after giving birth to her twelfth child, and Donne's grief approached distraction.

When he had reached the forty-second year of his age, our poet, at the instance of King James, became a clergyman, and was successively appointed Chaplain to the King, Lecturer to Lincoln's Inn, Dean of St. Dunstan's in the West, and Dean of St. Paul's. In the pulpit he attracted great attention, particularly from the more thoughtful and intelligent of his auditors. He continued Dean of St. Paul's till his death, which took place in 1631, when he was approaching sixty. He died of consumption, a disease which seldom cuts down a man so near his grand climacteric.

"He was buried," says Campbell, "in St. Paul's, where his figure yet remains in the vault of St. Faith's, carved from a painting, for which he sat a few days" (it should be weeks) "before his death, dressed in his winding-sheet." He kept this portrait constantly by his bedside to remind him of his mortality.

Donne's Sermons fill a large folio, with which we were familiar in boyhood, but have not seen since. De Quincey says, alluding partly to them, and partly to his poetry, — "Few writers have shown a more extraordinary compass of powers than Donne, for he combined — what no other man has ever done — the last sublimation of dialectical subtlety and address with the most impassioned majesty. Massy diamonds compose the very substance of his poem on the Metempsychosis, — thoughts and descriptions which have the fervent and gloomy sublimity of Ezekiel or Aeschylus; while a diamond-dust of rhetorical brilliances is strewed over the whole of his occasional verses and his prose." We beg leave to differ, in some degree, from De Quincey in his estimate of the Metempsychosis, or The Progress of the Soul, although we have given it entire. It has too many far-fetched conceits and obscure allegories, although redeemed, we admit, by some very precious thoughts, such as

This soul, to whom Luther and Mahomet were
Prisons of flesh.

Or the following quaint picture of the apple in Eden—

Prince of the orchard, fair as dawning morn,
Fenced with the law, and ripe as soon as born?

Or this—

Nature hath no jail, though she hath law.

If our readers, however, can admire the account the poet gives of Abel and his bitch, or see any resemblance to the severe and simple grandeur of Aeschylus and Ezekiel in the description of the soul informing a body, made of a "female fish's sandy roe" "newly leavened with the male's jelly," we shall say no more.

Donne, altogether, gives us the impression of a great genius ruined by a false system. He is a charioteer run away with by his own pampered steeds. He begins generally well, but long ere the close, quibbles, conceits, and the temptation of showing off recondite learning, prove too strong for him, and he who commenced following a serene star, ends pursuing a will-o'-wisp into a bottomless morass. Compare, for instance, the ingenious nonsense which abounds in the middle and the close of his Progress of the Soul with the dark, but magnificent stanzas which are the first in the poem.

In no writings in the language is there more spilt treasure — a more lavish loss of beautiful, original, and striking things than in the poems of Donne. Every second line, indeed, is either bad, or unintelligible, or twisted into unnatural distortion, but even the worst passages discover a great, though trammelled and tasteless mind; and we question if Dr. Johnson himself, who has, in his Life of Cowley, criticised the school of poets to which Donne belonged so severely, and in some points so justly, possessed a tithe of the rich fancy, the sublime intuition, and the lofty spirituality of Donne. How characteristic of the difference between these two great men, that, while the one shrank from the slightest footprint of death, Donne deliberately placed the image of his dead self before his eyes, and became familiar with the shadow ere the grim reality arrived!

Donne's Satires shew, in addition to the high ideal qualities, the rugged versification, the fantastic paradox, and the perverted taste of their author, great strength and clearness of judgment, and a deep, although somewhat jaundiced, view of human nature. That there must have been something morbid in the structure of his mind is proved by the fact that lie wrote an elaborate treatise, which was not published till after his death, entitled, Biathanatos, to prove that suicide was not necessarily sinful.