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ROBERT BROWNING, c. 1828 86
I remember I was a little lightheaded one long night, and fancied I
had to go through a complete version of the Psalms by Donne, Psalm
by Psalm! Fact!
(iii) In 1842 an admirer presented Browning with a copy of the 1719
edition of Donne’s poems, inscribing it ‘To Robert Browning, Esq.
from Thos. Powell, June 12, 1842’. The book came up for auction at
Sotheby’s in May 1913 among the effects of R.W.Browning, who
had just died, and was sold to Elkin Matthews for £2. It is listed in
the catalogue of the sale, Catalogue of The Browning Collections,
1913, p. 94 (given in Sales Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent
Persons, vi, ed. J. Woolford, 1972, p. 121).
(iv) Elizabeth Barrett several times spoke of ‘your Donne’ in her early
letters to Browning, quoting Satyre ii and ‘The Will’; and Browning,
replying, aptly wove in quotations from a verse letter, the
Epithalamion…St Valentines day, and ‘A Valediction: forbidding
Mourning’ (The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning 1845–6, ed. R.B.Browning, 1899, i, pp. 27, 145, 196, 420,
440; ii, p. 116).
In this famous correspondence Browning used Donne at times to
suggest a motive he could not explicitly avow. There is an interesting
instance in a letter written on ii September 1845, the day before the
meeting in which they declared their love to each other for the first
time. Miss Barrett had been talking of a trip to Italy she might make
with some of her family, and Browning urged her to go. He returned
to the subject a little later, saying that another of his wishes had just
come true—he had found out the pet name by which her family
So, wish by wish, one gets one’s wishes—at
least I do—for one instance, you will go to Italy
Why, ‘lean and harken after it’ as Donne says—
The musical phrase, which Browning closes with a large question
mark, is the opening of an aria from Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice—
‘Che Faró…?’, ‘What shall I do without you, Euridice?’; and the
quotation replies that he will ‘lean and hearken after’ her, as the
separated lovers respond to each other in Donne’s poem. It amounts
THE CRITICAL HERITAGE
to a discreet avowal, preparing the way for the open declaration of
love that ensued.1
(v) Sir John Simeon presented Browning with a copy of his
‘Unpublished Poems of Donne’ (see No. 187) which came out in
1856–7. Browning wrote on the title page ‘Robert Browning from
Sir John Simeon’. The copy was sold to Elkin Matthews for £3 10s.
at Sotheby’s in May 1913. (See the Catalogue of the Browning
Collections, 1913, p. 94, in Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent
Persons, vi, ed. J.Woolford, 1972, p. 121.)
(vi) Sir Sidney Colvin, looking back to the acquaintance of his early
manhood, c. 1865, recalled Browning’s ‘coming out once with a long
crabbedly fine screed from John Donne’. It was the Elegie on Mris
Boulstred (Memories and Notes of Persons and Places, 1852–1912,
1921, p. 82).
(vii) William Rossetti made an entry in his diary for 1869 (W.M.
Rossetti, Rossetti Papers 1862–70, 1903, p. 378):
Thurs. 7 January. Browning and others came to Euston Square. B.
speaks with great enthusiasm of a poem by Donne named
(viii) A.B.Grosart dedicated to Browning his edition of Donne’s
poems, 1872–3, with an acknowledgment of Browning’s particular
interest in Donne:
THE POET OF THE CENTURY FOR THINKERS,
THIS FIRST COMPLETE EDITION OF THE POEMS OF
(BORN 1573, DIED 1631);
KNOWING HOW MUCH HIS POETRY,
WITH EVERY ABATEMENT,
IS VALUED AND ASSIMILATED BY HIM:
Mrs K.Tillotson takes the quotation itself for a neutral inquiry—‘he asks her
why she should lean and hearken after Italy’ (‘Donne’s Poetry in the Nineteenth
Century’, in Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies, ed. Herbert Davis and Helen Gardner,
Oxford, 1959, p. 324). I do not see that this is a possible reading of the passage.
Browning owned and signed his name in a copy of Grosart’s edition,
which was sold for .£3 5s. at Sotheby’s in May 1913. He also owned
and signed a copy of volume i of the edition which was sold on the
same occasion for £2 15s. (See the Catalogue of the Browning
Collections, 1913, p. 94, in Sales Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent
Persons, vi, ed. J.Woolford, 1972, p. 121.)
(ix) Browning quoted and praised Donne’s Metempsychosis in stanza
114 of his The Two Poets of Crosic, published in 1878:
He’s greatest now and to de-struc-ti-on
Nearest. Attend the solemn word I quote,
O Paul! There’s no pause at per-fec-ti-on.
Thus knolls thy knell the Doctor’s bronzed throat!
Greatness a period hath, no sta-ti-on!
Better and truer verse none ever wrote
(Despite the antique outstretched a-i-on)
Than thou, revered and magisterial Donne!
(x) In another poem, ‘Epps’, dated 1886, Browning describes a heroic
episode in the siege of Ostend and has Donne and Dekker writing
verses to celebrate it. (The poem was printed posthumously in The
Cornhill Magazine and The New York Outlook in October 1913,
and has never appeared in a collected edition of Browning’s poems.
It is given in New Poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning, ed. F.G. Kenyon, London, 1914, pp. 56–9.)
Browning describes how one Epps, a Kentishman, took the flag
from its staff and wrapped it round his own body, then ‘shot and
slashed’ to the point of death, staggered back to save it:
And die did Epps, with his English round:
Not so the fame of the feat:
For Donne and Dekker, brave poets and rare,
Gave it honour and praise: and I join the pair
With heart that’s loud though my voice compete
As a pipe with their trumpet-sound!
Dekker does in fact tell the story of ‘William Eps his death’ in prose,
otherwise just as Browning describes it, in A Knights Coniuring.
Donne in earnest: Discovered in Iest, 1607, 14r-K1v. Possibly
Browning had the epigram on Wingfield in mind when he coupled
Donne with Dekker here.
148. Mrs Anna Murphy Jameson
Mrs Jameson (1794–1860) wrote essays on art, on famous
women, and the like, and devoted much time to sick nursing. In
a sentimental account of Donne’s marriage and married life she
made a few comments on his poetry (Memoirs of the Loves of
the Poets, 1829, pp. 94–109).
CONJUGAL POETRY CONTINUED.
STORY OF DR. DONNE AND HIS WIFE.
My next instance of conjugal poetry is taken from the literary history
of our own country, and founded on as true and touching a piece of
romance as ever was taken from the page of real life.
Dr. Donne, once so celelebrated as a writer, now so neglected, is
more interesting for his matrimonial history, and for one little poem
addressed to his wife, than for all his learned, metaphysical, and
theological productions. As a poet, it is probable that even readers
of poetry know little of him, except from the lines at the bottom of
the pages in Pope’s version, or rather translation, of his Satires, the
very recollection of which is enough to ‘set one’s ears on edge,’ and
verify Coleridge’s witty and imitative couplet.—
Donne—whose muse on dromedary trots,—
Twists iron pokers into true love knots.
It is this inconceivable harshness of versification, which has caused
Donne to be so little read, except by those who make our old poetry
their study. One of these critics has truly observed, that ‘there is
scarce a writer in our language who has so thoroughly mixed up the
good and the bad together.’ What is good, is the result of truth, of
passion, of a strong mind, and a brilliant wit: what is bad, is the
effect of a most perverse taste, and total want of harmony. No sooner
has he kindled the fancy with a splendid thought, than it is as instantly
quenched in a cloud of cold and obscure conceits: no sooner has he
touched the heart with a feeling or sentiment, true to nature and
powerfully expressed, than we are chilled or disgusted by pedantry
[She quotes in full Elegie xvi, ‘On his Mistris’, in the 1669 version.]
I would not have the heart of one who could read these lines, and
think only of their rugged style, and faults of taste and expression.
The superior power of truth and sentiment have immortalised this
little poem, and the occasion which gave it birth. The wife and
husband parted, and he left with her another little poem which he
calls a ‘Valediction, forbidding to mourn.’
Among Donne’s earlier poetry may be distinguished the following
little song, which has so much more harmony and elegance than his
other pieces, that it is scarcely a fair specimen of his style. It was
long popular, and I can remember when a child, hearing it sung to
very beautiful music.
[She quotes ‘The Message’ in full.]
Perhaps it may interest some readers to add, that Donne’s famous
lines, which have been quoted ad infinitum,—
The pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
Ye might have almost said her body thought!
were not written on his wife, but on Elizabeth Drury, the only
daughter of his patron and friend, Sir Robert Drury.
149. William Godwin
Godwin (1756–1836), radical thinker, essayist, novelist, was a
sometime associate of Coleridge and Shelley, and the father of
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. He spoke of Donne in his Thoughts
on Man, His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries, 1831, pp. 3–
4 and 83.
What a miraculous thing is the human complexion! We are sent into
the world naked, that all the variations of the blood might be made
visible. However trite, I cannot avoid quoting here the lines of the
most deep-thinking and philosophical of our poets…
[He quotes lines 243b-46 of The second Anniversary.]
[Later in the book Godwin writes of European poets.] One of the
most admired of our English poets about the close of the sixteenth
century was Donne. Unlike many of those trivial writers of verse
who succeeded him after an interval of forty or fifty years, and who
won for themselves a brilliant reputation by the smoothness of their
numbers, the elegance of their conceptions, and the politeness of
their style, Donne was full of originality, energy, and vigour. No man
can read him without feeling himself called upon for earnest exercise
of his thinking powers, and even with the most fixed attention and
application, the student is often obliged to confess his inability to
take in the whole of the meaning with which the poet’s mind was
perceptibly fraught. Every sentence that Donne writes, whether in
verse or prose, is exclusively his own. In addition to this, his thoughts
are often in the noblest sense of the word poetical; and passages may
be quoted from him that no English poet may attempt to rival, unless
it be Milton and Shakespeare. Ben Jonson observed of him with great
truth and a prophetic spirit: ‘Donne for not being understood will
perish’. But this is not all. If Waller and Suckling and Carew sacrificed
every thing to the Graces, Donne went into the other extreme. With
a few splendid and admirable exceptions, his phraseology and
versification are crabbed and repulsive. And, as poetry is read in the
first place for pleasure, Donne is left undisturbed on the shelf, or
rather in the sepulchre; and not one in an hundred even among persons
of cultivation, can give any account of him, if in reality they ever
heard of his productions.
150. Alexander Dyce
Dyce (1798–1869), a clergyman, was a prolific editor of old texts.
He included Donne’s Holy Sonnet x, ‘Death be not proud’, in his
Specimens of English Sonnets, 1833, p. 108, and commented on
the poem in the Notes, p. 214. Dyce owned a copy of the 1633
edition of Donne’s poems, and some time later than 1833 he
made several pages of notes in the endpapers. This copy is now
in the Dyce Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, press
(i) Sonnet by John Donne, p. 108] Deep-thoughted, and forcible—
from the first edition of his Poems, 1633.
(ii) One page of the notes Dyce made in his copy of Donne’s poems,
1633, is taken up with a list of the unusual words and phrases which
Donne uses. On another page Dyce records his observations as he
read through the volume from beginning to end. He notes some words
omitted or misprinted in the 1633 edition and supplies or corrects
them from a later seventeenth-century text of the poems. He recalls
Wordsworth’s high opinion of Holy Sonnet x, ‘Death be not proud’
(see No. 151). He lists some phrases which Milton and Pope seem to
have imitated from Donne, giving reference to Pope’s Eloisa to
Abelard and The Rape of the Lock. And he indicates passages he
admired—‘“her pure and eloquent blood,” &c’ (The second
Anniversary, line 244), ‘“And, though thou beest,” &c. A grand
passage’ (‘Elegie on Mris Boulstred’, line 31).
151. William Wordsworth
Wordsworth wrote to Alexander Dyce early in 1833 advising
him on the choice of poems for an anthology, Specimens of English
Sonnets, which came out later in that year. (The Letters of William
and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years, ed. E.de Selincourt,
Oxford, 1939, ii, p. 652. The text given below is reproduced
from the manuscript in the Dyce collection, Victoria and Albert
Museum.) Dyce included Donne’s Holy Sonnet x, ‘Death be not
proud’, at Wordsworth’s suggestion, and noted Wordsworth’s
regard for this sonnet in a copy of the 1633 edition of Donne’s
poems now in the Dyce collection, Victoria and Albert Museum:
‘When I was preparing my Specimens of English Sonnets,
Wordsworth wrote to me to request that I would not overlook
this one, which he thought very fine.’
…It should seem that the best rule to follow, would be, first to
pitch upon the Sonnets which are best both in kind and perfectness
of execution, and next those, which, although of a humbler quality,
are admirable for the finish and happiness of the execution, taking
care to exclude all those which have not one or other of these
recommendations, however striking they might be as characteristic
of the age in which the author lived, or some peculiarity of his
manner.—The tenth sonnet of Donne, beginning ‘Death be not
proud’, is so eminently characteristic of his manner, and at the same
time so weighty in thought and vigorous in the expression that I
would entreat you to insert it, though to modern taste it may be
repulsive or quaint and laboured….
152. James Augustus St John
St John (1801–75) was a traveller, journalist, and historian, who
sometimes tried his hand at fiction. For his exotic tales he took
mottoes from the English poets, and twice used lines by Donne.
He gave lines 91b-92 of Satyre iv as the former of two mottoes
to chapter XLVII of Tales of the Ramad’han, 1835, iii, p. 17, and
lines 53–4 of Elegie xvi, ‘On his Mistris’, as the motto of a story
called ‘Hell’s Hollow’ which appeared in the periodical
Friendship’s Offering, 1835, pp. 321–45. Donne’s lines aptly
introduce ‘Hell’s Hollow’, which is a Gothic melodrama about
banditry in the French Alps and describes a murderous attack in
a narrow precipitous place.
153. Richard Cattermole and
The compilers of an anthology of seventeenth-century religious
poetry, both clergymen-authors, devoted some twenty-three pages
of it to Donne’s verse. They give one stanza from the
Metempsychosis, a sonnet from La Corona, six Holy Sonnets,
the funeral elegy ‘Death I recant’, the verse letter to Goodyer
‘Who makes the Past, a patterne for next yeare’ (retitled
‘Improvement’), an excerpt from The Lamentations of Jeremy, a
long excerpt from The second Anniversary, and ‘A Hymne to
Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany’.
The extracts that follow are taken from the essay which introduces
the volume, and the brief life of Donne prefixed to the selection
of his poems (Sacred Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, 1836,
ii, pp. xi and 53).
It may appear paradoxical, to say of the poets of the Seventeenth
Century that they were not artificial. They were so, in style and
manner; not in sentiment and opinion. From the most fanciful of the
school of Donne and Cowley it is easy to strip off the out-growth of
affectation and conceit; and discover the opinions and feelings of the
writer in all their plainness and genuine simplicity beneath….
He was the first, and certainly the most vigorous of that poetical
school which the critics have held up to ridicule under the character
of ‘metaphysical’,—a term sufficiently alarming to modern ears to
have had the effect of limiting the popularity of those writers who
have been assigned to the class so stigmatized. Another inexpiable
offence of Donne is the harshness of his versification. Admitting that
he is frequently rugged and sometimes obscure, the judicious critic
will yet not deny to this once favourite writer, the praise of a true
and often a delightful poet; nor will it surprise him, that more than is
needful has been said on both points, in times which abound with
readers more capable of relishing voluptuous sweetness of language
than of appreciating depth of sentiment and originality of thought;
and ignorant that it is necessary to reflect on what is read, if we
would correctly judge and effectually profit. There is much,
undoubtedly, in the volume of Donne’s Poems, which cannot be more
fitly disposed of, than as ‘Alms for Oblivion’; but there is also much,
for the sake of which it is worth while making one more attempt to
avert the fulfilment of Ben Jonson’s prediction that ‘for want of being
understood he would perish’.