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ANON., The Penny Cyclopaedia, 1837
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took place at an early period (it is attributed to Chaucer), we find
that a language must be in a highly cultivated state before this kind
of verse can be written in perfection.
160. George Henry Lewes
Lewes is almost certainly the author of an unsigned magazine
article entitled ‘Donne’s Poetical Works’, the seventh of a series
of Retrospective Reviews’, published in The National Magazine
and Monthly Critic, ix, April 1838, pp. 374–8. The ‘L.H.’ whose
marginalia he quotes must be Lewes’s friend Leigh Hunt.
Honest John Donne—rough—hearty—pointed and sincere, well
worthy art thou to be placed in this retrospective gallery! Donne
was in every sense a man, and though tinged with the pedantic concetti
of his time, humanity with its still strength pushed aside the silken
cords of affectation.
‘Literature,’ says Goëthe, profoundly, ‘is a fragment of fragments;
the least part of that which has happened and has been said (thought
had been the better term, for little that is said is time-worthy) has
been written: of what has been written, the least part has survived.’
Deeply impressed with the truth of this remark, we are anxious that
the best part of this wondrous mind-fragment should be preserved,
and for this purpose use our endeavours to recal attention to what
was once justly prized.
In Donne’s poetry there is much to delight, and much food for
thought; but it is also liable to much censure considered as art. Let
us briefly glance at his faults, and then turn our attention to the
beauties, for he is one of those nuts under whose rough exterior lies
a kernel worth cracking for.
At ingenium ingens inculto latet hoc sub corpore;
as Horace says of another (what he could hardly say of himself,
since the outward form is his peculiar charm.)
That Donne’s, ‘poems’ are not poems at all, may be very readily
granted; but they are a very pleasant repertory of thought, wit, fancy
and conceits, and therefore worthy to be read. As we dismiss the idea
altogether of considering them as poems, it will be merely necessary to
state that his poetical sins are concetti; ruggedness of versification, which
is indeed nothing but measured prose, and very bad prose, as far as
relates to style; want of consistency and harmony, nay, even truth, in his
illustrations; and an almost total deficiency of imagination, or any feeling
of art. Yet is he full of wit, subtlety, and fancy. Thus he calls ‘night,’
Time’s dead low-water.
And he says of a strange animal that ran to him,
A thing which would have posed Adam to name,
Stranger than seven antiquaries studies;
Stranger than strangers.
He rushes in as if ‘Arm, arm,’
He meant to cry; and though his face be as ill
As theirs, which in old hangings whip Christ, still
He strives to look worse.
The image in the third line is very expressive. You see the rustling
arras, and on it worked the figures of men, the malignity of whose
faces, tells us how a strong feeling in the worker’s mind has risen
into art, which is but its realization.
In his beautiful eclogue, he has a fine Shaksperian conceit,—
May never age nor error overthwart
With any West those radiant eyes—with any North this heart.
And in the next stanza,—
Every part to dance and revel goes;
They tread the air, and fall not where they rose,
Tho’ six hours since the sun to bed did part,
The masks and banquets will not yet impart
The sunset to these weary eyes, a centre to this heart.
His idea of absence being love-peopled, as conveyed in the two
following lines, is eminently poetical,—
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Thou art not gone, being gone; where’er thou art
Thou leavest in him thy watchful eyes, in him thy loving heart.
A dear friend, (L.H.) whose volume we quote from, and who has
marked these passages, writes at the conclusion of his eclogue, ‘The
burden of this ode has a fine earnest sound of enthusiasm—a rushing
fire. But what an ode when we think on the history of the parties!
Donne’s faith, however, was no doubt, good and true; and let us
hope that there were more circumstances than we are aware of to
extenuate, if possible, the crimes of Carr and his wife; one there
certainly was—they were victims of their own beauty’….
To return to Donne. That man is a microcosm we have repeatedly
endeavoured to enforce; he is, indeed, the world’s epitome. His
struggles are the struggles of the world—his elements are the elements
of the world—his physical revolutions are the physical revolutions
of the world—and what is more, the soul is supreme in both! Thus
tersely and finely does Donne express it,—
I am a little world, made cunningly
Of elements and an angelic sprite.
But he is not equally Platonic when he says—
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of Time.
He has been accused of mixing his love poetry with laboured
conceits, and we must say is in general open to the imputation;
but it was the fault of the age, and even Shakspeare often destroys
a passage by it; and Petrarch is far more culpable in this respect;
indeed, all the Italian love poetry has the same blemish. But we
suspect that there exists a great confusion abroad between
conceits and extravagance; and while it is admitted that the true
language of Passion can never translate itself into conceits, yet
there is a law in Nature, and consequently it becomes a canon in
criticism, that the language of passion is ever extravagant, and
when Guarini says in the Pastor Fido—
S’io miro il tuo bel viso
Amore è un paradiso.
Which may be rendered—
When I see those soul-lit eyes,
Love becomes my Paradise.
it is evident that he is guilty of hyperbole, but not the less natural for
all that;* and the following passage from Donne is the true language
of passion, which will appear unnatural only to those who never felt
une grande passion—
[He quotes the first stanza of ‘The Good-morrow’.]
‘The Will’ is an exquisite piece of wit—out of which we extract some
couplets, by way of a taste, ‘I give,’ says he—
[He quotes ‘The Will’, lines 5–6, 10–11, 28–31, 38–9.]
The poem called ‘Metempsychosis,’ is considered by the friend, before
alluded to, to be spurious. ‘From the versification of this poem,’ says
he on a most niggardly margin, ‘I do not believe it to be Donne’s. It
has the tone and measure of a later age, and might have been written
by Sedley or Buckingham. Somebody has ignorantly attributed it to
Donne, from meeting with similar opinions in some of his poems;
but Donne has always the weight and imagery of old plate in him,
compared with this smoother metal.’—With this we entirely agree—
Long live marginalia!
We shall now quote two more beauties, and then leave the reader
to seek the rest with a whetted appetite.—
And my head
With Care’s harsh sudden hoariness o’erspread.
A superb image! and the next, though not so concentrated, has a
fine thought of poetry in it—
Her pure and eloquent blood
Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,
That one might almost say her body thought.
Now, reader, render up thy thanks—for, Parbleu! vous avez mangez
Donne himself says,
‘A naked, thinking heart, that makes no show,
Is to a woman but a kind of ghost.’
161. Elizabeth Barrett
1838, 1842, c. 1844
Miss Barrett evidently read and admired Donne before she met
Robert Browning in 1845. She owned a copy of the 1639 edition
of Donne’s poems and herself inscribed it on the fly leaf ‘Elizabeth
B.Barrett, from her very dear Stormie’; it was sold for £7 at
Sotheby’s in 1913 as part of ‘The Browning Collections’ (see Sales
Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, vi, ed. J.Woolford,
1972, p. 121).
Her references to Donne, reproduced below, suggest that at this
time she took a romantic view of his writings.
(i) Miss Barrett used lines from Donne’s Holy Sonnets as mottoes for
two poems in her The Seraphim, and Other Poems, 1838. She gives
lines 3b–5 of ‘What if this present’ before her poem ‘The Weeping Saviour’
(Hymn III of a set of four hymns, p. 342), and line 9 of ‘Why are wee by
all creatures waited on?’ before the poem ‘The Weakest Thing’. The
latter motto was dropped from the edition of The Seraphim published
in 1888 and from subsequent editions of Mrs Browning’s poems.
(ii) Miss Barrett reviewed The Book of the Poets (see No. 169)
anonymously in successive numbers of The Athenaeum in 1842. She
commented on Donne in no. 763, II June 1842, p. 522:
Honor to the satirists! to Marston…Hall…and to Donne, whose
instinct to beauty overcame the resolution of his satiric humour.
Honor, again, to the singers of brief poems, to the lyrists and
Sidney…Raleigh…Marlowe…Drummond…Lyly… and Donne, who
takes his place naturally in this new class, having a dumb angel, and
knowing more noble poetry than he articulates….
In no. 771, 6 August 1842, p. 707, she speaks of the seventeenthcentury poets from Donne to Cowley, first disclaiming Johnson’s
title for them:
We have said nothing of ‘the metaphysical poets’ because we disclaim
the classification, and believe with Mr Leigh Hunt, that every poet,
inasmuch as he is a poet, is a metaphysician.…
The review was reprinted verbatim as ‘The Book of the Poets’ a
section of Mrs Browning’s The Greek Christian Poets and the English
Poets, 1863, pp. 105–211. The references to Donne are on pp. 143–
5 of this volume.
(iii) Some time in 1843 or 1844 Miss Barrett and Robert Browning,
still strangers to each other, independently supplied mottoes for a
work of literary criticism called A New Spirit of the Age, 1844, edited
by R.H. Home with Miss Barrett’s help. One of the mottoes was
from Donne; it consists of lines 47–50 of Elegie iv, ‘The Perfume’.
The variant reading ‘sweets’ instead of ‘good’ in line 50 shows that
the quotation was taken from either the 1669 edition of Donne’s
poems or the 1719 edition (see R.H.Home, Letters of Elizabeth
Barrett Browning addressed to R.H. Horne, 1877, p. 134). Robert
Browning possessed a copy of the 1719 edition (see No. 147 (iii)).