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ANON., The Penny Cyclopaedia, 1837

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,—



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

des Fleurettes.


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)).


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ANON., The Penny Cyclopaedia, 1837

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