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ELIZABETH BARRETT, 1838, 1842, c. 1844

ELIZABETH BARRETT, 1838, 1842, c. 1844

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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)).


162. Robert Bell


Bell (1800–67) was an Irish journalist who settled in London

and devoted himself to occasional literary enterprises, including

a vast edition of the English poets of which twenty-four volumes

appeared. He followed Johnson in deeming Donne worthy of

only passing discussion in the course of a life of Cowley, one of

his Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men of

Great Britain, 1839, i, pp. 49–53.

If the final test of a poet’s excellence be the duration of his works in

the affectionate regards of posterity, it must be admitted that the

claims of Cowley, and others of his class, are not of the highest order.

They have long since lost their popularity, and the few amongst whom

they are still cherished, render but a conditional allegiance to their

genius. The reason of this, however, is not because they were not

poets in the exact sense of the term, but because they mixed up with

what was beautiful and true much that was fantastical and false.

They were perpetually going out of their way in search of the

extravagant and the uncommon, and were never content, when they

got hold of a natural image, to treat it naturally, as if they believed

that it was necessary to embellish or disguise nature herself to make

her agreeable and attractive. They had no conception of the

universality and permanence of nature, and almost invariably

expressed themselves as if they had discovered a train of existences

and associations independent of the living world, which it became

their province, as well as their delight, to explore throughout its

remotest links. Thus dwelling in an artificial region of thought and

fancy, they produced a species of double-natured poetry, which has

been conventionally, but, perhaps, not very felicitously, designated

the metaphysical.

Donne, who lived in the age which produced Shakespeare, and

the great dramatists, Sydney, Raleigh, Herbert, Spenser, and a crowd



of other distinguished men, was the patriarch of this class of poets.

To profound and extensive erudition, he united a subtle intellect,

and a vivid imagination; but these advantages, which, otherwise

employed, or subjugated by a just taste, would have been of

inestimable value, only had the effect of infusing an air of supreme

affectation into his poetry, and diverting his genius into tangled

labyrinths in pursuit of chimeras and phantoms, disdainful of the

simple truths that lay close at hand. The art of clustering an enormous

variety of illustrations together,—of heaping up a fatiguing quantity

of distant and startling analogies,—of detecting the invisible particles

of which all objects were composed, which required apparently the

most painful search to find, and which were useless for all moral and

poetical purposes when found,—of hunting down a thought, and

then anatomising it, until in the lengthened process the original form

was utterly annihilated, and its application forgotten,—of following

out the finest threads of suggestions which could be drawn from the

web and woof of a given texture, until the design was lost at a

thousand vanishing points,—of exhibiting a perverse ingenuity in

bandying a subject, like a shuttlecock, from hand to hand, and then,

in a fit of caprice or weariness, suffering it to fall to the ground,—

and of lavishing alike upon the meanest or most exalted theme, all

the flowers of wit or stores of learning which genius and inexhaustible

resources of knowledge could command—seems to have constituted

the aim and triumph of the metaphysical poets. Yet, in the midst of

this wilderness of deformities and faults, there is such a luxuriant

growth of fancy, and there are so many detached beauties of the

most exquisite cast, that while we are suspended in wonder at the

marvellous heresies and obscurities to which these writers committed

themselves, we cannot withhold our admiration of those transcendent

passages in which they open to us glimpses of an elysium of poetry

which none but themselves were fitted to penetrate. That the

hyperbolical turn of such poems, considered entire, should have

subjected them to sweeping and indiscriminate censures, is not

surprising. Commentators will not always incur the severe labour of

rendering justice in detail. It is easier and more plausible to generalise

the language of criticism, which carries weight with the multitude in

proportion to its decisiveness, than to examine the evidence with

patience, and deliver an analytical judgment. Thus Theobald

pronounced Donne’s poetry to be ‘nothing but a continued heap of

riddles’, and Rochester said of Cowley’s, that ‘not being of God, it



could not stand.’ But Theobald was a driveller, and Rochester a ribald

jester, and neither of them were qualified to appreciate, even assuming

that they could understand, Donne and Cowley. Dr. Johnson’s

estimate of the metaphysical poets is, as might be anticipated, more

just and comprehensive: he exposes their prevailing faults, but

acknowledges their particular merits.

[He gives some of Johnson’s criticisms.]

The popularity of Donne and Cowley during their own lives must be

admitted as a proof that, whatever may be thought of them now,

they once filled a large space in the world’s applause. The age in

which Donne lived gave birth to the richest poetry in our language;

yet Donne was as highly esteemed as any of his contemporaries. He

asserted, no doubt, other claims to the admiration of his countrymen.

He was a profound scholar, a brilliant wit, and an eloquent preacher;

but we must trace chiefly to his poetry the influence he exercised.

[He quotes some lines from the funeral elegies for Donne first given

in the 1633 edition of Donne’s poems.]

Cowley, without imitating, followed in the track of Donne, and

excelled him in the grasp and earnestness of his writings. He is more

real and less fantastic, and, although not much closer to nature, nor

much farther removed from the extravagant in art, he gains something

each way, which is considerable in the aggregate.


163. Henry Alford


Alford (1810–71), Dean of Canterbury from 1857, published an

edition of the Works of Donne in six volumes. In the prefatory

Life of Donne he speaks of the work as an edition of the sermons.

But he gives the Devotions in volume iii, and the prose letters

and some poems in volume iv. The selection of poems is such as

fitly accompanies the sermons: chiefly verse letters, funeral elegies,

and Divine Poems. But there are three Songs and Sonnets (‘The

Baite’, ‘A Valediction: forbidding Mourning’, and ‘The Will’),

one Elegie and one Epithalamion.

An account of Donne’s writing given in the course of the life

plainly has the sermons in view first and foremost, but sometimes

bears on the verse too (The Works of John Donne, D.D., Dean

of Saint Pauls 1621–1631, 1839, i, pp. xix–xxiv).

…we never find in him poverty of thought, but are rather sensible (as

generally in reading the most eminent of human writings, and always

in the Scriptures) that the store has been but sparingly dealt out, and

that much more remained, if he would have said it. Having shone as a

wit in an age of wit, and an age when wit was not confined to ludicrous

associations, but extended to a higher skill of point and antithesis, and

cunning inter-weaving of choice words, he gained his hearers by

flattering their discernment; and served up to the English Solomon

and his court, dark sentences, which, in these days, when we have

levelled our diction for convenience, and use language as a mere

machine, require some thoughtful unravelling before their meaning is

detected. That he should have gained among the moderns the reputation

of obscurity is no wonder; for, on the one hand, the language of one

age will always be strange to those who live in, and are entirely of,

another of a totally different character; and again, this intricacy of

words, frequently accompanies subtle trains of thought and argument,

which it requires some exertion to follow. But it must be remembered



that obscurity is a subjective term, that is, having its place in the

estimation of him who judges, and not necessarily in the language

judged of; and is therefore never to be imputed to an author without

personal examination of his writings…. A man is obscure, either from

his thoughts being confused and ill-arranged; or from his language

being inadequate to express his meaning; or because he affects obscurity.

Neither of these three was the fault of Donne. Precision and defmiteness

of thought, and studied arrangement of the steps of an argument, are

to be found in all his sermons; and it is always more evident what he is

proving, than whether his premises legitimately belong to that

conclusion, ‘Whereunto all this tendeth’ is a note which never need be

placed in his margin, as far as the immediate subject is concerned.

Again, his power over the English language, one rarely surpassed in its

capabilities of ministering to thought, was only equalled by one or

two of his great contemporaries. And the affectation of obscurity, (the

resource of weakness and ignorance, and the greatest of crimes in a

literary, much more in an ecclesiastical writer,) can hardly be laid to

the charge of one so singlehearted in his zeal, and so far above such a

meanness, both from his learning and genius. His faults in this matter

are the faults of his time, somewhat increased by a mind naturally

fond of subtilty and laborious thought. And even the real difficulties

of his style will soon give way and become familiar to the reader, who

is capable of discovering and appreciating the treasures which it


In illustration by simile or allusion, Donne shows the true marks of

great genius. The reader of the following Sermons will find sentences

and passages which he will be surprised he never before had read, and

will think of ever after. In depth and grandeur these far surpass (in my

judgment) the strings of beautiful expressions to be found in Jeremy

Taylor; they are the recreations of a loftier mind; and while Taylor’s

similes are exquisite in their melody of sound, and happy in external

description, Donne enters into the inner soul of art, and gives his reader

more satisfactory and permanent delight. Sir Thomas Browne is,

perhaps, the writer whose style will be most forcibly recalled to the

mind of the reader by many parts of these Sermons; but here again

Donne has immeasurably the advantage. While the one is ever guessing

at truth, the other is pouring it forth from the fulness of his heart.

While the one in his personal confessions keeps aloof and pities

mankind, the other is of them, and feels with them….

His poems were mostly written in his youth; his satires, according



to one of the panegyrics on him, before he was twenty. It has been

remarked, that the juvenile poems of truly great men are generally

distinguished by laborious condensation of thought; and the remark

is amply borne out in this instance. This labour of compression on

his part has tended to make his lines harsh and unpleasing; and the

corresponding effort required on the reader’s part to follow him,

renders most persons insensible to his real merits. That he had and

could turn to account a fine musical ear, is amply proved by some of

his remaining pieces.* Why Dr. Johnson should have called him a

metaphysical poet, is difficult to conceive. What ‘wittily associating

the most discordant images’ has to do with metaphysics is not very

clear; and Johnson, perhaps, little thought that the title which he

was giving to one of the most apparently laboured of poets, belonged

of all others to his immortal contemporary, who is recorded ‘never

to have blotted a line’. A greater man than Dr. Johnson, even Dryden,

has said in his dedication of Juvenal to the Earl of Dorset, that Donne

‘affects the metaphysics;’ probably meaning no more than that

scholastic learning and divinity are constantly to be found showing

themselves in his poems.

The personal character of Donne is generally represented to us to

have undergone a great change, between his youth and the time when

he entered holy orders. This representation is countenanced by the

uniform tenor of deep penitence with which he speaks in his Sermons

of his former life; and by the licentiousness of some of his poetical

pieces. It would be wrong, however, to infer moral depravity solely

from the latter circumstance, as this strain was in keeping with the

prevalent taste of the times; and the object addressed in the Lovepoems of the day, and the circumstances introduced, were often both

equally imaginary. That his manners were the manners of the court

and the society in which he lived, is the most reasonable and the

most charitable sentence;…


See especially the piece, ‘Come live with me and be my love;’ that written to his

wife on parting from her to go into France, (vol. vi, p. 554), and the opening of his

Epithalamion on the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth.


164. Henry Hallam


The historian Hallam (1777–1859) attempted to characterise

Donne and his supposed followers in an Introduction to the

Literature of Europe, 1837–9, ii, p. 316, iii, pp. 124 and 488–95.

[On Donne’s Satyres]

With as much obscurity as Hall, he has a still more inharmonious

versification, and not nearly equal vigour.

[On Donne’s sermons]

In their general character, they will not appear, I think, much worthy

of being rescued from oblivion. The subtlety of Donne, and his

fondness for such inconclusive reasoning, as a subtle disputant is apt

to fall into, runs through all of those sermons…. His learning he

seems to have perverted in order to cull every impertinence of the

fathers and schoolmen, their remote analogies, their strained

allegories, their technical distinctions; and to these he has added much

of a similar kind from his own fanciful understanding.

Notwithstanding the popularity of Spenser, and the general pride

in his name, that allegorical and imaginative school of poetry, of

which he was the greatest ornament, did not by any means exclude a

very different kind. The English, or such as by their education gave

the tone in literature, had become, in the latter years of the Queen,

and still more under her successor, a deeply thinking, a learned, a

philosophical people. A sententious reasoning, grave, subtle and

condensed, or the novel and remote analogies of wit, gained praise

from many whom the creations of an excursive fancy could not

attract. Hence much of the poetry of James’s reign is distinguished

from that of Elizabeth, except perhaps her last years, by partaking

of the general character of the age; deficient in simplicity, grace and

feeling, often obscure and pedantic, but impressing us with a respect



for the man, where we do not recognise the poet. From this condition

of public taste arose two schools of poetry, different in character, if

not unequal in merit, but both appealing to the reasoning more than

to the imaginative faculty as their judge.

[He says that one of these is an ‘argumentative school of verse’

founded by Sir John Davies, continued by Daniel, Giles Fletcher, and

Fulke Greville—‘of all our poets he may be reckoned the most

obscure’—and culminating in Denham.]

Another class of poets in the reigns of James and his son were those

whom Johnson has called the metaphysical; a name rather more

applicable, in the ordinary use of the word, to Davies and Brooke.

These were such as laboured after conceits, or novel turns of thought,

usually false, and resting upon some equivocation of language, or

exceedingly remote analogy. This style Johnson supposes to have

been derived from Marini. But Donne, its founder, as Johnson

imagines, in England, wrote before Marini. It is in fact, as we have

lately observed, the style which, though Marini has earned the

discreditable reputation of perverting the taste of his country by it,

had been gaining ground through the latter half of the sixteenth

century. It was, in a more comprehensive view, one modification of

that vitiated taste which sacrificed all ease and naturalness of writing

and speaking for the sake of display. The mythological erudition

and Grecisms of Ronsard’s school, the Euphuism of that of Lilly, the

‘estilo culto’ of Gongora, even the pedantic quotations of Burton

and many similar writers, both in England and on the continent,

sprang like the concetti of the Italians, and of their English imitators,

from the same source, a dread of being over looked if they paced on

like their neighbours. And when a few writers had set the example of

successful faults, a bad style, where no sound principles of criticism

had been established, readily gaining ground, it became necessary

that those who had not vigour enough to rise above the fashion,

should seek to fall in with it. Nothing is more injurious to the

cultivation of verse, than the trick of desiring, for praise or profit, to

attract those by poetry whom nature has left destitute of every quality

which genuine poetry can attract. The best, and perhaps the only

secure basis for public taste, for an aesthetic appreciation of beauty,

in a court, a college, a city, is so general a diffusion of classical

knowledge, as by rendering the finest models familiar, and by giving

them a sort of authority, will discountenance and check at the outset



the vicious novelties which always exert some influence over

uneducated minds. But this was not yet the case in England. Milton

was perhaps the first writer who eminently possessed a genuine

discernment and feeling of antiquity; though it may be perceived in

Spenser, and also in a very few who wrote in prose.

Donne is generally esteemed the earliest, as Cowley was afterwards

the most conspicuous model of this manner. Many instances of it,

however, occur in the lighter poetry of the Queen’s reign. Donne is

the most inharmonious of our versifiers, if he can be said to have

deserved such a name by lines too rugged to seem metre. Of his

earlier poems many are very licentious; the later a chiefly devout.

Few are good for much; the conceits have not even the merit of being

intelligible; it would perhaps be difficult to select three passages that

we should care to read again.

The second of these poets was Crashaw, a man of some imagination

and great piety, but whose softness of heart, united with feeble

judgment, led him to admire and imitate whatever was most

extravagant in the mystic writings of Saint Teresa. He was more

than Donne a follower of Marini, one of whose poems, The Massacre

of the Innocents, he translated with success. It is difficult, in general,

to find any thing in Crashaw that bad taste has not deformed. His

poems were first published in 1646.

In the next year, 1647, Cowley’s Mistress appeared; the most

celebrated performance of the miscalled metaphysical poets. It is a

series of short amatory poems, in the Italian style of the age, full of

analogies that have no semblance of truth, except from the double

sense of words, and thoughts that unite the coldness of subtlety with

the hyperbolical extravagance of counterfeited passion…. Cowley,

perhaps, upon the whole has had a reputation more above his deserts

than any English poet; yet it is very easy to perceive that some who

wrote better than he, did not possess so fine a genius.


165. Anon., Selections from the Works of

John Donne D.D.


A volume of Selections from the Works of John Donne, D.D.

was published by Talboys at Oxford in 1840. The greater part

of it consists of a series of short passages from the sermons; but

there are some eleven pages of poetry too. Seven poems are

given entire: five Holy Sonnets, ‘To Mr Tilman’, and ‘A Hymne

to Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany’. Otherwise

there are some bits of the verse letters and of The second


All the extracts, in prose and in verse, bear pious titles; those

from The second Anniversary, for example, are headed ‘Human

Ignorance’. The volume seems to be laid out as a source book for



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ELIZABETH BARRETT, 1838, 1842, c. 1844

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