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ANON., Temple Bar, 1876

ANON., Temple Bar, 1876

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or we should rather say his lack of appreciative sympathy with the

subtle spirit of pure poesy, is well exemplified in his remarks upon

this writer. We will contrast them by some notices of other and, in

our opinion, far higher authorities.

Ben Jonson told Drummond that he esteemed Donne ‘the first poet

in the world in some things.’ Dryden called him ‘the greatest wit, though

not the best poet of our nation.’ A modern critic writes thus:—

[He quotes George MacDonald’s account of Donne in England’s

Antiphon, from ‘The central thought of Dr Donne is nearly sure to

be just’ down to ‘squirrels, and weasels, and bats’. See No. 206.]

And here, highest of all, we have Coleridge’s opinion:—

[He quotes, not from Coleridge but from de Quincey’s essay on

‘Rhetoric’, the praises of Donne which begin ‘Few writers have shown

a more extraordinary compass of powers than Donne’, and conclude

‘by conforming to its own ideal’. See No. 146.]

Coleridge has also suggested that read with a due regard to time,

that is to say, giving each thought its due proportion in the utterance,

the inharmoniousness of Donne’s verses will disappear. We have

ourselves tried to experiment, and must confess that attention to

that rule has greatly smoothed their apparent ruggedness. How tender

he could be in his quaint conceits is evidenced by the following verse,

selected from many such, of a poem called ‘The Relique;’ the lines in

italics are exquisitely pathetic:—

[He quotes the first stanza of ‘The Relique’.]

Here is a powerful description of the condition of a crew on board a

becalmed ship in the Red Sea:—

[He quotes lines 27–32 of the verse letter ‘The Calme’, which refers

not to the Red Sea but to an episode in the ‘Islands Expedition’ to

the Azores in 1597.]

Noble images, forcible lines, passages of surpassing power and pathos,

are to be found in all his poems, although at times we have to wade

through much that is tedious and pedantic, and wander through regions

of almost hopeless obscurity before we come to these gems. Even to his

contemporaries he appears to have been almost equally unintelligible,

and Jonson prophesied that from that fault his works would perish.

Coleridge has very aptly described his style in this witty quatrain:—



[He gives Coleridge’s lines on Donne, ‘With Donne, whose muse on

dromedary trots’.]

The day after his burial some unknown friend wrote this epitaph

with a coal upon the wall over his grave:—

Reader! I am to let thee know

Donne’s body only lies below;

For, could the grave his soul comprise,

Earth would be richer than the skies.

…The satires display much humour, and a great knowledge of the

men and women of his age. Pope versified two of them, and his

attempt, like a similar one on the part of Dryden to modernise

Chaucer, has been to emasculate and almost destroy the rugged force

of the original….

215. Algernon Charles Swinburne

1876, 1889, 1916

Swinburne’s several references to Donne suggest that Donne’s

poetry loomed large in his mind. He sometimes develops a critical

comment by way of championing the ‘magisterial Donne’ of the

long poems. A copy of Grosart’s edition of Donne’s poems, 1872,

went for 12s. at the sale of Swinburne’s library in June 1916 (see

Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, vi, ed.

J.Woolford, 1972, p. 279.)

(i) From Letter v, to Theodore Watts-Dunton, 15 March 1876 (The

Swinburne Letters, ed. C.Y.Lang, New Haven, 1960, iii, p. 152):

I have just read through carefully for the first time Donne’s

‘Anniversaries’. What a magnificent and enthralling poem! how

overflowing with glories of thought and word like a phosphoric sea



by night with crossing and breaking flames, and how rich in deep

grave harmonies of splendid and sonorous sadness! How did he for

once learn such music, and then return to his habitual discords ‘like

the sow that is washed to her wallowing in the mire’?

(ii) From A Study of Ben Jonson, 1889, pp. 99, 129, 142. [He denies the

appropriateness of Macaulay’s term ‘rugged rhymes’ to Jonson’s verse:]

Donne is rugged: Jonson is stiff. And if ruggedness of verse is a

damaging blemish, stiffness of verse is a destructive infirmity.

Ruggedness is curable; witness Donne’s Anniversaries: stiffness is

incurable; witness Jonson’s Underwoods.

On Jonson’s Discoveries:

That chance is the ruler of the world I should be sorry to believe and

reluctant to affirm; but it would be difficult for any competent and

careful student to maintain that chance is not the ruler of the world

of letters. Gray’s odes are still, I suppose, familiar to thousands who

know nothing of Donne’s Anniversaries; and Bacon’s Essays are

conventionally if not actually familiar to thousands who know

nothing of Ben Jonson’s Discoveries. And yet it is certain that in

fervour of inspiration, in depth and force and glow of thought and

emotion and expression, Donne’s verses are as far above Gray’s as

Jonson’s notes or observations on men and morals, on principles and

on facts, are superior to Bacon’s in truth of insight, in breadth of

view, in vigour of reflection and in concision of eloquence….

On Jonson’s remarks to Drummond:

…the great writer whom ‘he esteemed the first poet in the world in

some things’, but upon whom he passed the too sweeping though

too plausible sentence ‘that Donne, for not being understood, would



216. Henry Morley


Morley (1822–94) was a Professor of Literature, and later

principal of a college, in the University of London. In his

Illustrations of English Religion, undated but ?1877, pp. 235–6,

he gave a brief account of Donne’s later life and writings, asserting

that some of Donne’s Divine Poems were certainly written while

the poet was still a Catholic. He quoted two of the Divine Poems

entire, ‘A Hymne to God the Father’, and the ‘Hymne to God

my God, in my Sicknesse’.


217. Joseph Barber Lightfoot


Lightfoot (1828–89) was a Professor of Divinity at Cambridge

who became Bishop of Durham in 1879. He published much in

the field of biblical criticism, and on Christian history and

literature. The following extracts are taken from a chapter

‘Donne, the poet-preacher’ in his The Classic Preachers of the

English Church, 1877, pp. 10–11 and 21.

[He discusses the way Donne’s life bore upon his art, and especially

upon his religious writings.]

This moral experience was the complement of his intellectual

experience. It taught him to feel and to absorb into himself, as the

other taught him to understand and to reason about, the doctrine of

Christ’s atoning grace. What penitence, what tears, what merits of his

own could wash out the stains with which such a life as his was


[He quotes ‘A Hymne to God the Father’, minus the first two lines,

with Walton’s account of how Donne had it set to music.]

…Of Donne’s romantic career it has been said, that his life is more

poetical than his poetry….

[He attributes this remark to Campbell, as reported by Milman. And

he quotes Campbell’s comment that ‘the life of Donne is more

interesting than his poetry’. See No. 135.]

…If, then, I were asked to describe in a few words the secret of his

power as a preacher, I should say that it was the contrition and the

thanksgiving of the penitent acting upon the sensibility of the poet.

[In a footnote he adds] Donne seems to have the best right to the title

of the poet-preacher—a designation which has sometimes been given

to another.



[He speaks of Donne’s style in the sermons, comparing it with the

style of the poems.]

Moreover, the taste of the age for fantastic imagery, for subtle

disquisition, for affectations of language and of thought, exercised a

fascination over him. Yet even here he is elevated above himself and

his time by his subject. There is still far too much of that conceit of

language, of that subtlety of association, of that ‘sport with ideas,’

which has been condemned in his verse compositions; but, compared

with his poems, his sermons are freedom and simplicity itself. And,

whenever his theme rises, he rises too; and then in the giant strength

of an earnest conviction he bursts these green withes which a fantastic

age has bound about him, as the thread of two snaps at the touch of

fire. Nothing can be more direct or more real than his eager, impetuous

eloquence, when he speaks of God, of redemption, of heaven, of the

sinfulness of human sin, of the bountifulness of Divine Love.

At such moments he is quite the most modern of our older

Anglican divines. He speaks directly to our time, because he speaks

to all times.

218. William Henry Davenport Adams


Adams (1828–91), a journalist and miscellaneous writer, gives

Hartley Coleridge’s lines on Donne (see No. 170) and makes one

comment of his own on Donne’s poetry in his A Dictionary of

English Literature, 1878, p. 182.

Funeral Elegies by Dr. John Donne. These exhibit all his subtlety of

thought and ruggedness of versification, and many passages have a

sonorous dignity, like the prose of Bacon or Sir Thomas Browne.


219. John Wesley Hales


Hales (1836–1914), a literary historian, editor, and essayist, held

for many years the Chair of English at King’s College, London.

The following extracts are taken from an essay ‘John Donne’

which he contributed to The English Poets, ed. T.H.Ward, 1880,

i, pp. 558–61.

Donne’s contemporary reputation as a poet, and still more as a

preacher, was immense; and a glance at his works would suffice to

show that he did not deserve the contempt with which he was

subsequently treated. But yet his chief interest is that he was the

principal founder of a school which especially expressed and

represented a certain bad taste of his day. Of his genius there can be

no question; but it was perversely directed. One may almost invert

Jonson’s famous panegyric on Shakespeare, and say that Donne was

not for all time but for an age.

To this school Dr. Johnson has given the title of the Metaphysical;

and for this title there is something to be said. ‘Donne,’ says Dryden,

‘affects the metaphysics….’ [He completes the quotation. See No.

49.] Thus he often ponders over the mystery of love, and is exercised

by subtle questions as to its nature, origin, endurance. But a yet

more notable distinction of this school than its philosophising, shallow

or deep, is what may be called its fantasticality, its quaint wit,

elaborate ingenuity, far-fetched allusiveness; and it might better be

called the Ingenious, or Fantastic School. Various and out-of-theway information and learning is a necessary qualification for

membership. Donne in one of his letters speaks of his ‘embracing the

worst voluptuousness, an hydroptic immoderate desire of human

learning and languages.’ Eminence is attained by using such stores in

the way to be least expected. The thing to be illustrated becomes of

secondary importance by the side of the illustration. The more unlikely

and surprising and preposterous this is, the greater the success. This



is wit of a kind. From one point of view, wit, as Dr. Johnson says,

‘may be considered as a kind of discordia concors;…’.

[He completes Johnson’s definition of metaphysical wit; cites the

Dedication to Lord Craven in the 1650 edition of Donne’s poems—

which he takes for the poet’s—to show that Donne identified ‘wit’

with ‘poetry’; and quotes Dryden’s estimate of Donne as ‘the greatest

wit though not the best poet of our nation’.]

The taste which this school represents marks other literatures besides

our own at this time. It was ‘in the air’ of that age; and so was not

originated by Donne. But it was he who in England first gave it full

expression—who was its first vigorous and effective and devoted

spokesman. And this secures him a conspicuous position in the history

of our literature when we remember how prevalent was the fashion of

‘conceits’ during the first half of the seventeenth century, and that

amongst those who followed it more or less are to be mentioned, to

say nothing of the earlier poems of Milton and Waller and Dryden,

Suckling, Denham, Herbert, Crashaw, Cleveland, Cowley.

This misspent learning, this excessive ingenuity, this laborious wit

seriously mars almost the whole of Donne’s work. For the most part

we look on it with amazement rather than with pleasure. It reminds

us rather of a ‘pyrotechnic display,’ with its unexpected flashes and

explosions, than of a sure and constant light (compare the Valediction

given in our selections). We weary of such unmitigated cleverness—

such ceaseless straining after novelty and surprise. We long for

something simply thought, and simply said.

His natural gifts were certainly great. He possesses a real energy and

fervour. He loved, and he suffered much, and he writes with a passion

which is perceptible through all his artificialities. Such a poem as The

Will is evidence of the astonishing rapidity and brightness of his fancy.

He also claims notice as one of our earliest formal satirists. Though

not published till much later, there is proof that some at least of his

satires were written three or four years before those of Hall. Two of

them (ii. and iv.) were reproduced—‘versified’—in the last century

by Pope, acting on a suggestion by Dryden; No. iii. was similarly

treated by Parnell. In these versions, along with the roughness of the

metre, disappears much of the general vigour; and it should be

remembered that the metrical roughness was no result of incapacity,

but was designed. Thus the charge of metrical uncouthness so often

brought against Donne on the ground of his satires is altogether



mistaken. How fluently and smoothly he could write if he pleased, is

attested over and over again by his lyrical pieces.

[He goes on to give examples of Donne’s verse—four of the Songs

and Sonnets and some lines from a verse letter to Wotton.]

220. Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Rossetti praised Donne in a letter which he wrote to his brother,

W.M.Rossetti, on Sunday, 22 February 1880. (In Dante Gabriel

Rossetti: His Family-Letters, with a Memoir by William Michael

Rossetti, 1895, ii, p. 356.)

…I have been much enjoying Donne, who is full of excellences, and

not brimming but rather spilling with quaintnesses.


221. Sir Henry Taylor


Taylor (1800–86) was a civil servant with literary interests. In

his autobiography he several times quoted Donne to illustrate

observations or attitudes of his own. Commenting on a lady his

mother had once praised for her beauty he says that he could

now almost say it all again, and he quotes lines 1–2 of Elegie ix,

‘The Autumnall’. He describes his ‘strong leaning towards

youthfulness’ as he approached the age of forty, and says that

this feeling defied his reason; he quotes lines 47–50 of Elegie ix,

‘The Autumnall’ and adds ‘But I am not sure that Donne did

actually feel as he saw reason to feel; and neither did I.’ Referring

to his marriage in October 1839 he says that marriage leaves

nothing more to be said of a man, and quotes a version of lines

5–8 of ‘A Valediction; forbidding Mourning’, which he describes

as some stanzas Donne addressed to his wife when about to depart

for the Continent. (The Autobiography of [Sir] Henry Taylor,

1800–75, 1885, pp. 183, 272–3, 288.)


222. Sarah Orne Jewett


Miss Jewett (1849–1909) was a New England novelist and

essayist. She corresponded with the leading women writers of

her day, knew Emerson, Whitman, and C.E.Norton, and became

an intimate friend of J.R.Lowell. Her correspondent Mrs Annie

Fields was the diarist who reported on Emerson’s poetry readings

at Chickerings Hall, when he included Donne in the programmes

(see No. 131(v)). The following is an extract from an undated

letter to Mrs Fields written in autumn 1889 (Letters of Sarah

Orne Jewett, ed. Annie Fields, 1911, p. 60).

I have been reading an old copy of Donne’s poems with perfect delight.

They seem new to me just now, even the things I knew best. We must

read many of them together. I must have my old copy mended; it is

quite shabby, with its label lost and leaves working out from the



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