Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 1. Donne’s Relation to Petrarch

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. John Donne

§ 1. Donne’s Relation to Petrarch

FROM the time of Wyatt, Surrey and their contemporaries of the court of Henry VIII, English lyrical and amatory poetry flowed continuously in the Petrarchian channel. The tradition which these “novices newly crept out of the schools of Dante, Ariosto and Petrarch” brought from Italy, after languishing for some years, was revived and reinvigorated by the influence of Ronsard and Desportes. Spenser in The Shepheards Calender, Watson with his pedantic EKATOMIIA[char]IA and Sidney with the gallant and passionate sonnets to Stella, led the way; and thereafter, till the publication of Davison’s Poetical Rapsody, in 1602, and, subsequently, in the work of such continuers of an older tradition as Drummond, the poets, in sonnet sequence or pastoral eclogue and lyric, told the same tale, set to the same tune. Of the joy of love, the deep contentment of mutual passion, they have little to say (except in some of the finest of Shakespeare’s sonnets to his unknown friend), but much of its pains and sorrows—the sorrow of absence, the pain of rejection, the incomparable beauty of the lady and her unwavering cruelty. And they say it in a series of constantly recurring images: of rain and wind, of fire and ice, of storm and warfare; comparisons

  • With sun and moon, and earth and sea’s rich gems,
  • With April’s first born flowers and all things rare,
  • That heaven’s air in this huge rondure hems;
  • allusions to Venus and Cupid, Cynthia and Apollo, Diana and Actaeon; Alexander weeping that he had no more worlds to conquer, Caesar shedding tears over the head of Pompey; abstractions, such as Love and Fortune, Beauty and Disdain; monsters, like the Phoenix and the Basilisk. Here and there lingers a trace of the metaphysical strain which, taking its rise in the poetry of the troubadours, had been most fully elaborated by Guinicelli and Dante and Cavalcanti, the analysis of love in relation to, and its effect on, the heart of man and its capacity for virtue:
  • The sovereign beauty which I do admire,
  • Witness the world how worthy to be praised!
  • The light whereof hath kindled heavenly fire
  • In my frail spirit by her from baseness raised.
  • But the most prevalent reflective note derives not from Petrarch and Dante, but, through Ronsard and his fellow-poets of La Pléiade, from Catullus and the Latin lyrists: the pagan lament for the fleetingness of beauty and love—Ronsard’s
  • Ah, love me love! we may be happy yet,
  • And gather roses while ’t is called to-day,
  • Shakespeare’s
  • Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
  • But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
  • How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
  • Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
  • The poet who challenged and broke the supremacy of the Petrarchian tradition was John Donne. Occasionally, when writing a purely complimentary lyric to Mrs. Herbert or lady Bedford, Donne can adopt the Petrarchian pose; but the tone and temper, the imagery and rhythm, the texture and colour, of the bulk of his love songs and love elegies are altogether different from those of the fashionable love poetry of the sixteenth century, from Wyatt and Surrey to Shakespeare and Drummond. With Donne, begins a new era in the history of the English love lyric, the full importance of which is not exhausted when one recognises in Donne the source of the “metaphysical” lyric as it flourished from Carew to Rochester. Nor was this Donne’s only contribution to the history of English poetry. The spirit of his best love poetry passed into the most interesting of his elegies and his religious verses, the influence of which was not less, in the earlier seventeenth century perhaps even greater, than that of his songs. Of our regular, classically inspired satirists, he is, whether actually the first in time or not, the first who deserves attention, the first whose work is in the line of later development, the only one of the sixteenth century satirists whose influence is still traceable in Dryden and Pope. Religio Laici is indebted for some of its most characteristic arguments to Donne’s “Kind pity checks my spleen”; and Pope found in Donne a satirist whose style and temper were closer in essential respects to his own than those of the suave and urbane Horace. For evil and for good, Donne is the most shaping and determining influence that meets us in passing from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century. In certain aspects of mind and training the most medieval, in temper the most modern, of his contemporaries, he is, with the radically more pedantic and neo-classical Jonson, at once the chief inspirer of his younger contemporaries and successors, and the most potent herald and pioneer of the school of poetic argument and eloquence.