Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 10. Letters and Funerall Elegies

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

§ 10. Letters and Funerall Elegies

The more normal and courtly moods of Donne’s mind in these central years of his life are reflected in the Letters and Funerall Elegies. Of the former, the earliest, probably, were The Storm and The Calm, whose vivid and witty realism first set Donne’s “name afloat.” When Jonson visited Edinburgh, he entertained Drummond by reciting the witty paradoxes of The Chain and the vivid descriptions of The Calm:

  • No use of lanthorns: and in one place lay
  • Feathers and dust, today and yesterday.
  • The two epistles to Sir Henry Wotton beginning “Sir, more than kisses letters mingle souls” and the above mentioned “Here’s no more news than virtue,” were, probably, both written in the same year, 1598. An interesting and characteristic reply to the first by Wotton is preserved in one or two manuscripts, but has never been published. The Burley MS. contains another to Wotton in Hibernia belligeranti, written, therefore, in 1599. That on Wotton’s appointment as ambassador to Venice was composed five years later. To Goodere and to the Woodwards and Brookes, he wrote quite a number, in the same last years of the sixteenth century, not all of which are yet published. Those to more noble patrons, generally ladies, were the work of Donne’s years of suitorship. He seems to have written none after he took orders. The long letter to the countess of Huntingdon, beginning “That unripe side of earth, that heavy clime” is assigned to Sir Walter Aston in two manuscripts; and the three short letters, to Ben Jonson and to Sir Thomas Roe, first printed in 1635, are pretty certainly not Donne’s at all but Sir John Roe’s.

    The moral reflections in these letters are elevated, and are developed with characteristic ingenuity. The brilliance with which a train of metaphysical compliments is elaborated in such a letter as that to the countess of Bedford beginning “Madam—you have refined me” is dazzling. But neither Donne’s art nor taste—to say nothing of his character—is seen to best advantage in the abstract, extravagant and frigid conceits of these epistles and of such elegies as those on prince Henry and lord Harington. The strain of eulogy to which Donne suffers himself to rise in these last passes all limits of decency and reverence. To two feelings, Donne was profoundly susceptible, and he has expressed both with wonderful eloquence in verse and prose. He has all the renascence sense of the pomp and the horror of death, the leveller of all earthly distinctions; and he can rise, like Sir Thomas Browne, to a rapt appreciation of the Christian vision of death as the portal to a better life. But his expression of both moods, when he is writing to order, is apt to degenerate into an accumulation of “gross and disgusting hyperboles.” In an elegy on Mrs. Bulstred, which, apparently by an accident, is divided into two separately printed poems, Death I recant and Death be not proud, these moods are combined in a sonorous and dignified strain.

    But the finest of Donne’s funeral elegies is the second of the Anniversaries, which he composed on the death of Elizabeth Drury. The extravagance of his praise, indeed, offended even Jacobean readers, and the poem was declared by Jonson to be “profane and full of blasphemies.” It is clear, however, that Donne intended Elizabeth Drury to be taken as a symbol of Christian and womanly virtue. He may have known something of the Tuscan poets’ metaphysic of love, for Donne is one of the few poets of the day who had read “Dant.” It cannot be said that he succeeded in investing his subject with the ideal atmosphere in which Beatrice moves. The First Anniversary is little more than a tissue of frigid, metaphysical hyberboles, relieved by occasional felicities, as the famous

  • Doth not a Teneriffe or higher hill
  • Rise so high like a rock, that one might think
  • The floating moon would shipwreck there and sink?
  • The Second, however, is not only richer in such occasional jewels but is a finer poem. With the eulogy, which is itself managed with no small art, as, for example, in the recurring cadences of “She, she is dead,” the poet has interwoven a meditatio mortis, developed with the serried eloquence, the intense, dull glow of feeling and the sonorous cadences which we find again in the prose of the sermons.