Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 15. His Position and Influence

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

§ 15. His Position and Influence

The relation of Donne to Elizabethan poetry might, with some justice, be compared with that of Michael Angelo to earlier Florentine sculpture, admitting that, both as man and artist, he falls far short of the great Italian. Just as the grace and harmony of earlier sculpture were dissolved by the intense individuality of an artist intent only on the expression in marble of his own emotions, so the clear beauty, the rich ornament, the diffuse harmonies of Elizabethan courtly poetry, as we can study them in The Faerie Queene, Hero and Leander, Venus and Adonis, Astrophel and Stella or England’s Helicon, disappear in the songs and satires and elegies of a poet who will not accept Elizabethan conventions, or do homage to Elizabethan models, Italian and French; but puts out to discover a north-west passage of his own, determined to make his poetry the vivid reflection of his own intense, subtle, perverse moods, his paradoxical reasonings and curious learning, his sceptical philosophy of love and life. It cannot be said of Donne, as of Milton, that everything, even what is evil, turns to beauty in his hands. Beauty, with him, is never the paramount consideration. If beauty comes to Donne, it comes as to the alchemist who

  • glorifies his pregnant pot,
  • If by the way to him befall
  • Some odoriferous thing, or medicinal.
  • From the flow of impassioned, paradoxical argument, there will suddenly flower an image or a line of the rarest and most entrancing beauty. But the tenor of his poetry is witty, passionate, weighty and moving; never, for long, simply beautiful; not infrequently bizarre; at times even repellent.

    And so, just as Michael Angelo was a bad model for those who came after him and had not his strength and originality, Donne, more than any other single individual, is responsible for the worst aberrations of seventeenth century poetry, especially in eulogy and elegy. The “metaphysical” lyrists learned most from him—the conquering, insolent tone of their love songs and their splendid cadences. In happy conceit and movement, they sometimes excelled him, though it is only in an occasional lyric by Marvell or Rochester that one detects the same weight of passion behind the fantastic conceit and paradoxical reasoning. But it is in the complimentary verses and the funeral elegies of the early and middle century (as well as in some of the religious poetry and in the frigid love poems of Cowley) that one sees the worst effects of Donne’s endeavour to wed passion and imagination to erudition and reasoning.

    And yet it would be a mistaken estimate of the history of English poetry which either ignored the unique quality of Donne’s poetry or regarded its influence as purely maleficent. The influence of both Donne and Jonson acted beneficially in counteracting the tendency of Elizabethan poetry towards fluency and facility. If Donne somewhat lowered the ethical and ideal tone of love poetry, and blighted the delicate bloom of Elizabethan song, he gave it a sincerer and more passionate quality. He made love poetry less of a musical echo of Desportes. In his hands, English poetry became less Italianate, more sincere, more condensed and pregnant in thought and feeling. The greatest of seventeenth century poets, despite his contempt for “our late fantastics,” and his affinities with the moral Spenserians and the classical Jonson, has all Donne’s intense individuality, his complete independence, in the handling of his subjects, of the forms he adopts, even of his borrowings. He has all his “frequency and fulness” of thought. He is not much less averse to the display of erudition, though he managed it more artfully, or to the interweaving of argument with poetry. But Milton had a far less keen and restless intellect than Donne; his central convictions were more firmly held; he was less conscious of the elements of contradiction which they contained; his life moved forward on simpler and more consistent lines. With powers thus better harmonised; with a more controlling sense of beauty; with a fuller comprehension of “the science of his art,” Milton, rather than Donne, is, in achievement, the Michael Angelo of English poetry. Yet there are subtle qualities of vision, rare intensities of feeling, surprising felicities of expression, in the troubled poetry of Donne that one would not part with altogether even for the majestic strain of his great successor.