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

§ 4. His Satires

Donne’s satires have features in common with the other imitations of Juvenal, Persius and Horace which were produced in the last decade of the sixteenth century, notably a heightened emphasis of style and a corresponding vehemence and harshness of versification. But, in verse and style and thought, Donne’s satires are superior to either Hall’s “dashing, smirking, fluent imitations of the ancients” or Marston’s tedious and tumid absurdities. The verse of these poets is much less irregular than Donne’s. It approximates more closely to the balanced couplet movement of Drayton’s Heroicall Epistles. Hall’s couplets are neat and pointed, Marston’s more irregular and enjambed. But Donne’s satiric verse shows something like a consistent effort to eschew a couplet structure, and to give to his verse the freedom and swiftness of movement to which, when he wrote, even dramatic blank verse had hardly yet attained. He uses all the devices—the main pause in the middle of the line, weak and light endings (he even divides one word between two lines)—by which Shakespeare secured the abrupt, rapid effects of the verse of Macbeth and the later plays:

  • Gracchus loves all [i.e. religions] as one, and thinks that so
  • As women do in divers countries go
  • So doth, so is Religion; and this blind-
  • Ness too much light breeds; but unmoved thou
  • Of force must one, and forc’d but one allow;
  • And the right? ask thy father which is she,
  • Let him ask his; though truth and falsehood be
  • Near twins yet truth a little elder is;
  • Be busy to seek her. Believe me this,
  • He ’s not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
  • Such verse is certainly not smooth or melodious. Yet the effect is studied and is not inappropriate to the theme and spirit of the poem. Donne’s verse resembles Jonson’s much more closely than either Hall’s or Marston’s. He had certainly classical models in view—Martial and Persius and Horace. But imitation alone will not account for Donne’s peculiarities. Of the minor [char] of verse, he is always a little careless; but if there is one thing more distinctive than another of Donne’s best work it is the closeness with which the verse echoes the sense and soul of the poem. And so it is in the satires. Their abrupt, harsh verse reflects the spirit in which they are written. Horace, quite as much as Persius, is Donne’s teacher in satire; and it is Horace he believes himself to be following in adopting a verse in harmony with the unpoetic temper of his work:

  • And this unpolish’d rugged verse I chose,
  • As fittest for discourse and nearest prose.
  • The urbane spirit of Horace was not caught at once by those who, like Donne and Jonson, believed themselves to be following in his footsteps.

    The style of Donne’s satires has neither the intentional obscurity of Hall’s more ambitious imitations of Juvenal, nor the vague bluster of Marston’s onslaughts upon vice. If we allow for corruptions of the text, one might say that Donne is never obscure. His wit is a succession of disconcerting surprises; his thought original and often profound; his expression, though condensed and harsh, is always perfectly precise. His out-of-the-way learning, too, which supplies puzzles for modern readers, is used with a pedantic precision, even when fantastically applied, to which his editors have not always done justice.

    In substance, Donne’s satires are not only wittier than those of his contemporaries, but weightier in their serious criticism of life, and happier in their portrayal of manners and types. In this respect, some of them are an interesting pendant to Jonson’s comedies. The first describes a walk through London with a giddy ape of fashion, who is limned with a lightness and vivacity wanting to Jonson’s more laboured studies of Fastidous Brisk and his fellows. The second, opening with a skit on the lawyer turned poet, passes into a trenchant onslaught—obscured by some corruptions of the text—upon the greedy and unprincipled exacter of fines from recusant Catholics, and “purchasour” of men’s lands:

  • Shortly (as the sea) he ’ll compass all the land;
  • From Scots to Wight; from Mount to Dover strand.
  • He is the lineal descendant of Chaucer’s Man of Law, to whom all was fee-simple in effect, drawn in more angry colours. The third stands by itself, being a grave and eloquent plea for the serious pursuit of religious truth, as opposed to capricious or indolent acquiescence, on the one hand, and contemptuous indifference on the other. The lines which are quoted above in illustration of Donne’s verse, and, indeed, the whole poem, were probably in Dryden’s mind when he wrote his first plea for the careful quest of religious truth, and concluded that,
  • ’t is the safest way
  • To learn what unsuspected ancients say.
  • These three satires are ascribed in a note on one manuscript collection to the year 1593. Whether this be strictly correct or not, they seem to reflect what we may take to have been the mind of Donne during his early years in London, at the inns of court, when he was familiar with the life of the town, but not yet an habitué of the court, and in a state of intellectual detachment as regards religion, with a lingering prejudice in favour of the faith of his fathers. The last two satires were written in 1597, or the years immediately following, when Donne was in the service of the lord keeper, and they bear the mark of the budding statesman. The first is a long and somewhat over-elaborated satire on the fashions and follies of court-life at the end of queen Elizabeth’s reign. The picture of the bore was doubtless suggested by Horace’s Ibam forte via sacra, but, like all Donne’s types, is drawn from the life, and with the same amplification of detail and satiric point which are to be found in Pope’s renderings from Horace. The last of Donne’s genuine satires is a descant on the familiar theme of Spenser’s laments, the miseries of suitors.

    Donne’s satires were very popular, and, to judge from the extant copies or fragments of copies as well as from contemporary allusions, appear to have circulated more freely than the songs and elegies, which were doubtless confined so far as possible, like the Paradoxes and BIA[char]ANATO[char], to the circle of the poet’s private friends. A Roman Catholic controversialist, replying to Pseudo-Martyr, expresses his regret that Donne has “passed beyond his old occupation of making Satires, wherein he hath some talent and may play the fool without controll.” Such a writer, had he known them, could hardly have failed to make polemical use of the more daring and outrageous Elegies and those songs which strike a similar note. But, though less widely known, the Songs and Sonets and the Elegies contain the most intimate and vivid record of his inner soul in these ardent years, as the religious sonnets and hymns do of his later life. And the influence of these on English poetry was deeper, and, despite the temporary eclipse of metaphysical poetry, more enduring, than that of his pungent satires, or of his witty but often laboured and extravagant eulogies in verse letter and funeral elegy.