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

§ 8. His “Wit”

If Donne’s sincere and intense, though sometimes perverse and petulant, moods are a protest against the languid conventionality of Petrarchian sentiment, his celebrated “wit” is no less a corrective to the lazy thinking of the sonneteers, their fashioning and refashioning of the same outworn conceits.

  • The Muses’ garden, with pedantic weeds
  • O’er-spread, was purged by thee: the lazy seeds
  • Of servile imitation thrown away,
  • And fresh invention planted.
  • This is Carew’s estimate of what Donne achieved for English poetry. He would say what he felt and would say it in imagery of his own fashioning. He owes, probably, no more to Marino or Gongora than to Petrarch. “Metaphysical wit,” like secentismo or “Gongorism,” is, doubtless, a symptom of the decadence of renascence poetry which, with all its beauty and freshness, carried seeds of decay in its bosom from the beginning. But the form which this dissolution took in the poetry of Donne is the expression of a unique and intense individuality; a complex, imaginative temperament; a swift and subtle intellect; a mind stored with the minutiae of medieval theology, science and jurisprudence. The result is often bizarre, at times even repulsive. When the fashion in wit had changed, Addison and Johnson could not see anything in Donne’s poetry but far-sought ingenuity and extravagant hyperbole. His poetry has never, or never for long, the harmonious simplicity of perfect beauty; but, at its best, it has both sincerity and strength, and these are also constituents of beauty.

    The intensity of Donne’s feeling and the swiftness of his thought are reflected in his verse. It would not be true to say that there is nothing of the harshness of the satires in the elegies and songs. In riming couplets, Donne was always endeavouring after a fulness of thought, a freedom and swiftness of movement, which were not to be attained at once without some harshness of transition and displacement of accent, though a steady movement towards a greater degree of ease and balance can be traced from the Satyres and Elegies to the Anniversaries and later Funerall Elegies. Even in the lyrics, there are harsh lines. In verse, as in figure, Donne is careless of the minor beauties. But it is in his lyrics that he has achieved his most felicitous effects, and succeeded in making the stanza, long or short, simple or elaborate, the harmonious echo of that intimate wedding of passion and argument which is the essential quality of the “metaphysical” lyric. If we owe to the influence of Donne in English poetry some deplorable aberrations of taste, we owe to it, also, both the splendid cadences, the élan, of the finest seventeenth century lyrics from Jonson and Carew to Marvell and Rochester and, at a lower imaginative level, the blend of passion and argument in Dryden’s ringing verse rhetoric.