Donne’s Reputation

Sarah Wintle

  • English Renaissance Studies edited by John Carey
    Oxford, 320 pp, £15.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 19 812093 1

In his preface to this celebratory volume of essays presented to Dame Helen Gardner on her 70th birthday, John Carey apologises for the fact that the topics discussed are restricted to 16th and 17th-century English literature. Dame Helen’s latest book, after all, was The Composition of ‘The Four Quartets’. Eliot’s presence, though, still hovers over 17th-century literary studies, and it hovers over much of this book. Five of the essays, including a splendid piece by Barbara Everett on epic catalogues, are on Milton. Eliot made a major contribution to the ‘dislodgement’ of Milton, but Milton studies never even faltered. Indeed, important books like Ricks’s Milton’s Grand Style were conceived of as counterblasts to the Leavis-Eliot offensive. Barbara Everett’s piece is too: her starting-point is Eliot’s treatment of Milton’s name-dropping in the first of his essays on that poet – treatment which she proves to be curiously illuminating of Milton’s practice.

Seven articles here are on Shakespeare and Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, five are on miscellaneous topics, ranging from Sidney to Dryden, and three are on Donne and the Metaphysicals. This last field is that for which Dame Helen is probably best-known, both through her important editions and studies of Donne, and to a wider audience, through her perennially useful Penguin anthology, The Metaphysical Poets. This is also the area where Eliot’s presence is still most remarkable and pressing, and where strong and influential critical reaction – like Ricks or Everett on Milton – has never made itself felt, or brought itself into the forefront of attention. Praise is harder to counter, or re-formulate, than attack. Barbara Everett points out in her article that in trying to reassess Milton, Eliot was trying to de-idolise an idol, and that the current reputation of a writer cannot always be separated from the history of that reputation. This seems particularly true of Donne.

John Donne’s place in the canon of English poets has always seemed distorted, and the swings in his reputation make it an ideal subject for the student of literary taste. This exemplariness is sharpened by the fact that analysis of the essential virtues – or vices – of his poetry has not really altered since Dr Johnson, whose definition of metaphysical wit as a discordia concors remains central. It just depends on whether you – or your times – like it or need it, or not.

Donne was a succès d’estime in the early to mid-17th century, was disliked in the 18th, admired by a discerning minority, including Coleridge and Browning, in the 19th, and admired and elevated into a central and valued figure in the 20th. Dorothy Sayers in Busman’s Honeymoon (1937), ‘a sentimental comedy’ over which Donne – the poet of the amply quoted Epithalamions as well as of the Songs and Sonets – presides as priest of love, expects her readers to know the poet well. For example, ‘it is symptomatic of Harriet’s state of mind’ that it takes her ten days to trace the line ‘not faint Canaries but Ambrosial’ to its source – Elegie XVIII, ‘Love’s Progress’. Sayers doesn’t give the reader any clues with all this, and such allusions, in such a context, indicate that Donne’s reputation in the earlier mid-20th century was not only a matter of changing critical doctrine, but also a matter of cult, fashion, snobbery, involving, too, a genuine and widespread interest in his poetry.

Eliot himself expounded an idea of the discordia concors. Donne’s ability to, as it were, forge a whole out of reading Spinoza and smelling boiled cabbage transformed him into a mythical figure, an undivided sensibility, living in a state of epiphanic grace. Eliot needed the discordia concors for his own poetic ends. It seemed to offer a new and radical way of achieving a quite old-fashioned romantic purpose, that of making resonant, and on occasion even visionary, the detritus of the common day. It was unfortunate that the legitimate and even fruitful use of one poet by another got muddled up with a spurious historical and spiritual hypothesis about the workings of poetic sensibility. Combined with the appeal of Eliot’s own poetry, however, the hypothesis stressed, glamorised and mystified the poetic reputation of John Donne, and was seized upon by a readership anxious to stress the degeneracy of their own age.

David Jones, an autochthonous Welsh, rather than Anglo-American, modernist of Poundian tendencies, offers another poet’s version of Johnson’s aperçu in his preface to the Anathemata (1952), and claims the Metaphysicals for Wales at the same time. Jones is speaking here of his concept of the sign, of how H2O can also be a font, fount or silver sea. The Metaphysicals, he thinks, managed to wed widely separated ideas, and to make odd scraps of newly-discovered data subserve immemorial themes. He described their work as ‘a poetry that was counter-Renaissant, creaturely yet other world ordered, ecstatical yet technically severe and ingenious, concerned with conditions of the psyche, but its images very much of the soma; metaphysical but not un-intrigued by the physics of the period; English but well represented by names hardly English’. These are the sort of connections, Jones is implying, which it is the modern poet’s task to make, although he himself doesn’t really use the Metaphysicals in his effort to make them. The passage quoted – a footnote, in fact – is another gesture towards Eliot. Jones thinks the Metaphysicals should be important to his endeavour, even if, in the end, they turn out not to be.

Any close criticism of Donne’s poetry has, it seems inevitably, to be an account of oppositions in action, as in John Carey’s piece on Donne and coins in the volume under review, where he points out that ‘the coin unites tangible with intangible, physical with metaphysical. It has two beings, as object and as token. It was, I think, this discordia concors within coins which made them preeminently absorbing to Donne – made them indeed, emblems of his poetic method.’ Carey’s piece is interesting and insightful in the corrections which it establishes by comparing the poetry and the prose, but it doesn’t have the wit and gusto of his piece on Marvell for that poet’s tercentenary, or of his work on Victorian novelists. Much writing on Donne, now, carries a hint of faint weariness.

Eliot’s own criticism, especially on its more theoretical side, gave a strong impulse to the development of the New Criticism; Donne, with Eliot’s imprimatur, was the ideal poet for the New Critics to practise on, and practise they did, as a glance at the bibliographies will show.

As late as 1965, right at the tail end of the movement, 34 items on Donne were published, here and in America, in comparison to, say, 17 on Wordsworth, and in 1975, though Wordsworth’s total has shot up to 54, Donne, even allowing for an exponential increase in academic publishing, still does pretty well with 41. Until recently, then, and possibly even now in schools and universities, Donne’s reputation was underwritten by the facts that modern poets had seen him as useful and somehow contemporary, that one poet of charismatic influence saw him as emblematic of an unfallen sensibility, and that his most accessible work and a dominant critical and pedagogical method fitted each other hand and glove.

Eliot’s influence is still, quite apart from his intrinsic merits as poet and critic, quite charismatic – a charisma which needs to be defined in relation to Pound’s statement of 1930 that Eliot ‘arrived at the supreme eminence among English critics largely through disguising himself as a corpse’. In 1965, 53 items were published on him, and in 1975 an astonishing 79. In written submissions on their recent reading, candidates applying to read English at University College, London mention Eliot more often than any other poet except Shakespeare (out of 274 submissions, 104 mention Eliot, 83 Chaucer, 69 Wordsworth and 66 Donne). In these circumstances, his criticism is likely to retain some influence, and the way Donne is looked at is often still affected by Eliot’s thinking.

We ask of the important literary work that it should exist in a significant relationship to history, or to a history. Eliot gave Donne a relationship, not only to the history of his own poetry, and thus to an accessible modernism, but also to a more inclusive paradigm of the past. This paradigm was shown to be false a long time ago, but Donne’s relationship to history has not yet been satisfactorily re-explored and re-defined, in spite of the fact that, thanks to the work of Dame Helen and other scholars, we know a great deal more about his writings than Eliot did at the time of his essay on the Metaphysicals.

The main emphasis of 17th-century studies has shifted, and it is the connection between the literature, politics and ideas of the mid-17th century that now excites, and produces exciting work. Milton benefits, so does Marvell, and figures like Waller and Cowley attract their share of interesting attention. Revolution and post-revolutionary depression, and related problems of political commitment and compromise, make sense, it seems, now. Even if good literary history is not historicist, the impulse that leads to the choice of what to be historical about often has a hint of the historicist about it, suggesting a wish to see our own age reflected in the problems of the past. Recent books on Donne – none of them British, by the way – have searched for contexts: Petrarchism, mannerism, genre-history, Protestant meditation. But this, however valuable, is literary history narrowly conceived. A partial exception, perhaps, is Robert Ellrodt’s vast, French, phenomenological, semi-Bachelardian study of the Metaphysical sensibilité, to which he here adds a note, in a piece on ‘Angels and the Poetic Imagination from Donne to Traherne’: but Ellrodt’s yearning for a kind of universalism, although allied to much local perceptiveness, lends an uneasy status to his arguments, which don’t quite return Donne to history.

Donne’s Anglicanism was, of course, important to Eliot, even if he soon rejected it for Lancelot Andrewe’s more tasteful version. Dame Helen pointed out in her Preface to the Divine Poems that ‘in his devotional conservatism, his retention of traditions of Christian prayer and worship, which do not seem to him incompatible with the Protestant tradition, he is like others of his generation, the generation in which the distinctive tradition of Anglicanism becomes clearly apparent. It is the generation which came to maturity while Hooker was writing the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.’

We are less certain now about what the ‘distinctive tradition of Anglicanism’ is, and the phrase seems less ringingly positive than Dame Helen may have intended. Donne’s traditionalism does not fit into a pattern as easily as Hooker’s. Hooker’s major work was written in his role as servant and defender of the Establishment, while Donne’s role was always rather more obviously uncertain. Born a Catholic, he turned himself into the ambitious servant of a Protestant state; after his impolitic marriage, he was thrust out into the cold again, and it was only after struggling up until the last moment for secular preferment that he accepted that his way back was through the state’s church. His relationship to secular power and its sources was always ambivalent: many of the Songs and Sonets celebrate a withdrawal from it, but they often appropriate its terms to celebrate that withdrawal nonetheless. His somewhat uninviting poems to his patrons, often women, have been rather neglected, but they are undoubtedly important if the interesting relationship between his virtuoso use of the codes and conventions of poetry and his ambivalent reaction to the worlds of power and preferment is to be understood. Studies of Donne might profit from some of the approaches taken in the study of some of his successors.