The Preacher as Artist. A review of Donne’s Sermons: Selected Passages, ed. Logan Pearsall Smith
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[ 165 The Preacher as Artist1 A review of Donne’s Sermons: Selected Passages ed. Logan Pearsall Smith Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919. Pp. lii + 263. The Athenaeum, 4674 (28 Nov 1919) 1252-53 The selection is well made, and should also convince the reader that it was worth making. To what Mr. Pearsall Smith has said there are no objections to be raised; there are only one or two critical codicils to be added. Donne’s prose is worth reading both because it is a significant moment in the history of English prose, and because it has at its best uncommon dignity and beauty – a style which gives at times what is always uncommon in the sermon, a direct personal communication. Mr. Pearsall Smith is quite aware of Donne’s personality, and of the occasions on which it appears immediately in his prose with the same immediacy as in his verse.2 But we cannot appreciate the significance, the solitariness, of this personal expression in Donne’s sermons unless we compare him with one or two of the great preachers of his time, the great preachers whose sermons were fine prose. The absence of such comparison is the single important defect of Mr. Pearsall Smith’s introduction. Without it, we are not in a position to criticize Donne’s style at all analytically; the comparative study would educe what is doubtless well known to Mr. Pearsall Smith, but not patent to the cultured reader: that a great deal in Donne’s predicatory style is traditional , and that some of the most praised passages are produced by a method which is more than traditional, which is immemorial, almost imposed by the sermon form. Not until we see this can we understand the difference between certain passages: the difference between Donne as an artist doing the traditional better than any one else had done it, and Donne putting into the sermon here and there what no one else had put into it. Merely the fact that these are extracts, that you can extract from the sermons of Donne, is indicative. It is possible to select sermons of Bishop Latimer or Bishop Andrewes, but it would probably be futile to attempt to select passages out of the sermons.3 From one point of view, it is a disadvantage to Donne that it is possible to make excerpts from his sermons. The 1919 166 ] excerpts are enough to show Donne’s place in English prose; but the sermon is a form of prose, the form in which Donne’s prose was written. It follows that we cannot wholly apprehend Donne’s prose without seeing the structure. For the Sermon was a form of literary art – “applied” art as the drama of Donne’s day was applied art, applied poetry. And on the other hand, Donne had more in him than could be squeezed into the frame of this form: something which, if it does not crack the frame, at least gives it, now and then, a perceptible outward bulge. We must know what the sermon was, to know what Donne accomplished; and finally, to know what it was in Donne to which the sermon did not give free play. And perhaps this knowledge will supply a clue as to why the sermon is a difficult, perhaps the most difficult form of art; why compositions which were superlatively fine sermons possess none of the permanent qualities of the true work of art; and why Donne, who might have made a great prose art, failed to do so. Hugh Latimer was a fine writer, and Lancelot Andrewes was a writer of genius. They both had gifts of style; in the style of Andrewes there are points which might very profitably be studied by any prose writer. They both wrote sermons which have beauty, though not the greatness of works of art; the gift of each of them was a gift for the sermon; they had nothing to say which could not be put into a very good sermon, no feelings which the sermon could not satisfy. And many of the passages of Donne given by Mr. Pearsall Smith can be paralleled from Latimer or Andrewes; paralleled in such a way as to leave it open to us to think Donne better, but better only in the same kind. There are touches of poetry in Donne and in Andrewes. The following of Donne is pleasing: If you be, when you are, remember that as in that good Custome...