restricted access John Donne. A review of Love Poems of John Donne
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440 ] John Donne A review of Love Poems of John Donne Soho: Nonesuch Press, 1923. Pp. xxiii + 91. The Nation and the Athenaeum, 33 (9 June 1923) 331-321 The appearance of a very fine edition of Donne’s love poems provokes an inquiry into the reasons for Donne’s present popularity; for it is such an edition as only a poet highly esteemed by a prosperous public could receive.2 For the production, the Nonesuch Press deserves every compliment ; for the compilation, there are only two reserves to be made. It is questionable whether the love poems should be published separately from the rest of Donne’s poems; and it is questionable whether an editor ought to tamper with the sequence in which the poems are printed.3 If these two licences are allowed – that of selection and that of order – it may be admitted that the editor of this volume has shown excellent taste (though the present writer prefers to see “The Relic” and “The Funeral,” the first verses of which are variations of the same theme, printed farther apart).4 But selection and order represent a criticism, the imposition of a critical taste upon the reader; it was by such means that Matthew Arnold, in a volume which still supplies to many readers their only knowledge of Wordsworth, imposed a criticism upon the nineteenth century.5 For Donne the danger is much less: he is less difficult and less voluminous than Wordsworth, and most of his admirers, we presume, already own the Muses’ Library edition. But the arrangement made, and very neatly made, in this volume is a kind of pigeon-holing of Donne’s sentiments. First in order come the great love poems, expressing absolute, static and ecstatic love; then, the lighter ones on wooing and winning and the joy of the senses; then, those that deal with parting and grief; then, the more or less disillusioned and cynical analyses of love and lovers; and finally, the poems in which earthly and heavenly love are contrasted – and compared. So much for the order. As for the selection, the editor explains: – [ 441 John Donne The selection has been confined to Donne’s subjective poetry and does not include any of the conventional complimentary Letters and Epithalamia, which were made to order after the fashion of his time. [89] Both these statements contain interesting critical judgments; and, as all critical judgments excite criticism, we may be allowed to hold these up to question. One of the characteristics of Donne which wins him, I fancy, his interest for the present age, is his fidelity to emotion as he finds it; his recognition of the complexity of feeling and its rapid alterations and antitheses . A change of feeling, with Donne, is rather the regrouping of the same elements under a mood which was previously subordinate: it is not the substitution of one mood for a wholly different one. As an example of the latter process, we may take Don Juan, turn to “The Isles of Greece,” and observe the shift of tone after that splendid piece of nationalist propaganda Thus sung, or would or could or should have sung, The modern Greek, in tolerable verse. . . .6 Byron’s “effective” change here is not only a theatrical effect: it is callowness masquerading as maturity of cynicism; it represents an uninteresting mind, and a disorderly one. Compare it with those of Baudelaire, certainly a master of surprises: in the French poet every new mood is prepared by and implicit in the preceding mood – the mind has unity and order. And so with Donne. Impossible to isolate his ecstasy, his sensuality, and his cynicism. Impossible, furthermore, to isolate what is “conventional” in Donne from what is individual. If the “Autumnal,” which is included in this volume , be admitted to be a love poem, are we yet safe in separating it from “conventional complimentary” poems?7 Such separation can only be made, at best, by appeal to biographical data, which are, for the literary value, irrelevant. The epithet “conventional,” like the epithet “tour de force,” is equally easy and dangerous to apply: it might be made a censor for some, if not all, of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The editor would have been on safer ground, had he said bluntly that some of Donne’s verse is insignificant. With sincerity in the practical sense, poetry has little to do; the poet is responsible to a much more difficult consciousness and honesty. And it is 1923...