restricted access Lecture II: Donne and the Middle Ages
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628 ] Lecture II Donne and the Middle Ages I propose in this lecture to discuss the studies of Donne and their influence upon his mind and his poetry. For this purpose I shall employ chiefly the work of Miss Mary Ramsay before mentioned. Miss Ramsay conducted her investigation into Donne’s reading with the thoroughness only possible to a candidate for a doctor’s degree; there is not a single reference or allusion which she has not made indefatigable attempts to track down; and her book will, I expect, remain the standard work on the subject for many generations to come. Miss Ramsay draws certain conclusions regarding Donne’s cast of mind; happily, her documentation is so complete that it provides itself the means for us to qualify some of these conclusions. Miss Ramsay’s thesis, as stated in her foreword, is this: that Donne possessed a “very complete” philosophical system and a profound mysticism and that his conception of the universe, and his philosophical technique , are essentially mediaeval. It is these assertions which I propose to examine.1 There is no question that Donne’s natural inclination of mind bore him toward theological and legal studies. The tendency toward the law, more pronounced than a reader of Miss Ramsay’s book might suppose, is of some significance. Donne’s reading in civil and canon law was so extensive that at one moment there was a question whether he should not look in this direction for a career: though we are also to infer, from Walton’s life, that his studies in law were pursued for many years without any such practical aim.2 In any case, they indicate some bias toward the more public and disputatious , rather than the more private and speculative attitude toward philosophy . Donne’s reading, in law, in theology, in medicine, and in everything which at that time could be subsumed under the genus of philosophy, was immense. Even during his youthful period of dissipation – and we may suspect that Donne, like many other men, was not above the vanity of magnifying his adolescent debaucheries in retrospect – Walton tells us that he always reserved the hours from four until ten in the morning for study – leaving us to believe that after ten o’clock he was ready for the solicitations of whatever pleasure presented itself. When we inspect the dreary index of [ 629 his reading which Miss Ramsay most usefully gives us, we recoil.3 No man ofDonne’sabilityandattainmentseverseemstohavereadagreateramount of positive rubbish. But the lists themselves are interesting reading, and provide a pertinent comment on Miss Ramsay’s thesis. For we remark at once, how large a part of this reading is in authors contemporary, or nearly so. True, as a thorough theologian, he was familiar with the fathers of the church, and with the most important of the mediaeval philosophers; but so, as Miss Ramsay herself says, was Hooker, and Miss Ramsay does not go so far as to say that Hooker’s conception of the universe was mediaeval.4 * Donne must have read Aquinas with care; he quotes Bonaventura, and Augustine of course influenced him very strongly.5 But he was equally at home with later theologians, both Roman and Protestant. Walton tells us that when Donne, at the age of nineteen, betook himself seriously to the study of theology, for the purpose of resolving his hesitation between the RomanandtheReformedChurch,heplungedintothestudyofBellarmine, so thoroughly that a year later he was able to show the Dean of Gloucester – that dean whose name Walton cannot remember – all of Cardinal Bellarmine’s works annotated by his own hand.6 Bellarmine was no mediaeval philosopher, but a contemporary some thirty years older than Donne, and still living when Donne studied his works. But Donne made himself in time equally familiar [with] the works of all the other contemporaries who distinguished themselves in theology, and of a great many whose distinction is now unintelligible. He knew the works of Luther, of Calvin, of Melanchthon, of Peter Martyr, among Protestant writers;7 of Cajetan, Valdez and Fra Victoria among the more philosophical of Roman commentators :8 the controversial literature of the Jesuits was at his finger-tips; finally,hewasacquaintedwithmanyofthosewritersofthelaterRenaissance whose orthodoxy, from either a Roman or a Protestant standpoint, is rather doubtful, such as Nicholas of Cusa and the host of students who exploited the Kabbalah, the hermetic writings and other compilations of the same sort.9 In the Kabbalah Donne was always interested.10† In this connection it is...