Lecture IV: The Conceit in Donne
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[ 669 Lecture IV The Conceit in Donne In the preceding lecture I endeavoured to persuade you that the systematic Latin philosophy of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, combining with the Provençal influence, produced in the trecento that conception of love which is expressed in the Vita Nuova. And I tried to present the Vita Nuova itself under the aspect, so to speak, of a scientific monograph, the record of experiments upon sentiment; the record of the method of utilising, transforming instead of discarding, the emotions of adolescence; the record of a discovery analogous to those concerning the use of the waste products of coal-tar in industry.1 The result of this discovery was a real extension of the area of emotion, and an attitude both more “spiritual” and more “worldly” than that of Donne or that of Tennyson or that of Laforgue. And I wished to indicate that the chaotic intellectual background of Donne issues in a compromise with the flesh, rather than an acceptance of the flesh, and in exactly a contraction of the field of experience. I pointed out the different types of mysticism operant on the minds of the two men; there is no reason that I can see for calling either of the two men a “mystic,” or for talking about the “mysticism” of either Donne or Dante, unless a capacity for feeling beyond the ordinary boundaries of experience is always mysticism; but you can use the term if you like. I want now to show, if I can, how the acceptance of one orderly system of thought and feeling results, in Dante and his friends, in a simple, direct and even austere manner of speech, while the maintenance in suspension of a number of philosophies, attitudes and partial theories which are enjoyed rather than believed, results, in Donne and in some of our contemporaries, in an affected, tortuous, and often over elaborate and ingenious manner of speech. IfyouexaminethefiguresofspeechemployedbyDante,orbyCavalcanti, or the best of those of the other men, you will find, I think, that the difference between their images and those of Donne lies in the focus of interest. The interest of Dante lies in the idea or the feeling to be conveyed; the image always makes this idea or feeling more intelligible. In Donne, the interest is dispersed; it may be in the ingenuity of conveying the idea by 1926 670 ] that particular image; or the image itself may be more difficult than the idea; or it may be in the compulsion, rather than in the discovery, of resemblances . Part of the pleasure may be in the natural incongruity which is actually overcome; part of the feeling is the “feel” of an idea, rather than the feeling of a person who lives by that idea. It is an harmony of dissonances. But before analysing the speech of Donne let me leave in your memory, for the sake of contrast, one image of Dante. He is attempting to express the sense of entering the first heaven, at the beginning of the Paradiso. Pareva a me che nube ne coprisse lucida, spessa, solida e polita, quasi adamante che lo sol ferisse. Per entro sè l’eterna margarita ne recepette, com’acqua recepe raggio di luce, permanendo unita. “Meseemed a cloud enveloped us, shining, dense, firm and polished, like diamond smitten by the sun. Within itself the eternal pearl received us, as water doth receive a ray of light, though still itself uncleft.”2 You observe the strict utility of these images. They are to convey a supersensuous experience; the adjectives are chosen as they might be in a scientific treatise, because they are the nearest possible to approximate what he is driving at. The image of the light passing through water is undecorated and is not, nor is intended to be, interesting apart from the experience which it makes more apprehensible. And this I think is characteristic of all of Dante’s similes and metaphors: they have a rational necessity. Now I must not draw my distinctions too tight. I am perfectly aware that between the image of absolute necessity, like that above, and the extreme conceit, there are infinite degrees; you could present many images, and specially from the Elizabethans, of which it is difficult to say whether they are serviceable or ornamental. Speaking of the Elizabethans, I think of a figure used in one of the Martin Marprelate tracts, which I can never forget; when the author, speaking of his adversary Bishop...


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