restricted access Lecture V: Donne’s Longer Poems
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686 ] Lecture V Donne’s Longer Poems It has seemed to me desirable that in this lecture, before passing on to Crashaw and Cowley, I should consider the longer poems of Donne in their main groups: the Satires, the Epistles, the Voyage,1 the “Anatomy of the World,” and the “Progress of the Soul.” The longer poems, and especially the Satires, contributed as much or more toward his original reputation as the short poems better known to most of us. It is not therefore unprofitable to determine how far the metaphysical, and how far the conceited , enter into these poems. Enough has been said, I think, to suggest that “metaphysical poetry” in general, and “metaphysical poetry” of the seventeenth century in particular , has not one positive and unmoving centre upon which one can put the finger. If you concentrate upon the work of one man, you introduce elements which are not metaphysical at all and you exclude others equally metaphysical with those found in that man’s work. We have seen that the conceit is, in England, due to various fusions of the influence of Donne with the influence from Italy, and perhaps more difficult influences to define also. By the dangerous method of comparing isolated figure of speech with figure, we can find certainly fullblown conceits in Donne, innumerable; and what look very much like conceits in the work of earlier and much more truly Elizabethan men. The perfect example of the conceit is not to be found. For when you go past Donne to slightly later men, you find that the conceit has developed under Italian influence, but also that it has lost something conceited which was personal to Donne. It is only by grasping the movement of the whole period, from Elizabeth to Cromwell, as an integrity, that one can form any conception of the conceit or of this type of metaphysical poetry. And as the frontiers are nowhere, even in the work of one man, clearly defined, we must be content to examine some poetry which is not, on the face of it, metaphysical. Of the two groups of Donne’s poems which I now propose to examine, that which includes the Satires and the Epistles is apparently the less metaphysical . However, the nature of satiric poetry is (or was) such that its exercise gave play to some of the faculties, which became completely developed [ 687 Clark Lecture V: donne’s longer poems in his metaphysical poetry. And by this I do not mean that Donne was a satirist in the modern sense, or that the irony and wit displayed in other of his poems is in the same sense of a satiric kind. For we must be quite clear on this point: that “satire” has two meanings – one is a verse form, or genre, the other a mood or attitude. It is the fact that there are these two meanings , usually undistinguished, that tends to stultify the conscientious, comprehensive and intelligent book of Professor Hugh Walker on English Satire.2 You can certainly trace the history of a form; it is perhaps possible to trace the history of a mood; it is almost impossible to trace the history of what is now one, now the other, and sometimes both. By the time you have admitted Chaucer, Thackeray, both Samuel Butlers, as well as Swift,3 there seems little reason for making your history of Satire anything but a general history of English Literature. As for Satire as a genre of verse, I confess that it would be very difficult to trace the history of that even, and mark the point of its disappearance, in English verse. Does it end with, let us say, Churchill, or does it include Crabbe?4 And all we can do is to point to its origins, and define the nature of its origins – that is to say, the feeling or feelings which allied with poetic talent required this particular outlet, and measure the English practitioners by the degree of their divergences from the originals. Now Skelton and Dunbar, and Langland, are “satiric” writers in the modern sense, but they did not write “satires” or saturae.5 The satire, as a form, is of course derived from Persius and Juvenal, and it is only in relation to these authors, I think, especially Persius, that the satires of Donne are to be understood.6 In Latin satire, as Conington well said, “the poet pours out desultory thoughts on contemporary subjects in his...