restricted access Thinking in Verse: A Survey of Early Seventeenth-Century Poetry
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44 ] Thinking in Verse: A Survey of Early Seventeenth-Century Poetry1 The Listener, 3 (12 Mar 1930) 441-43 [In these six talks I shall be dealing with a number of poets who have some very definite peculiarities in common, to such an extent that they are known generally as “the metaphysical poets.” And finally I shall have to indicate the transition, less abrupt and more interesting than is generally thought, from this type of poetry to what is called the poetry of “the Augustan Age,” which begins with Dryden. For this reason I cannot merely take the poets one by one, as separate individuals; and I want to employ them also as an introduction, from the side of literature, to what is one of the most remarkable of all periods of European history. My own initiation into the subject was almost the reverse of my present method. Many years ago I began reading Donne and enjoying his poetry because of its relation to that of the Elizabethan dramatists.2 I then was curious to read such poets as Herbert, Crashaw and Marvell, and acquired a taste for the poetry of the period. And from that one begins to see the poetry as a manifestation of the seventeenth-century mind; and becoming interested in that mind, is impelled to study the age itself. Now,] The first thing that strikes us about the poetry of the first half of the century, say, from the accession of James to the death of Charles I, is its great difference in form and content from that of the Elizabethan period.3 Some of our greatest plays were written during the reign of James I; yet towards the end of his reign a weakening of dramatic inspiration becomes evident. The causes of such changes are always in the end obscure. But the point is that during the reign of Elizabeth the finest poetry that was written was written in plays. For the most part, the other poetry is in comparison thin, artificial and immature. The very best of Shakespeare’s sonnets are the great exception; and here and there in the innumerable other sonnets of thetimeoccursalineortwoofdeeperfeelingthanusual.TheFaerieQueene is a great poem, and Spenser’s technical accomplishment is beyond praise; yet with all Spenser’s gifts we cannot discharge him of a certain insipidity throughout.4 Now and then there is fine poetry in the verse translations of the period; and Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” is a magnificent poem.5 [ 45 Thinking in Verse And the reader who is saturated in the period can read with enjoyment some of Chapman’s occasional poems, and parts of “Polyolbion,” etc.6 But on the whole I do not think it is too sweeping a generalisation to say that the profoundest thought and feeling of the age went into its dramatic blank verse, and it is from this, rather than from the Elizabethan lyric, which was genuinely a song, that the most interesting of the poetry we are to discuss derives. One of the most obvious parallels in thoughtfulness and richness of feeling is George Chapman, and Chapman, a true Elizabethan, is at his best in his drama, not in his other verse, interesting as it is. Mr. Herbert Grierson finds an anticipation of the thought-loaded verse of Donne in such lines of Chapman as this fragment of a monologue from the play Bussy d’Ambois:7 That in this one thing all the discipline Of manners and of manhood is contained; A man to join himself with the Universe In his main sway, and make in all things fit One with the All, and go on, round as it; Not plucking from the whole his wretched part, And into straits, or into nought revert, Wishing the complete Universe might be Subject to such a rag of it as he; But to consider great Necessity, All things as well refract as voluntary Reduceth to the prime celestial cause, Which he that yields to with a man’s applause, And cheek by cheek goes, crossing it no breath, But like God’s image, follows to the death, That man is truly wise. . . .8 I agree, in so far as it is a characteristic of the poets I shall discuss, that they think in verse, rather than sing in verse; that this is a good specimen of what preceded “metaphysical poetry.” But it is didactic, expressing the conventional stoical philosophy of the time; and my seventeenth-century poets are...


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