The Devotional Poets of the Seventeenth Century: Donne, Herbert, Crashaw
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[ 71 The Devotional Poets of the Seventeenth Century: Donne, Herbert, Crashaw1 The Listener, 3 (26 Mar 1930) 552-53 [I had to spend most of my time last week in contesting current superstitions about John Donne, and the rest in trying to explain the nature of the figures of speech called conceits. But so far I have not said enough about his positive merits; and if I left it at that you might well wonder what reason there is for calling him a great or a fine poet. So I must say a little more about him before passing on to his younger contemporaries.] Donne’s great innovation in his choice of language is his replacement of the stock vocabulary of Elizabethan poetry, what we may call its mythology, by a new mythology drawn from philosophical, theological, legal and scientific terminology. A similar attempt at renovation appears in some of the poetry being written to-day. One effect of such originality is to give a direct conversational quality – a quality sometimes called “sincerity” in poetry. I do not like the term “sincerity” for this purpose, because it suggests that direct expression of a “sincere” feeling, which is a different thing; and it is this quality miscalled sincerity which makes people think they get so much closer to the “personality” of Donne than they do, let us say, to Edmund Spenser.2 There is another, and a simpler, reason, for the conversational quality of Donne’s verse, and that is that much of it is cast in the form developed by Browning: the dramatic monologue, in which we imagine a scene and the other person addressed.3 And there is a third reason. Besides the choice of vocabulary, Donne’s great inventiveness is shown in his choice and variation of metres; and we may say that in metric he hovers between the singing and the spoken word, in content between thought and feeling, and in vocabulary between the technical word and the dramatic speech. Ben Jonson, Dryden and Samuel Johnson all spoke hard words of Donne’s irregularities in versification.4 This seems very odd to us, because the art of his versification is for us one of his greatest accomplishments. They may have formed their opinion partly upon the Satires, which are written in five-foot couplets; and the satires certainly are less polished than his best work. But there is every reason to believe that Donne worked very hard over the form of his poems. As a master of the long stanza of many Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 72 ] lines, varying the length of line and number of syllables and the rhyme pattern , he is second in his time only to Spenser. Nearly every poem among his Songs and Sonnets is an experiment with a new arrangement: not all are completely successful, but the number of successes is very high.5 Here is the first stanza of “The Funeral” (page 18):6 * Whoever comes to shroud me, do not harm    Nor question much That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm; The mystery, the sign you must not touch,    For ’tis my outward soul, Viceroy to that, which then to heaven being gone, Will leave this to control, And keep these limbs, her provinces, from dissolution. Here is another form of stanza (the second, in the middle of page 14): But I am none; nor will my sun renew. You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun    At this time to the Goat is run    To fetch new lust, and give it you, Enjoy your summer all; Since she enjoys her long night’s festival, Let me prepare towards her, and let me call This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.7 [And look again at the first stanza of “Twicknam Garden,” which I read last week (page 9). It has the irregularity of the most highly developed blank verse, with still something of the singing quality of Elizabethan song.] These are, I think, the two great creative acts of Donne: his introduction of a new vocabulary in verse, and his introduction of new metres. And a great poet, even when he uses a simple common metre, always gives it a personal stamp of sound; your ear, just as much as your perception of the meaning , tells you who wrote it. Take a stanza from “A Valediction” (page 14): So let us melt, and...