The Minor Metaphysicals: From Cowley to Dryden
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[ 109 The Minor Metaphysicals: From Cowley to Dryden1 The Listener, 3 (9 Apr 1930) 641-42 In an age of rich poetic accomplishment we may expect to find a swarm of minor poets each of whom is the author of one or two noteworthy pieces of verse. Donne invented an idiom, a language which less original men could learn to talk; and which they went on talking until they talked it out; and Dryden imposed a new way of speech on the next hundred years. [The four men about whom I have spoken in the last fortnight:] Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan and Marvell, all made valuable variations on this idiom.2 Then come a third and a fourth class of poets: those who wrote a few good short poems without altering the idiom in any interesting way; and those who achieved originality certainly, but only at the price of eccentricity. Of those who wrote a few good poems, I recommend, besides Bishop King, whose“Exequy”Ihavequoted,Carew,Suckling,Lovelace.[LookatCarew’s poem on page 37. It begins with a line which Donne might have written Now you have freely given me leave to love,          What will you do? Study the rest of the poem, and you will see that Carew simply has not the brain power to carry on a whole poem like Donne. He falls into simple conventions, talks of “Wounds, flames, and darts.”3 In the hands of a very small poet the language of any master will become a chilly artifice, wholly divorced from reality. You have only to look, in our own time, at the work of some of the imitators of Mr. James Joyce. Take again the poem by Suckling on page 41 Oh! for some honest lover’s ghost.4 and you find exactly the same thing happening. It would take a very sensitive connoisseur indeed to say why one poem is by Carew and the other by Suckling. All that most of us could say is that these are two very pretty poems obviously by feeble followers of Donne.5 But in Lovelace I seem to feel a different spirit stirring. In his best known poems – such as To Lucasta (page 58) and To Althea from Prison (61) there is the anticipation of the Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1930 110 ] graceful vers de société of another generation. You will find their continuation in the verse of Sedley, Rochester, Aphra Behn, Sheffield, down to Gay and Prior. Lovelace has the spirit of the Restoration rather than that of the first Caroline period.]6 In a poet like Lovelace you observe an insensible and unconscious transition . There was a different type of poet who encouraged the change of idiom merely by his abuse of the prevailing one. These are careful professionals , not charming amateurs. Of such, the most notorious is John Cleveland, because he was chosen as the bad example by Dr. Johnson in his Life of Cowley; and another man who passed with little notice in his own day, but who has been rescued from oblivion by Dr. Saintsbury in his collection of Caroline poets. That is Benlowes.7 [I will not afflict you with any quotations from Cleveland, having quoted him once, but I should like you to hear a bit of Benlowes, taken almost at random out of a long poem in his favourite peculiar metre:] Remember that almost everyone, even in his own day, despised his verses; one satirist asserted that someone had been made ill merely by wearing a hat lined with pages of Benlowes’ poems.8 He wrote with equal fluency and obscurity in English and Latin, sometimes in the same poem. I confess myself to a mild partiality to this man’s verse – whichisperhapsmorelikelytodomyreputationharmthantodoBenlowes’ good. His most considerable poem is called “Pneumato-Sarco-Machia”: otherwise “Theophila’s Spiritual Warfare”; and, so far as one can make out, has something to do with theology, and the struggles of the human soul. [There is hardly any reason for quoting one stanza rather than another. I think you may detect a faint resemblance to Browning at his worst. At first God made them one, thus; by subjecting    The sense to reason; and directing The appetite by the spirit: but sin, by infecting Man’s free-born will, so shatters them, that they    At present nor cohabit may Without regret, nor without grief depart away. Go, cheating world, that dancest o’er thy thorns;    Lov’st what undoes; hat’st what adorns...