Donne in our Time
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[ 369 Donne in our Time1 It is, I know, a tercentenary 1631-1931; but for my own experience within thetermsofthispaper,ourtimeisroughly1906-1931.2 ImeanthatProfessor Briggs used to read, with great persuasiveness and charm, verses of Donne to the Freshmen at Harvard assembled in what was called, as I remember, “English A.”3 I confess that I have now forgotten what Professor Briggs told us about the poet; but I know that whatever he said, his own words and his quotations were enough to attract to private reading at least one Freshman who had already absorbed some of the Elizabethan dramatists, but who had not yet approached the metaphysicals. I can from that point trace uncertainly the progress of my own relations with Donne, but I cannot account for his general emergence towards tercentenary fame. I know that when I came to London I heard more of Donne, in social conversation , than I had heard before. It was partly because Desmond MacCarthy talked enthusiastically about Donne; and everyone knew that MacCarthy had for years been designing to write a book about him. MacCarthy’s book, I am sorry to say, has not yet been written – no one really expected that it would be.4 But however, through however many influences, for whatever reasons, Donne came to be a poet with whom every intellectual undergraduate in English-speaking countries had at least to profess familiarity, I know that by 1926, when I gave some lectures on Donne, the subject was already popular, almost topical; and I know that by 1931 the subject has been so fully treated that there appears to me no possible justification of turning my lectures into a book.5 It is not exactly that anyone has actually written a definitive book. True, there are books so good that there is little pretext at present for writing another. Miss Ramsay’s French dissertation is extraordinarily informative, though it promulgates opinions about Donne which I think we have outgrown ; Professor Grierson, in his introduction to his anthology of metaphysical poets as well as in his introduction and notes to his great edition of the poems, combines to an uncommon degree fine scholarship with sensitive perception; Mr. Mario Praz, in one long essay, joins the latter gift to a unique knowledge of the whole of European poetry contemporary with Donne; Mr. John Hayward has brought out a volume which contains the Essays, Reviews, and Commentaries: 1931 370 ] whole of the verse and excellent selection from the prose; Mr. George Williamson has written a book admirably relating the poetry of Donne to that of his followers and to some of the poetry of recent times; and M. PierreLegouishassaidforusnearlyallthatwewanttosayaboutDonne’s metric. Yet, admirably and thoroughly as the subject has been handled, there might still be place for another book on Donne: except that, as I believe, Donne’s poetry is a concern of the present and the recent past, rather than of the future.6 I by no means wish to affirm that the importance of a particular poet, or of a particular type of poetry, is merely a matter of capricious fashion. I wish simply to distinguish between the absolute and the relative in popularity , and to recognise in the relative (both when a poet is unduly preferred and when he is unduly ignored) an element of the reasonable, the just and the significant. And a study of the popularity of Donne, and the various theories held about him, can illustrate this distinction very nicely. We must assume, if we are to talk about poetry at all, that there is some absolute poetic hierarchy; we keep at the back of our minds the reminder of some end of the world, some final Judgment Day, on which the poets will be assembled in their ranks and orders. In the long run, there is an ultimate greater and less. But at any particular time, and we exist only in particular moments of time, good taste consists, not in attaining to the vision of Judgment Day, and still less in assuming that what happens to be important for us now is certainly what will be important in the same way on that occasion, but in approximating to some analysis of the absolute and the relative in our own appreciation. The principle, if valid, must apply of course to all art; but it is convenient, and an aid to precision, if one limits the field to that department of art which one knows best.7 That...