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WE now come to Dr. John Donne, a man of justly great respect and authority, who, born in the year 1573, the fifteenth of Queen Elizabeth, died Dean of St. Paul's in the year 1636. But, although even Ben Jonson addresses him as "the delight of Phoebus and each Muse," we are too far beyond the power of his social presence and the influence of his public utterances to feel that admiration of his poems which was so largely expressed during his lifetime. Of many of those that were written in his youth, Izaak Walton says Dr. Donne “wished that his own eyes had witnessed their funerals.” Faulty as they are, however, they are not the less the work of a great and earnest man.
Bred to the law, but never having practised it, he lost his secretaryship to the Lord Chancellor Ellesmere through the revenge of Sir George More, whose daughter Donne had married in secret because of her father's opposition. Dependent thereafter for years on the generous kindness of unrelated friends, he yet for conscience' sake refused to take orders when
a good living was offered him; and it was only after prolonged thought that he yielded to the importunity of King James, who was so convinced of his surpassing fitness for the church that he would speed him towards no other goal. When at length he dared hope that God might have called him to the high office, never man gave himself to its duties with more of whole-heartedness and devotion, and none have proved themselves more clean of the sacrilege of serving at the altar for the sake of the things offered thereon.
He is represented by Dr. Johnson as one of the chief examples of that school of poets called by himself the metaphysical, an epithet which, as a definition, is almost false. True it is that Donne and his followers were always ready to deal with metaphysical subjects, but it was from their mode, and not their subjects, that Dr. Johnson classed them. What this mode was we shall see presently, for I shall be justified in setting forth its strangeness, even absurdity, by the fact that Dr. Donne was the dear friend of George Herbert, and had much to do with the formation of his poetic habits. Just twenty years older than Herbert, and the valued and intimate friend of his mother, Donne was in precisely that relation of age and circumstance to influence the other in the highest degree.
The central thought of Dr. Donne is nearly sure to be just : the subordinate thoughts by means of which he unfolds it are often grotesque, and so wildly associated as to remind one of the lawlessness of a dream, wherein mere suggestion without choice or fitness
DR. DONNE: HIS MODE AND STYLE.
rules the sequence. As some of the writers of whom I have last spoken would play with words, Dr. Donne would sport with ideas, and with the visual images or embodiments of them. Certainly in his case much knowledge reveals itself in the association of his ideas, and great facility in the management and utterance of them. True likewise, he says nothing unrelated to the main idea of the poem ; but not the less certainly does the whole resemble the speech of a child of active imagination, to whom judgment as to the character of his suggestions is impossible, his taste being equally gratified with a lovely image and a brilliant absurdity: a butterfly and a shining potsherd are to him similarly desirable. Whatever wild thing starts from the thicket of thought, all is worthy game to the hunting intellect of Dr. Donne, and is followed without question of tone, keeping, or harmony. In his play with words, Sir Philip Sidney kept good heed that even that should serve the end in view ; in his play with ideas, Dr. John Donne, so far from serving the end, sometimes obscures it almost hopelessly: the hart escapes while he follows the squirrels and weasels and bats. It is not surprising that, their author being so inartistic with regard to their object, his verses themselves should be harsh and unmusical beyond the worst that one would imagine fit to be called verse. He enjoys the unenviable distinction of having no rival in ruggedness of metric .movement and associated sounds. This is clearly the result of indifference; an indifference, however, which grows very strange to us when we find
that he can write a lovely verse and even an exquisite stanza.
Greatly for its own sake, partly for the sake of illustration, I quote a poem containing at once his best and his worst, the result being such an incongruity that we wonder whether it might not be called his best and his worst, because we cannot determine which. He calls it Hymn to God, my God, in my Sickness. The first stanza is worthy of George Herbert in his best mood.
Since I am coming to that holy room,
Where with the choir of saints for evermore
I tune the instrument here at the door,
To recognize its beauty, leaving aside the depth and truth of the phrase, “Where I shall be made thy music,” we must recall the custom of those days to send out for “a noise of musicians.” Hence he imagines that he has been summoned as one of a band already gone in to play before the king of ** The High Countries :" he is now at the door, where he is listening to catch the tone, that he may have his instrument tuned and ready before he enters. But with what a jar the next stanza breaks on heart, mind, and ear!
Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
Cosmographers, and 11 their map, who lie
That this is my south-west discovery,
1 “And I have grown their map.”