It was in the early years of the twentieth century that John Donne was first acknowledged to be a major English poet, and his achievement meaningfully evaluated. Pope “translated” Donne’s SATIRES so thoroughly that they were unrecognizable, and Dryden misleadingly declared that he wrote “nice speculations of Philosophy” and not love poetry at all. The poets of the nineteenth century show, with the exception of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the influence of Milton rather than of the metaphysical poets. The poets of this century have learned much from Donne’s poetic method, by which emotions are expressed by ideas and ideas defined in their emotional context. Ironically, both Donne and Dryden, by writing in what are essentially speech rhythms and not in the current poetic mode revitalized the language of poetry in their generation.
Dryden was in error when he called Donne’s poetry philosophical. Donne was not committed to a particular philosophic system, but he was interested in the fascinating, conflicting, and often disturbing philosophies of his period. The scholastic way of thought, in which systems tended towards synthesis and unity, was giving way to the European scientific renaissance, which was analytical. Ptolemaic astronomy was challenged by Copernicus; Aristotle was challenged by Galileo. What interested Donne, however, was not the ultimate truth of an idea but the fascination of ideas themselves. His images are drawn from whatever belief best expressed the emotion he had to communicate.
Donne was not the first man to write metaphysical poetry. That is, he was not the first poet to describe an emotional state by its intellectual equivalent. However, before Donne wrote, this technique was confined, with the exception of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Ben Jonson’s poetry, to the drama and was most frequently found in the plays of Ford, Jonson, and Webster. Also, the Elizabethan tradition of love poetry had already begun to be rivaled by witty and cynical courtly verse. Donne’s own reaction against the Elizabethan tradition was as successful as it was complete.
In some poems, as in “The Indifferent,” Donne celebrated variety in love, and in “Go and Catch a Falling Star” he insisted that no woman remained faithful. As well as in these poems of wit and fancy, where Donne directly mocked literary convention, there are serious love poems in which he is seen to have absorbed and surpassed it. In “A Feaver” the world would not merely be a place of darkness after the lady’s death; it would disintegrate:
But yet thou canst not die, I know;To leave this world behinde, is death,But when thou from this world wiltgoe,The whole world vapours with thybreath.
A further departure from the tradition in which the lady was invariably unattainable is the glory Donne finds in sexual as well as spiritual love. In only two or three poems does he praise platonic relationships, and the poems that describe a relationship in which the beloved woman is not the poet’s mistress are extremely bitter and mocking, as, for example, in “The Apparition.”
The element of hyperbole in these poems is central also in the poems of consummated love and continued devotion, where it is one of the means by which the strength and sincerity of the poet’s passion is conveyed. “The Good-Morrow” begins:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and IDid, till we lov’d? were we not wean’dtill then?
(The entire section is 1566 words.)