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...
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