English Poetry in the Seventeenth Century Analysis

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

ph_0111201666-Donne.jpg John Donne Published by Salem Press, Inc.

ph_0111201543-Dryden.jpg John Dryden Published by Salem Press, Inc.
A question that can be asked of any century’s poetry is whether it owes its character to “forces”—nonliterary developments to which the poets respond more or less sensitively—or whether, on the other hand, the practice of innovative and influential poets mainly determines the poetry of the period. Clearly, great poets do not always shape the literature of their century, as the cases of the twin giants of seventeenth century England, William Shakespeare and John Milton, indicate. What Ben Jonson wrote of Shakespeare is true of both: They are “not of an age, but for all time!” John Donne and John Dryden, however, are poets who seem to have stamped their personalities on much of the poetry of their own and succeeding generations.

John Donne and John Dryden

John Donne (1572-1631) turned twenty-nine in the year 1601. John Dryden (1631-1700), busy to the last, died at the end of the century. Thus a century brimming with good poetry may be said to begin with Donne and end with Dryden. On most library shelves, Donne and Dryden are both literally and figuratively neighbors. If not the shaper of poetry in the first half of the century, Donne stands at least as its representative poet, while Dryden, born only a few months after Donne died in 1631, probably has an even more secure claim to the same position in the final decades of the century. They may indeed have determined the poetic climate; certainly they serve as barometers on which modern readers can see that climate registered. The distinctive differences between the writings of the two men testify to the diversity of seventeenth century poetry and to the likelihood that powerful forces for change were at work in the interim.

The differences are apparent even when—perhaps particularly when—roughly similar types of poems (and parallels between the two are inevitably rough) are chosen. Donne wrote two sequences of religious sonnets. One begins:

Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,I run to death, and death meets me as fast,And all my pleasures are like yesterday.

Dryden is known for two longer religious poems, one of which, Religio Laici (1682), begins: “Dim as the borrowed beams of moons and stars/ To lonely, weary, wand’ring travelers,/ Is Reason to the soul.” A long list of contrasts might be drawn up, most of which would hold true of entire poems and, for that matter, of the works of the two poets generally.

Donne addresses God directly, for example, and even ventures to command him, while neither in his opening nor anywhere else in 456 lines does Dryden apostrophize his maker, although several times he refers circumspectly to “God,” “Godhead,” or “Omnipotence.” Donne not only personifies but also personalizes the abstraction death, which “runs fast” and “meets” the speaker. Dryden’s chief abstraction, Reason, is grand but “dim,” and another that he introduces soon thereafter, Religion, though described as “bright,” remains inanimate. Donne’s sonnet has an immediate, even urgent, quality; Dryden sets out in a more deliberate and measured way, as if any necessary relationships will be established in due time. Donne achieves that immediacy through a plain, simple vocabulary, thirty-one of his first thirty-five words having only one syllable. Although there are no striking irregularities after the first line, rhetorical stresses govern the rhythm. Dryden’s diction is also simple, but there are more polysyllables, and their arrangement, as in “lonely, weary, wand’ring travelers,” creates a smoother, more regular cadence.

In other ways, the poems elicit different responses. Donne is paradoxical. The reader senses in his third line that rigorous demands are being made on him. What does “I run to death” mean exactly? How can that be? Why is death said to do the same? Such questions have answers, no doubt,...

(The entire section is 10,999 words.)