John Donne's Songs and Sonnets

by John Donne

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Critical Overview

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Donne enjoyed a good reputation as a poet in the generation after his death, but by the end of the seventeenth century, critics such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope faulted his poetry for the lack of regularity in its rhythm and the blatant sexuality of its content. Dryden first used the term “metaphysical” to criticize Donne’s “excessive use of philosophy,” and Samuel Johnson used it to describe poets who wrote to “show their learning.” Johnson also criticized Donne for what became known as the “metaphysical conceit,” in which (says Johnson) “the most heterogeneous ideas are joked by violence together.” As a result, by the eighteenth century, John Donne as a poet was forgotten. Although Romantics such as Samuel Coleridge and Charles Lamb began to rediscover the beauty in Donne’s verse, it was not until the twentieth century that John Donne was resurrected as one of the greatest of English poets. This was in large part due to T. S. Eliot’s essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), which praised that which Dryden and Johnson condemned. Eliot argued that Donne’s poetry possesses a capacity to synthesize emotional and intellectual experience so that the reader can “feel...thought as immediately as the odor of a rose.” Throughout the middle of the twentieth century, critics studied Donne to understand the tension, paradox, and ambiguity in his poetry. Recent feminist criticism examined Donne’s love poems for their attitudes toward women, frequently finding it sexist but sometimes arguing that his theme of mutuality in love posits an equality between the speaker and the woman addressed.

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