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images;—the one considered poetry to consist in a certain mode of expression; the other, in a certain mode of seeing, thinking, and feeling. This is nearly all the difference between them; but this is a vast difference indeed: for the one supposes the necessity of, and in fact uses, a vast fund of thoughts and images; while the other can execute all its purposes nearly as well without any of these. In short, the one kind of writing requires very considerable talent to produce it, and its results are very often highly poetical; whereas the other requires no talent at all, and can in no case produce poetry, but very frequently covers and conceals it where it is.
But it is not at present our intention to go into a general discussion of that particular school of poetry to which Donne belongs; but merely to bring to light some of the exquisite beauties which have hitherto lain concealed from the present age, among the learned as well as unlearned lumber which he has so unaccountably mixed up with them. We say unaccountably—for it is impossible to give a reasonable account of any poetical theory, the perpetual results of which are the most pure and perfect beauties of every kind—of thought, of sentiment, of imagery, of expression, and of versification—lying in immediate contact with the basest deformities, equally of every kind; each given forth alternately in almost equal proportions, and in the most unconscious manner on the part of the writer as to either being entitled to the preference; and indeed without one's being able to discover that he saw any difference between them, even in kind.
Before doing this, however, it may be well to let the reader know what was thought of Donne in his own day, lest he should suppose that we are introducing him to a person little known at that time, or lightly valued.
If a prophet has little honour in his own time and country, the same can seldom be said of a poet; though he, too, is in some sort a prophet. The day in which Donne lived was the most poetical the world ever knew, and yet there can be little doubt, from the evidence of the fugitive literature of the time, that Donne was, upon the whole, more highly esteemed than any other of his contemporaries. We do not, however, mean to attribute all his fame to his published poetry. He was undoubtedly a very extraordinary person in many other respects. He possessed vast knowledge and erudition, and was highly distinguished for the eloquence of his public preaching. But the greater part of the admiration bestowed on him, was avowedly directed to the poetical writings which we are presently to examine.—We shall give a few evidences of the estimation in which Donne was held during his life; taking
VOL. VIII. PART I. D
them, however, (in order to avoid the charge of partiality or flattery) from what was not written till after his death.
"I cannot blame those men that knew thee well,
This is said of him by Hyde.
"Dull age! (exclaims Izaak Walton) couldst thou
The following, from an elegy by Thomas Gary, we give because it is finely thought, and nobly expressed:
"Can we not force from widow'd poetry,
"Oh, pardon me, that break with untun'd verse,
He finishes his elegy in these words:
"Here lies a king, that rul'd, as he thought fit,
This last line alludes to his having devoted all the latter part of his life to religious studies and pursuits. What follows may perhaps, in some degree, account for his popularity. Most of his readers admired him, not in spite of his impenetrable obscurity, but because of it:
Thy careless hours brought forth
Fancies beyond our studies."
"So learned was thy chance, thy haste had wit,
This is true enough, though the writer did not think so.— Endymion Porter says of Donne—
"Poets, be silent—let your numbers sleep—
Another writer says:
"'Tis held that comets princes' deaths foretell;.
"But what do I? A diminution 'tis
It is remarkable that the writer, of whom this could be said by persons of repute, (whether truly or not is no matter) in an age. which produced Shakspeare and the elder dramatists —besides Spenser, Sydney, Herbert, Raleigh, and a host of. minor names—should so long have remained unknown in an after age, one of the distinguishing boasts of which is, that it has revived a knowledge of, and a love for its great predecessor, at the same time that it has almost rivalled it.
In pieces that can be read with unmingled pleasure, and admired as perfect wholes, the poetry of Donne is almost entirely deficient. This may serve, in some degree, to account for the total neglect which has so long attended him. Almost every beauty we meet with, goes hand in hand with some striking deformity, of one kind or another; and the effect of this is, at first, so completely irritating to the imagination, as well as to the taste, that, after we have experienced it a few times, we hastily determine to be without the one, rather than purchase it at the price of the other. But the reader who is disposed, by these remarks, and the extracts that will accompany them, to a perusal of the whole of this poet's works, may be assured that this unpleasant effect will very soon wear off, and he will soon find great amusement and great exercise for his thinking faculties, (if nothing else) even in the objectionable parts of Donne; for he is always, when indulging in his very worst vein, filled to overflowing with thoughts, and materials for engendering thought.
The following short pieces are beautiful exceptions to the remark made just above, as to the mixed character of this poet's writings. The first is a farewell from a lover to his mistress, on leaving her for a time. For clearness and smoothness of construction, and a passionate sweetness and softness in the music of the versification, it might have been written in the present day, and may satisfy the ear of the most fastidious of modern readers; and for thought, sentiment, and imagery, it might not have been written in the present day;—for, much as we hold in honour our living poets, we doubt if any one among them is capable of it. In fact, it is one of those pieces which immediately strike us as being purely and exclusively attributable to the writer of them—which satisfy us, that, but for him, we never could have become possessed of them—which bear a mark that we cannot very well expound, even to ourselves, but which we know no one could have placed on them but him: and this, by-the-bye, is one of the most unequivocal criterions of a true poet. Perhaps the piece itself will explain better what we mean, than any thing we could say of it.
"As virtuous men pass mildly away,
So let us melt, and make no noise,
Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Dull, sublunary lovers' love
But we're by love so much refin'd,
* i. e.—Absence.
Inter-assured of the mind,
Careless eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls, therefore (which are one)
If they be two, they are two so
And tho' it in the centre sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must
The simile of the compasses, notwithstanding its quaintness, is more perfect in its kind, and more beautiful, than any thing we are acquainted with. Perhaps the above is the only poem we could extract, that is not disfigured by any of the characteristic faults of Donne. Several of them have, however, very few. The following is one of these. It has an air of serious gaiety about it, as if it had been composed in the very bosom of bliss. The versification, too, is perfect. It is called, "The Good-Morrow."
"I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we lov'd. Were we not wean'd till then?
But suck'd in country pleasures childishly?
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers' den?
'Twas so.—But* this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever beauty I did see,
Which I desir'd and got, 'twas but a dream of thee.
And now, good-morrow to our waking souls,
* i. e. Except this.