Verse > Anthologies > William Stanley Braithwaite, ed. > The Book of Elizabethan Verse
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William Stanley Braithwaite, ed.  The Book of Elizabethan Verse.  1907.
 
An Elegy upon the Death of Doctor Donne
By Thomas Carew (1595?–1639?)
 
CAN 1 we not force from widow’d Poetry,
Now thou art dead, great Donne, one elegy
To crown thy hearse? Why yet did we not trust,
Though with unkneaded, dough-bak’d 2 prose, thy dust;
Such as the unsizar’d lect’rer from the flow’r        5
Of fading rhetoric, short-liv’d as his hour,
Dry as the sand that measures it, might lay
Upon the ashes on the funeral day?
Have we nor tune, nor voice? Didst thou dispense
Through all our language both the words and sense?        10
’Tis a sad truth. The pulpit may her plain
And sober Christian precepts still retain;
Doctrines it may, and wholesome uses, frame,
Grave homilies, and lectures; but the flame
Of thy brave soul (that shot such heat and light        15
As burnt our Earth, and made our darkness bright,
Committed holy rapes upon the will,
Did through the eye the melting hearts distil,
And the deep knowledge of dark truths so teach
As sense might judge what fancy could not reach)        20
Must be desir’d forever. So the fire
That fills with spirit and heat the Delphic quire,
Which kindled first by the Promethean breath,
Glow’d here a while, lies quench’d now in thy death.
The Muses’ garden, with pedantic weeds 3        25
O’erspread, was purg’d by thee; the lazy seeds
Of servile imitation thrown away,
And fresh invention planted. Thou didst pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age:
Licentious thefts, that make poetic rage        30
A mimic fury, when our souls must be
Possest, or with Anacreon’s ecstasy
Or Pindar’s, not their own; the subtle cheat
Of sly exchanges, and the juggling feat
Of two-edg’d words; or whatsoever wrong        35
By ours was done the Greek or Latin tongue,
Thou hast redeem’d; and open’d us a mine
Of rich and pregnant fancy; drawn a line
Of masculine expression, which had good
Old Orpheus seen, or all the ancient brood        40
Our superstitious fools admire, and hold
Their lead more precious than thy burnish’d gold,
Thou hadst been their exchequer, and no more
They each in other’s dung had search’d for ore.
Thou shalt yield no precedence, but of time,        45
And the blind fate of language, whose tun’d chime
More charms the outward sense; yet thou may’st claim
From so great disadvantage greater fame,
Since to the awe of thy imperious wit
Our troublesome language bends, made only fit        50
With her tough thick-rib’d hoops to gird about
Thy giant fancy, which had prov’d too stout
For their soft, melting phrases. As in time
They had the start, so did they cull the prime
Buds of invention many a hundred year,        55
And left the rifled fields, besides the fear
To touch their harvest; yet from those bare lands
Of what was only thine, thy only hands
(And that their smallest work) have gleaned more
Than all those times and tongues could reap before.        60
 
  But thou art gone, and thy strict laws will be
Too hard for libertines in poetry;
They will recall the goodly, exil’d train
Of gods and goddesses, which in thy just reign
Was banish’d noble poems. Now, with these,        65
The silenc’d tales i’ th’ Metamorphoses
Shall stuff their lines, and swell the windy page;
Till verse, refined by thee, in this last age
Turn ballad-rhime, or those old idols be
Adorn’d again with new apostasy.        70
 
  Oh pardon me! that break with untun’d verse
The reverent silence that attends thy hearse;
Whose solemn, awful murmurs were to thee,
More than these rude lines, a loud elegy;
That did proclaim in a dumb eloquence        75
The death of all the arts, whose influence,
Grown feeble, in these panting numbers lies,
Gasping short-winded accents, and so dies:
So doth the swiftly-turning wheel not stand
I’ th’ instant we withdraw the moving hand,        80
But some short-time retain a faint, weak course,
By virtue of the first impulsive force;
And so, whilst I cast on thy funeral pile
Thy crown of bays, oh let it crack a while,
And spit disdain, till the devouring flashes        85
Suck all the moisture up, then turn to ashes.
 
  I will not draw the envy, to engross
All thy perfections, or weep all the loss;
Those are too numerous for one elegy,
And this too great to be express’d by me:        90
Let others carve the rest; it shall suffice,
I on thy grave this epitaph incise:
“Here lies a king that rul’d as he thought fit
The universal monarchy of wit;
Here lies two flamens, and both those the best;        95
Apollo’s first, at last the true God’s priest.”
 
Note 1. For absolute sincerity of feeling—for bereavement that is more religious than personal—this Elegy is, perhaps, equalled or surpassed by only two in the language—Tennyson’s In Memoriam, and Whitman’s When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. I do not in the least wish to diminish the glory that haloes Shelley’s Adonais, Arnold’s Thyrsis, or Swinburne’s Ave Atque Vale, but after all, is it not three-fourths art, and but one-fourth the man, which keeps these things singing in men’s memories? In the case of Carew, Tennyson, and Whitman, the man’s life whose death they celebrate stands forth as the manifestation of their great virtues, giving a form to art. Who the dead man was, we do not, we can not forget. Whatever is of elusiveness in either Carew’s, Tennyson’s, or Whitman’s elegy, is that of human nature,—which after all is something greater than art.
  Donne died March 31, 1631. Carew’s poem was first published in the first edition of Donne’s Works, 1633. Of this elegy Prof. Saintsbury writes (History of Elizabethan Literature, 1887): “By this last (the Elegy) the reproach of vain and amatorious trifling which has been so often levelled at Carew is at once thrown back and blunted. No poem shows so great an influence on the masculine panegyrics with which Dryden was to enrich the English of the next generation, and few are fuller of noteworthy phrases. The splendid epitaph which closes it … is only the best passage, not the only good one, and it may be matched with a fine and just description of English, ushered by a touch of acute criticism (Thou shalt yield to … their soft melting phrases). And it is the man who could write like this that Hazlitt calls an ‘elegant court trifler.’” [back]
Note 2. Dough-baked: This ugly word is Donne’s. Cf. His Letter to the Lady Carey and Mistress Essex Rich, from Amiens:
  In dough-baked men some harmlessness we see.
Note 3. The Muses’ garden, with pendantic weeds, etc.: Cf. Donne’s Letter to Mr. Rowland Woodward:
  So affects my muse now, a chaste fallowness,
Since she to few, yet to too many hath shown,
How love-song weeds and satiric thorns are grown
Where seeds of better arts were early sown.
 
 
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