|Herbert J.C. Grierson, ed. (1886–1960). Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the 17th C. 1921.|
|METAPHYSICAL POETRY, in the full sense of the term, is a poetry which, like that of the Divina Commedia, the De Natura Rerum, perhaps Goethe's Faust, has been inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the rôle assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence. These poems were written because a definite interpretation of the riddle, the atoms of Epicurus rushing through infinite empty space, the theology of the schoolmen as elaborated in the catechetical disquisitions of St. Thomas, Spinoza's vision of life sub specie aeternitatis, beyond good and evil, laid hold on the mind and the imagination of a great poet, unified and illumined his comprehension of life, intensified and heightened his personal consciousness of joy and sorrow, of hope and fear, by broadening their significance, revealing to him in the history of his own soul a brief abstract of the drama of human destiny. 'Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man.' Its themes are the simplest experiences of the surface of life, sorrow and joy, love and battle, the peace of the country, the bustle and stir of towns, but equally the boldest conceptions, the profoundest intuitions, the subtlest and most complex classifications and 'discourse of reason', if into these too the poet can 'carry sensation', make of them passionate experiences communicable in vivid and moving imagery, in rich and varied harmonies.|| 1|
| It is no such great metaphysical poetry as that of Lucretius and Dante that the present essay deals with, which this volume seeks to illustrate. Of the poets from whom it culls, Donne is familiar with the definitions and distinctions of Mediaeval Scholasticism; Cowley's bright and alert, if not profound mind, is attracted by the achievements of science and the systematic materialism of Hobbes. Donne, moreover, is metaphysical not only in virtue of his scholasticism, but by his deep reflective interest in the experiences of which his poetry is the expression, the new psychological curiosity with which he writes of love and religion. The divine poets who follow Donne have each the inherited metaphysic, if one may so call it, of the Church to which he is attached, Catholic or Anglican. But none of the poets has for his main theme a metaphysic like that of Epicurus or St. Thomas passionately apprehended and imaginatively expounded. Donne, the most thoughtful and imaginative of them all, is more aware of disintegration than of comprehensive harmony, of the clash between the older physics and metaphysics on the one hand and the new science of Copernicus and Galileo and Vesalius and Bacon on the other: |
The new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost and the earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
Have not all souls thought
For many ages that our body is wrought
Of air and fire and other elements?
And now they think of new ingredients;
And one soul thinks one, and another way
Another thinks, and 'tis an even lay.
| The greatest English poet, indeed, of the century was, or believed himself to be, a philosophical or theological poet of the same order as Dante. Paradise Lost was written to be a justification of 'the ways of God to men', resting on a theological system as definite and almost as carefully articulated in the De Doctrina Christiana as that which Dante had accepted from the Summa of Aquinas. And the poet embodied his argument in a dramatic poem as vividly and intensely conceived, as magnificently and harmoniously set forth, as the Divina Commedia. But in truth Milton was no philosopher. The subtleties of theological definition and inference eluded his rationalistic, practical, though idealistic, mind. He proved nothing. The definitely stated argument of the poem is an obvious begging of the question. What he did was to create, or give a new definiteness and sensible power to, a great myth which, through his poem, continued for a century or more to dominate the mind and imagination of pious protestants without many of them suspecting the heresies which lurked beneath the imposing and dazzling poem in which was retold the Bible story of the fall and redemption of man.|| 3|
| Metaphysical in this large way, Donne and his followers to Cowley are not, yet the word describes better what is the peculiar quality of their poetry than any other, e.g. fantastic, for poetry may be fantastic in so many different ways, witness Skelton and the Elizabethans, and Hood and Browning. It lays stress on the right things—the survival, one might say the reaccentuation, of the metaphysical strain, the concetti metafisici ed ideali as Testi calls them in contrast to the simpler imagery of classical poetry, of mediaeval Italian poetry; the more intellectual, less verbal, character of their wit compared with the conceits of the Elizabethans; the finer psychology of which their conceits are often the expression; their learned imagery; the argumentative, subtle evolution of their lyrics; above all the peculiar blend of passion and thought, feeling and ratiocination which is their greatest achievement. Passionate thinking is always apt to become metaphysical, probing and investigating the experience from which it takes its rise. All these qualities are in the poetry of Donne, and Donne is the great master of English poetry in the seventeenth century.|| 4|
| The Italian influence which Wyatt and Surrey brought into English poetry at the Renaissance gave it a more serious, a more thoughtful colour. They caught, especially Wyatt in some of the finest of his sonnets and songs, that spirit of 'high seriousness' which Chaucer with all his admiration of Italian poetry had failed to apprehend. English mediaeval poetry is often gravely pious, haunted by the fear of death and the judgement, melancholy over the 'Falls of Princes'; it is never serious and thoughtful in the introspective, reflective, dignified manner which it became in Wyatt and Sackville, and our 'sage and serious' Spenser, and in the songs of the first group of Elizabethan courtly poets, Sidney and Raleigh and Dyer. One has but to recall 'My lute, awake! perform the last', 'Forget not yet the tried intent', 'My mind to me a kingdom is', and to contrast them in mind with the songs which Henry VIII and Cornish were still composing and singing when Wyatt began to write, in order to realize what Italy and the Renaissance did to deepen the strain of English lyric poetry as that had flowed under French influence from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. But French influence, the influence of Ronsard and his fellows, renewed itself in the seventies, and the great body of Elizabethan song is as gay and careless and impersonal as the earlier lyric had been, though richer in colour and more varied in rhythm. Then came Donne and Jonson (the schoolman and the classical scholar, one might say, emphasizing for the moment single aspects of their work), and new qualities of spirit and form were given to lyrical poetry, and not to lyrical poetry alone.|| 5|
| In dealing with poets who lived and wrote before the eighteenth century we are always confronted with the difficulty of recovering the personal, the biographical element, which, if sometimes disturbing and disconcerting, is yet essential to a complete understanding of their work. Men were not different from what they are now, and if there be hardly a lyric of Goethe's or Shelley's that does not owe something to the accidents of their lives, one may feel sure it was in varying degrees the same with poets three hundred years ago. Poems are not written by influences or movements or sources, but come from the living hearts of men. Fortunately, in the case of Donne, one of the most individual of poets, it is possible to some extent to reproduce the circumstances, the inner experiences from which his intensely personal poetry flowed.|| 6|
| He was in the first place a Catholic. Our history text-books make so little of the English Catholics that one is apt to forget they existed and were, for themselves at any rate, not a political problem, but real and suffering individuals. 'I had my first breeding and conversation', says Donne, 'with men of a suppressed and afflicted religion, accustomed to the despite of death and hungry of an imagined martyrdom.' In these circumstances, we gather, he was carefully and religiously educated, and after some years at Oxford and Cambridge was taken or sent abroad, perhaps with a view to entering foreign service, more probably with a view to the priesthood, and visited Italy and Spain. And then, one conjectures, a reaction took place, the rebellion of a full-blooded, highly intellectual temperament against a superimposed bent. He entered the Inns of Court in 1592, at the age of nineteen, and flung himself into the life of a student and the life of a young man about town, Jack Donne, 'not dissolute but very neat, a great visitor of ladies, a great frequenter of plays, a great writer of conceited verses'. 'Neither was it possible that a vulgar soul should dwell in such promising features.' He joined the band of reckless and raffish young men who sailed with Essex to Cadiz and the Islands. He was taken into the service of Sir Thomas Egerton. Ambition began to vie with the love of pleasure, when a hasty marriage closed a promising career, and left him bound in shallows and in miseries, to spend years in the suitorship of the great, and to find at last, not altogether willingly, a haven in the Anglican priesthood, and reveal himself as the first great orator that Church produced.|| 7|
| The record of these early years is contained in Donne's satires—harsh, witty, lucid, full of a young man's scorn of fools and low callings, and a young thinker's consciousness of the problems of religion in an age of divided faiths, and of justice in a corrupt world—and in his Love Songs and Sonnets and Elegies. The satires were more generally known; the love poems the more influential in courtly and literary circles.|| 8|
| Donne's genius, temperament, and learning gave to his love poems certain qualities which immediately arrested attention and have given them ever since a power at once fascinating and disconcerting despite the faults of phrasing and harmony which, for a century after Dryden, obscured, and to some still outweigh, their poetic worth. The first of these is a depth and range of feeling unknown to the majority of Elizabethan sonneteers and song-writers. Over all the Elizabethan sonnets, in greater or less measure, hangs the suggestion of translation or imitation. Watson, Sidney, Daniel, Spenser, Drayton, Lodge, all of them, with rarer or more frequent touches of individuality, are pipers of Petrarch's woes, sighing in the strain of Ronsard or more often of Desportes. Shakespeare, indeed, in his great sequence, and Drayton in at any rate one sonnet, sounded a deeper note, revealed a fuller sense of the complexities and contradictions of passionate devotion. But Donne's treatment of love is entirely unconventional except when he chooses to dally half ironically with the convention of Petrarchian adoration. His songs are the expression in unconventional, witty language of all the moods of a lover that experience and imagination have taught him to understand—sensuality aerated by a brilliant wit; fascination and scornful anger inextricably blended: |
the passionate joy of mutual and contented love:
When by thy scorn, O murdress, I am dead
And that thou think'st thee free
From all solicitations from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed;
the sorrow of parting which is the shadow of such joy; the gentler pathos of temporary separation in married life:
All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This no to-morrow hath nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day;
the mystical heights and the mystical depths of love:
Let not thy divining heart
Forethink me any ill,
Destiny may take thy part,
And may thy fears fulfil;
But think that we
Are but turn'd aside to sleep;
They who one another keep
Alive ne'er parted be;
If Donne had expressed this wide range of intense feeling as perfectly as he has done at times poignantly and startlingly; if he had given to his poems the same impression of entire artistic sincerity that Shakespeare conveys in the greater of his sonnets and Drayton once achieved; if to his many other gifts had been added a deeper and more controlling sense of beauty, he would have been, as he nearly is, the greatest of love poets. But there is a second quality of his poetry which made it the fashion of an age, but has been inimical to its general acceptance ever since, and that is its metaphysical wit. 'He affects the metaphysics', says Dryden, 'not only in his satires but in his amorous verses where nature only should reign; and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts and entertain them with the softnesses of love.' 'Amorous verses', 'the fair sex', and 'the softnesses of love' are the vulgarities of a less poetic and passionate age than Donne's, but metaphysics he does affect. But a metaphysical strand, concetti metafisici ed ideali, had run through the mediaeval love-poetry of which the Elizabethan sonnets are a descendant. It had attained its fullest development in the poems of Dante and his school, had been subordinated to rhetoric and subtleties of expression rather than thought in Petrarch, and had lost itself in the pseudo-metaphysical extravagances of Tebaldeo Cariteo, and Serafino. Donne was no conscious reviver of the metaphysics of Dante, but to the game of elaborating fantastic conceits and hyperboles which was the fashion throughout Europe, he brought not only a full-blooded temperament and acute mind, but a vast and growing store of the same scholastic learning, the same Catholic theology, as controlled Dante's thought, jostling already with the new learning of Copernicus and Paracelsus. The result is startling and disconcerting,—the comparison of parted lovers to the legs of a pair of compasses, the deification of his mistress by the discovery that she is only to be defined by negatives or that she can read the thoughts of his heart, a thing 'beyond an angel's art'; and a thousand other subtleties of quintessences and nothingness, the mixture of souls and the significance of numbers, to say nothing of the aerial bodies of angels, the phoenix and the mandrake's root, Alchemy and Astrology, legal contracts and non obstantes, 'late schoolboys and sour prentices', 'the king's real and his stamped face'. But the effect aimed at and secured is not entirely fantastic and erudite. The motive inspiring Donne's images is in part the same as that which led Shakespeare from the picturesque, natural and mythological, images of A Midsummer-Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice to the homely but startling phrases and metaphors of Hamlet and Macbeth, the 'blanket of the dark', the
Study me then you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next Spring:
For I am every dead thing
In whom love wrought new Alchemy.
'the rank sweat of an enseamed bed'. It is the same desire for vivid and dramatic expression. The great master at a later period of dramatic as well as erudite pulpit oratory coins in his poems many a startling, jarring, arresting phrase:
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
These vivid, simple, realistic touches are too quickly merged in learned and fantastic elaborations, and the final effect of every poem of Donne's is a bizarre and blended one; but if the greatest poetry rises clear of the bizarre, the fantastic, yet very great poetry may be bizarre if it be the expression of a strangely blended temperament, an intense emotion, a vivid imagination.
For God's sake hold your tongue and let me love:
Who ever comes to shroud me do not harm
Nor question much
That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm:
I taught my silks their rustling to forbear,
Even my opprest shoes dumb and silent were.
I long to talk with some old lover's ghost
Who died before the God of love was born;
Twice or thrice had I loved thee
Before I knew thy face or name,
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame,
Angels affect us oft and worshipped be;
And whilst our souls negotiate there
We like sepulchral statues lay;
All day the same our postures were
And we said nothing all the day.
My face and brest of haircloth, and my head
With care's harsh, sudden hoariness o'er-spread.
| What is true of Donne's imagery is true of the other disconcerting element in his poetry, its harsh and rugged verse. It is an outcome of the same double motive, the desire to startle and the desire to approximate poetic to direct, unconventional, colloquial speech. Poetry is always a balance, sometimes a compromise, between what has to be said and the prescribed pattern to which the saying of it is adjusted. In poetry such as Spenser's, the musical flow, the melody and harmony of line and stanza, is dominant, and the meaning is adjusted to it at the not infrequent cost of diffuseness—if a delightful diffuseness—and even some weakness of phrasing logically and rhetorically considered. In Shakespeare's tragedies the thought and feeling tend to break through the prescribed pattern till blank verse becomes almost rhythmical prose, the rapid overflow of the lines admitting hardly the semblance of pause. This is the kind of effect Donne is always aiming at, alike in his satires and lyrics, bending and cracking the metrical pattern to the rhetoric of direct and vehement utterance. The result is often, and to eighteenth-century ears attuned to the clear and defined, if limited, harmony of Waller and Dryden and Pope was, rugged and harsh. But here again, to those who have ears that care to hear, the effect is not finally inharmonious. Donne's verse has a powerful and haunting harmony of its own. For Donne is not simply, no poet could be, willing to force his accent, to strain and crack a prescribed pattern; he is striving to find a rhythm that will express the passionate fullness of his mind, the fluxes and refluxes of his moods; and the felicities of verse are as frequent and startling as those of phrasing. He is one of the first masters, perhaps the first, of the elaborate stanza or paragraph in which the discords of individual lines or phrases are resolved in the complex and rhetorically effective harmony of the whole group of lines: |
The wrenching of accent which Jonson complained of is not entirely due to carelessness or indifference. It has often both a rhetorical and a harmonious justification. Donne plays with rhythmical effects as with conceits and words and often in much the same way. Mr. Fletcher Melton's interesting analysis of his verse has not, I think, established his main thesis, which like so many 'research' scholars he over-emphasizes, that the whole mystery of Donne's art lies in his use of the same sound now in arsis, now in thesis; but his examples show that this is one of many devices by which Donne secures two effects, the troubling of the regular fall of the verse stresses by the intrusion of rhetorical stress on syllables which the metrical pattern leaves unstressed, and, secondly, an echoing and re-echoing of similar sounds parallel to his fondness for resemblances in thoughts and things apparently the most remote from one another. There is, that is to say, in his verse the same blend as in his diction of the colloquial and the bizarre. He writes as one who will say what he has to say without regard to conventions of poetic diction or smooth verse, but what he has to say is subtle and surprising, and so are the metrical effects with which it is presented. There is nothing of unconscious or merely careless harshness in such an effect as this:
If yet I have not all thy love,
Deare, I shall never have it all,
I cannot breathe one other sigh, to move,
Nor can entreat one other tear to fall,
And all my treasure, which should purchase thee,
Sighs, tears, and oaths, and letters I have spent.
Yet no more can be due to me,
Than at the bargain made was meant,
If then thy gift of love was partial,
That some to me, some shuld to others fall,
Deare, I shall never have thee all.
But I am none; nor will my sunne renew.
You lovers for whose sake the lesser sunne
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her Vigil and her Eve, since this
Both the years and the days deep midnight is.
In Donne's pronunciation, as in southern English to-day, 'thou', 'how', 'soul', 'know', 'though', and 'so' were not far removed from each other in sound and the reiterated notes ring through the lines like a tolling bell. Mr. Melton has collected, and any careful reader may discover for himself, many similar subtleties of poetical rhetoric; for Donne is perhaps our first great master of poetic rhetoric, of poetry used, as Dryden and Pope were to use it, for effects of oratory rather than of song, and the advance which Dryden achieved was secured by subordinating to oratory the more passionate and imaginative qualities which troubled the balance and movement of Donne's packed but imaginative rhetoric.
Poor soul, in this thy flesh what dost thou know?
Thou know'st thyself so little that thou knowst not
How thou didst die, nor how thou wast begot.
Thou neither know'st how thou at first camest in,
Nor how thou took'st the poison of man's sin;
Nor dost thou though thou know'st that thou art so
By what way thou art made immortal know.
| It was not indeed in lyrical verse that Dryden followed and developed Donne, but in his eulogistic, elegiac, satirical, and epistolary verse. The progress of Dryden's eulogistic style is traceable from his earliest metaphysical extravagances through lines such as those addressed to the Duchess of York, where Waller is his model, to the verses on the death of Oldham in which a more natural and classical strain has entirely superseded his earlier extravagances and elegancies. In truth Donne's metaphysical eulogies and elegies and epistles are a hard nut to crack for his most sympathetic admirers. And yet they have undeniable qualities. The metaphysics are developed in a more serious, a less paradoxical, strain than in some of the songs and elegies. In his letters he is an excellent, if far from a perfect, talker in verse; and the personality which they reveal is a singularly charming one, grave, loyal, melancholy, witty. If some of the elegiac pieces are packed with tasteless and extravagant hyperboles, the Anniversaries (especially the second) remains, despite all its faults, one of the greatest poems on death in the language, the fullest record in our literature of the disintegrating collision in a sensitive mind of the old tradition and the new learning. Some of the invocational passages in Of the Progresse of the Soule are among the finest examples of his subtle and passionate thinking as well as of his most elaborate verse rhetoric.|| 11|
| But the most intense and personal of Donne's poems, after the love songs and elegies, are his later religious sonnets and songs; and their influence on subsequent poetry was even more obvious and potent. They are as personal and as tormented as his earlier 'love-song weeds', for his spiritual Aeneid was a troubled one. To date his conversion to Anglicanism is not easy. In his satires there is a veiled Roman tone. By 1602 he disclaims to Egerton 'all love of a corrupt religion', but in the autumn of the previous year he had been meditating a satire on Queen Elizabeth as one of the world's great heretics. His was not a conversion but a reconciliation, an acquiescence in the faith of his country, the established religion of his legal sovereign, and the act cost him some pangs. 'A convert from Popery to Protestantism,' said Dr. Johnson, 'gives up so much of what he has held as sacred as anything that he retains, there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be sincere and lasting.' Something of that laceration of mind is discernible in Donne's religious verse: |
But the conflict between the old and the reformed faiths was not the only, nor perhaps the principal trouble for Donne's enlightened mind ready to recognize in all the Churches 'virtual beams of one sun', 'connatural pieces of one circle'. A harder fight was that between the secular, the 'man of the world' temper of his mind and the claims of a pious and ascetic calling. It was not the errors of his youth, as the good Walton supposed, which constituted the great stumbling block, though he never ignores these:
Show me dear Christ that spouse so bright and clear.
It was rather the temperament of one who, at a time when a public career was more open to unassisted talent, might have proved an active and useful, if ambitious, civil servant, or professional man, at war with the claims of a religious life which his upbringing had taught him was incompatible with worldly ambition. George Herbert, a much more contented Anglican than Donne ever became, knew something of the same struggle before he bent his neck to the collar.
O might those sighs and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourned in vain.
| The two notes then of Donne's religious poems are the Catholic and the personal. He is the first of our Anglo-Catholic poets, and he is our first intensely personal religious poet, expressing always not the mind simply of the Christian as such, but the conflicts and longings of one troubled soul, one subtle and fantastic mind. For Donne's technique—his phrasing and conceits, the metaphysics of mediaeval Christianity, his packed verse with its bold, irregular fingering and echoing vowel sounds—remains what it had been from the outset. The echoing sounds in lines such as these cannot be quite casual: |
In the remaining six lines the same sound never recurs.
O might those sighs and tears return again
Into my breast and eyes, which I have spent,
That I might in this holy discontent
Mourn with some fruit, as I have mourned in vain;
In mine Idolat'ry what showers of rain
Mine eyes did waste? What griefs my heart did rent?
That sufferance was my sin; now I repent
Cause I did suffer I must suffer pain.
| A metaphysical, a philosophical poet, to the degree to which even his contemporary Fulke Greville might be called such, Donne was not. The thought in his poetry is not his primary concern but the feeling. No scheme of thought, no interpretation of life became for him a complete and illuminating experience. The central theme of his poetry is ever his own intense personal moods, as a lover, a friend, an analyst of his own experiences worldly and religious. His philosophy cannot unify these experiences. It represents the reaction of his restless and acute mind on the intense experience of the moment, a reading of it in the light now of one, now of another philosophical or theological dogma or thesis caught from his multifarious reading, developed with audacious paradox or more serious intention, as an expression, an illumination of that mood to himself and to his reader. Whether one choose to call him a metaphysical or a fantastic poet, the stress must be laid on the word 'poet'. Whether verse or prose be his medium, Donne is always a poet, a creature of feeling and imagination, seeking expression in vivid phrase and complex harmonies, whose acute and subtle intellect was the servant, if sometimes the unruly servant, of passion and imagination.|| 14|
|Donne's influence was felt in his own day by two strangely different classes of men, both attached by close ties to the Court. For the Court, the corrupt, ambitious, intriguing, dissolute but picturesque and dazzling court of the old pagan Elizabeth, the pedantic and drunken James, the dignified and melancholy and politically blinded Charles, was the centre round which all Donne's secular interests revolved. He can speak of it as bitterly and sardonically as Shakespeare in Hamlet: |
He knows its corruptions as well as Milton and commends Lady Bedford as Milton might have commended Alice Egerton. All the same, to be shut out from the Court, in the city or the country, is to inhabit a desert, or sepulchre, for there:
Here's no more newes, then vertue, I may as well
Tell you Cales or St. Michael's tale for newes, as tell
That vice doth here habitually dwell.
. . . . . . .
But now 'tis incongruity to smile,
Therefore I end; and bid farewell a while,
At Court, though From Court were the better style.
The Princes favour is defused o'er all,
From which all Fortunes, Names, and Natures fall.
And all is warmth and light and good desire.
| It was among the younger generation of Courtiers that Donne found the warmest admirers of his paradoxical and sensual audacities as a love-poet, as it was the divines who looked to Laud and the Court for Anglican doctrine and discipline who revered his memory, enshrined by the pious Izaak Walton, as of a divine poet and preacher. The 'metaphysicals' were all on the King's side. Even Andrew Marvell was neither Puritan nor Republican. 'Men ought to have trusted God', was his final judgement on the Rebellion, 'they ought to have trusted the King with the whole matter'. They were on the side of the King, for they were on the side of the humanities; and the Puritan rebellion, whatever the indirect constitutional results, was in itself and at the moment a fanatical upheaval, successful because it also threw up the John Zizka of his age; its triumph was the triumph of Cromwell's sword: |
And for the last effect
Still keep the sword erect.
Besides the force it has to fright
The spirits of the shady night,
The same arts that did gain
A power must it maintain.
| To call these poets the 'school of Donne' or 'metaphysical' poets may easily mislead if one takes either phrase in too full a sense. It is not only that they show little of Donne's subtlety of mind or 'hydroptic, immoderate thirst of human learning', but they want, what gives its interest to this subtle and fantastic misapplication of learning,—the complexity of mood, the range of personal feeling which lends such fullness of life to Donne's strange and troubled poetry. His followers, amorous and courtly, or pious and ecclesiastical, move in a more rarefied atmosphere; their poetry is much more truly 'abstract' than Donne's, the witty and fantastic elaboration of one or two common moods, of compliment, passion, devotion, penitence. It is very rarely that one can detect a deep personal note in the delightful love-songs with which the whole period abounds from Carew to Dryden. The collected work of none of them would give such an impression of a real history behind it, a history of many experiences and moods, as Donne's Songs and Sonnets and the Elegies, and, as one must still believe, the sonnets of Shakespeare record. Like the Elizabethan sonneteers they all dress and redress the same theme in much the same manner, though the manner is not quite the Elizabethan, nor the theme. Song has superseded the sonnet, and the passion of which they sing has lost most of the Petrarchian, chivalrous strain, and become in a very definite meaning of the words, 'simple and sensuous'. And if the religious poets are rather more individual and personal, the personal note is less intense, troubled and complex than in Donne's Divine Poems; the individual is more merged in the Christian, Catholic or Anglican.|| 17|
| Donne and Jonson are probably in the main responsible for the unconventional purity and naturalness of their diction, for these had both 'shaken hands with' Spenserian archaism and strangeness, with the 'rhetoric' of the sonneteers and poems like Venus and Adonis; and their style is untouched by any foreshadowing of Miltonic diction or the jargon of a later poetic vocabulary. The metaphysicals are the masters of the 'neutral style', of a diction equally appropriate, according as it may be used, to prose and verse. If purity and naturalness of style is a grace, they deserved well of the English language, for few poets have used it with a more complete acceptance of the established tradition of diction and idiom. There are no poets till we come perhaps to Cowper, and he has not quite escaped from jargon, or Shelley, and his imagination operates in a more ethereal atmosphere, whose style is so entirely that of an English gentleman of the best type, natural, simple, occasionally careless, but never diverging into vulgar colloquialism, as after the Restoration, or into conventional, tawdry splendour, as in the century of Akenside and Erasmus Darwin. Set a poem by George Herbert beside Gray at his best, e.g. |
set that beside even a good verse from Gray, and one realizes the charm of simplicity, of perfect purity of diction:
Sweet day so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky,
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die; &c.
'The language of the age is never the language of poetry', Gray declares, and certainly some of our great poets have created for themselves a diction which was never current, but it is equally true that some of the best English poetry has been written in a style which differs from the best spoken language only as the language of feeling will naturally diverge from the language of our less exalted moods. It was in the seventeenth-century poets that Wordsworth found the best corrective to the jargon of the later eighteenth-century poetry, descriptive and reflective, which he admired in his youth and imitated in his early poems; for as Coleridge pointed out, the style of the 'metaphysicals' 'is the reverse of that which distinguishes too many of our most recent versifiers; the one conveying the most fantastic thoughts in the most correct language, the other in the most fantastic language conveying the most trivial thoughts'.
Still is the toiling hand of Care;
The panting herds repose:
Yet hark how through the peopled air
The busy murmur glows!
The insect-youth are on the wing,
Eager to taste the honied spring,
And float amid the liquid noon:
Some lightly o'er the current skim,
Some show their gaily-gilded trim
Quick-glancing to the sun.
| But even the fantastic thoughts, the conceits of these courtly love poets and devout singers are not to be dismissed so lightly as a later, and still audible, criticism imagined. They played with thoughts, Sir Walter Scott complained, as the Elizabethans had played with words. But to play with thoughts it is necessary to think. 'To write on their plan', says Dr. Johnson, 'it was at least necessary to read and think. No man could be born a metaphysical poet, nor assume the dignity of a writer, by descriptions copied from descriptions, by imitations borrowed from imitations, by traditional imagery and hereditary similes, by readiness of rhyme and volubility of syllables.' Consider a poem, The Repulse, by a comparatively minor poet, Thomas Stanley. That is not a mere conceit. It is a new and felicitous rendering of a real and thrilling experience, the discovery that you might have fared worse in love than not to be loved, you might have been loved and then abandoned. Carew's Ask me no more is a coruscation of hyperboles, but |
is a fresh and effective appeal to the heart of a woman. And this is what the metaphysicals are often doing in their unwearied play with conceits, delightfully naughty, extravagant, fantastic, frigid—they succeed in stumbling upon some conceit which reveals a fresh intuition into the heart, or states an old plea with new and prevailing force. And the divine poets express with the same blend of argument and imagination the deep and complex currents of religious feeling which were flowing in England throughout the century, institutional, theological, mystical, while in the metaphysical subtleties of conceit they found something that is more than conceit, symbols in which to express or adumbrate their apprehensions of the infinite.
Now you have freely given me leave to love,
What will you do?
| The direct indebtedness of the courtly poets to Ben Jonson is probably, as Professor Gregory Smith has recently argued, small. But not only Herrick, metaphysical poets like Carew and Stanley and others owe much both of their turn of conceit and their care for form to Jonson's own models, the Latin lyrists, Anacreon, the Greek Anthology, neo-Latin or Humanist poetry so rich in neat and pretty conceits. Some of them, as Crashaw and Stanley, and not only these, were familiar with Italian and Spanish poetry, Marino and Garcilasso and their elegantly elaborated confections. But their great master is Donne. If he taught them many heresies, he instilled into them at any rate the pure doctrine of the need of passion for a lover and a poet. What the young courtiers and university wits admired and reproduced in different degrees and fashions were his sensual audacity and the peculiar type of evolution which his poems accentuated, the strain of passionate paradoxical reasoning which knits the first line to the last and is perhaps a more intimate characteristic than even the far-fetched, fantastic comparisons. This intellectual, argumentative evolution had been of course a feature of the sonnet which might fancifully be called, with its double quatrain and sestet, the poetical analogy of the syllogism. But the movement of the sonnet is slow and meditative, a single thought expanded and articulated through the triple division, and the longer, decasyllabic line is the appropriate medium: |
What Donne had done was to quicken this movement, to intensify the strain of passionate ratiocination, passionate, paradoxical argument, and to carry it over from the sonnet to the song with its shorter lines, more winged and soaring movement, although the deeper strain of feeling which Donne shares with Shakespeare, and with Drayton at his best, made him partial to the longer line, at least as an element in his stanzas, and to longer and more intricate stanzas. Lightening both the feeling and the thought, the courtly poets simplified the verse, attaining some of their most wonderful effects in the common ballad measure [4, 3] or the longer [4, 4] measure in couplets or alternate rhymes. But the form and content are intimately associated. It is the elaboration of the paradoxical argument, the weight which the rhetoric lays on those syllables which fall under the metrical stress, that gives to these verses, or seems to give, their peculiar élan:
Then hate me when thou wilt; if ever, now;
Now while the world is bent my deeds to cross,
Join with the spite of Fortune, make me bow,
And do not drop in for an after-loss;
Ah, do not when my heart hath scaped this sorrow,
Come in the rearward of a conquer'd woe,
Give not a windy night a rainy morrow,
To linger out a purpos'd overthrow.
If thou wilt leave me, do not leave me last
When other petty griefs have done their spite,
But in the onset come; so shall I taste
At first the very worst of Fortune's might;
And other strains of woe which now seem woe,
Compared with loss of thee will not seem so.
The audacious hyperboles and paradoxical turns of thought give breath to and take wings from the soaring rhythm.
My love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
| It is needless here to dwell at length on the several poets from whom I have selected examples of love-song and complimentary verses. Their range is not wide—love, compliment, elegy, occasionally devotion. Herrick had to leave the court to learn the delights of nature and country superstitions. Lord Herbert of Cherbury, philosopher and coxcomb, was just the person to dilate on the Platonic theme of soul and body in the realm of love on which Donne occasionally descanted in half ironical fashion, Habington with tedious thin-blooded seriousness, Cleveland and others with naughty irreverence. But Lord Herbert's Ode, which has been, like most of his poems, very badly edited, seems to me the finest thing inspired by Donne's Ecstasy and more characteristic of the romantic taste of the court of Charles. But the poetic ornament of that Court is Thomas Carew. This young careless liver was a careful artist with a deeper vein of thought and feeling in his temperament than a first reading suggests. His masque reveals the influence of Bruno. In Carew's poems and Vandyke's pictures the artistic taste of Charles's court is vividly reflected, a dignified voluptuousness, an exquisite elegance, if in some of the higher qualities of man and artist Carew is as inferior to Wyatt or Spenser as Vandyke is to Holbein. His Ecstasy is the most daring and poetically the happiest of the imitations of Donne's clever if outrageous elegies; Cartwright's Song of Dalliance its nearest rival. His letter to Aurelian Townshend on the death of the King of Sweden breathes the very enchanted air of Charles's court while the storm was brewing as yet unsuspected. The text of Richard Lovelace's Lucasta (1649) is frequently corrupt, and the majority of the poems are careless and extravagant, but the few good things are the finest expression of honour and chivalry in all the Cavalier poetry of the century, the only poems which suggest what 'Cavalier' came to mean when glorified by defeat. His Grasshopper has suffered a hard fate by textual corruption and from dismemberment in recent anthologies. Only the fantastic touch about 'green ice' ranks it as 'metaphysical', for it is in fact an experiment in the manner of the Horatian ode, not the heroic ode, but the lighter Epicurean, meditative strain of 'Solvitur acris hiems' and 'Vides ut alta stet nive candidum', description yielding abruptly to reflection. A slightly better text or a little more care on the poet's part would have made it perfect. The gayest of the group is Sir John Suckling, the writer of what should be called vers de société, a more careless but more fanciful Prior. His beautiful Ballad on a Wedding is a little outside the scope of this volume. Thomas Stanley, classical scholar, philosopher, translator, seems to me one of the happiest of recent recoveries, elegant, graceful, felicitous, and if at times a little flat and colourless, not always flat like the Catholic puritan William Habington.|| 21|
| But the strongest personality of all is Andrew Marvell. Apart from Milton he is the most interesting personality between Donne and Dryden, and at his very best a finer poet than either. Most of his descriptive poems lie a little outside my beat, though I have claimed The Garden as metaphysical, |
and I might have claimed The Nymph and the Faun had space permitted. But his few love poems and his few devotional pieces are perfect exponents of all the 'metaphysical' qualities—passionate, paradoxical argument, touched with humour and learned imagery:
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade,
and above all the sudden soar of passion in bold and felicitous image, in clangorous lines:
As lines, so loves oblique, may well
Themselves in every angle greet:
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet;
These lines seem to me the very roof and crown of the metaphysical love lyric, at once fantastic and passionate. Donne is weightier, more complex, more suggestive of subtle and profound reaches of feeling, but he has not one single passage of the same length that combines all the distinctive qualities of the kind, in thought, in phrasing, in feeling, in music; and Rochester's most passionate lines are essentially simpler, less metaphysical.
But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near,
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor in thy marble vault shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity;
And your quaint honour turn to dust;
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
might have been written by Burns with some differences. The best things of Donne and Marvell could only have been composed—except, as an imitative tour de force, like Watson's
When wearied with a world of woe,
in the seventeenth century. But in that century there were so many poets who could sing, at least occasionally, in the same strain. Of all those whom Professor Saintsbury's ardent and catholic but discriminating taste has collected there is none who has not written too much indifferent verse, but none who has not written one or two songs showing the same fine blend of passion and paradox and music. The 'metaphysicals' of the seventeenth century combined two things, both soon to pass away, the fantastic dialectics of mediaeval love poetry and the 'simple, sensuous' strain which they caught from the classics—soul and body lightly yoked and glad to run and soar together in the winged chariot of Pegasus. Modern love poetry has too often sacrificed both to sentiment.
Bid me no more to other eyes—
|English religious poetry after the Reformation was a long time in revealing a distinctive note of its own. Here as elsewhere, Protestant poetry took the shape mainly of Biblical paraphrases or dull moralizings less impressive and sombre than the Poema Morale of an earlier century. Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas's Weeks and Days eclipsed all previous efforts and appealed to Elizabethan taste by its conceits and aureate diction. Catholic poets, on the other hand, like Robert Southwell, learned from the Italians to write on religious themes in the antithetic, 'conceited', 'passionating' style of the love poets of the day. His Tears of St. Peter, if it is not demonstrably indebted to Tansillo's Le Lagrime di San Pietro, is composed in the same hectic strain and with a superabundance of the conceits and antitheses of that and other Italian religious poems of the sixteenth century: |
His best poem, The Burning Babe, to have written which Jonson 'would have been content to destroy many of his', has the warmth and glow which we shall find again in the poetry of a Roman convert like Crashaw. It is in Donne's poems, The Crosse, The Annuntiation and Passion, The Litanie, that the Catholic tradition which survived in the Anglican Church becomes articulate in poetry; and in his sonnets and hymns that English religious poetry becomes for the first time intensely personal, the record of the experiences and aspirations, not of the Christian as such merely, but of one troubled and tormented soul. But the Catholic tradition in Donne was Roman rather than Anglican, or Anglican with something of a conscious effort; and Donne's passionate outpourings of penitence and longing lack one note of religious poetry which is audible in the songs of many less complex souls and less great poets, the note of attainment, of joy and peace. The waters have gone over him, the waters of fear and anguish, and it is only in his last hymns that he seems to descry across the agitation of the waves by which he is overwhelmed a light of hope and confidence:
Launch forth, my soul, into a main of tears,
Full-fraught with grief, the traffic of thy mind;
Torn sails will serve, thoughts rent with guilty fears;
Give care the stern, use sighs in lieu of wind:
Remorse thy pilot; thy misdeeds thy card;
Torment thy haven, shipwreck thy best reward.
Swear by thyself that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now and heretofore;
And having done that thou hast done,
I fear no more.
| The poet in whom the English Church of Hooker and Laud, the Church of the via media in doctrine and ritual, found a voice of its own, was George Herbert, the son of Donne's friend Magdalen Herbert, and the younger brother of Lord Herbert of Cherbury. His volume The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations, By Mr. George Herbert, was printed at Cambridge in the year that a disorderly collection of the amorous, satirical, courtly and pious poems of the famous Dean of St. Paul's, who died in 1631, was shot from the press in London as Poems, by J. D., with Elegies on the Author's Death. As J. D. the author continued to figure on the title-page of each successive edition till that of 1669; nor were the additions made from time to time of a kind to diminish the complex, ambiguous impression which the volume must have produced on the minds of the admirers of the ascetic and eloquent Dean. There is no such record of a complex character and troubled progress in the poetry of Herbert. It was not, indeed, altogether without a struggle that Herbert bowed his neck to the collar, abandoned the ambitions and vanities of youth to become the pious rector of Bemerton. He knew, like Donne, in what light the ministry was regarded by the young courtiers whose days were spent |
His ambitions had been courtly. He loved fine clothes. As Orator at Cambridge he showed himself an adept in learned and elegant flattery, and he hoped 'that, as his predecessors, he might in time attain the place of a Secretary of State'. When he resolved, after the death of 'his most obliging and powerful friends', to take Orders, he 'did acquaint a court-friend' with his resolution, 'who persuaded him to alter it, as too mean an employment, and too much below his birth, and the excellent abilities and endowments of his mind'. All this is clearly enough reflected in Herbert's poems, and I have endeavoured in my selection to emphasize the note of conflict, of personal experience, which troubles and gives life to poetry that might otherwise be too entirely doctrinal and didactic. But there is no evidence in Herbert's most agitated verses of the deeper scars, the profounder remorse which gives such a passionate, anguished timbre to the harsh but resonant harmonies of his older friend's Divine Poems:
In dressing, mistressing and compliment.
Herbert knows the feeling of alienation from God; but he knows also that of reconcilement, the joy and peace of religion:
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t'wards hell doth weigh.
Herbert is too in full harmony with the Church of his country, could say, with Sir Thomas Browne, 'There is no Church whose every part so squares unto my Conscience; whose Articles, Constitutions and Customs, seem so consonant unto reason, and as it were framed to my particular Devotion, as this whereof I hold my Belief, the Church of England':
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
It was from Donne that Herbert learned the 'metaphysical' manner. He has none of Donne's daring applications of scholastic doctrines. Herbert's interest in theology is not metaphysical but practical and devotional, the doctrines of his Church—the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Trinity, Baptism—as these are reflected in the festivals, fabric, and order of the Church and are capable of appeal to the heart. But Herbert's central theme is the psychology of his religious experiences. He transferred to religious poetry the subtler analysis and record of moods which had been Donne's great contribution to love poetry. The metaphysical taste in conceit, too, ingenious, erudite, and indiscriminate, not confining itself to the conventionally picturesque and poetic, appealed to his acute, if not profound mind, and to the Christian temper which rejected nothing as common and unclean. He would speak of sacred things in the simplest language and with the aid of the homeliest comparisons:
Beauty in thee takes up her place,
And dates her letters from thy face,
When she doth write.
A fine aspect in fit array,
Neither too mean, nor yet too gay,
Shows who is best.
. . . . . .
But, dearest Mother, (what those misse)
The mean, thy praise and glory is,
And long may be.
Blessed be God, whose love it was
To double moat thee with his grace,
And none but thee.
Both heav'n and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.
Divine grace in the Sacramental Elements:
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise.
Night is God's 'ebony box' in which:
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privy key
Op'ning the soul's most subtle rooms;
While those, to spirits refin'd, at door attend
Dispatches from their friend.
Thou dost inclose us till the day
Put our amendment in our way,
And give new wheels to our disorder'd clocks.
Christ left his grave-clothes that we might, when grief
Draws tears or blood, not want an handkerchief.
| These are the 'mean' similes which in Dr. Johnson's view were fatal to poetic effect even in Shakespeare. We have learned not to be so fastidious, yet when they are not purified by the passionate heat of the poet's dramatic imagination the effect is a little stuffy, for the analogies and symbols are more fanciful or traditional than natural and imaginative. Herbert's nature is generally 'metaphysical',—'the busy orange-tree', the rose that purges, the 'sweet spring' which is 'a box where sweets compacted lie'. It is at rare moments that feeling and natural image are imaginatively and completely merged in one another: |
But if not a greatly imaginative, Herbert is a sincere and sensitive poet, and an accomplished artist elaborating his argumentative strain or little allegories and conceits with felicitous completeness, and managing his variously patterned stanzas—even the symbolic wings and altars and priestly bells, the three or seven-lined stanzas of his poems on the Trinity and Sunday—with a finished and delicate harmony. The Temple breathes the spirit of the Anglican Church at its best, primitive and modest; and also of one troubled and delicate soul seeking and finding peace.
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my only light,
It cannot be
That I am he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.
| Herbert's influence is discernible in the religious verse of all the minor Anglican poets of the century, but his two greatest followers were poets of a temper different from his own. Henry Vaughan had written verses of the fashionable kind—I have included one mild if elegant love-poem—before the influence of Herbert converted his pen to the service of Heaven; but all his poetry is religious. In Silex Scintillans he often imitates his predecessor in name and choice of theme, but his best work is of another kind. The difference between Herbert and Vaughan, at his best, is the difference on which Coleridge and Wordsworth dilated between fancy and imagination, between the sensitive and happy discovery of analogies and the imaginative apprehension of emotional identity in diverse experiences, which is the poet's counterpart to the scientific discovery of a common law controlling the most divergent phenomena. Herbert's 'sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright' is a delightful play of tender fancy. Vaughan's greatest verses reveal a profounder intuition, as when Night is: |
Vaughan is a less effective preacher, a far less neat and finished artist than Herbert. His temper is more that of the mystic. The sense of guilt which troubles Donne, of sin which is the great alienator of man's soul from God in Herbert's poems, is less acute with Vaughan, or is merged in a wider consciousness of separation, a veil between the human soul and that Heaven which is its true home. His soul is ever questing, back to the days of his own youth, or to the youth of the world, or to the days of Christ's sojourn on earth, when God and man were in more intimate contact:
God's silent, searching flight;
When my Lord's head is fill'd with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
His still, soft call;
His knocking-time; the soul's dumb watch
When spirits their fair kindred catch.
or else he yearns for the final reconciliation beyond the grave:
In Abraham's tent the winged guests
—O how familiar then was heaven!—
Eat, drink, discourse, sit down and rest,
Until the cool and shady even;
To this mystical mood Nature reveals herself, not as a museum of spiritual analogies, a garden of religious simples, but as a creature simpler than man, yet, in virtue of its simplicity and innocence, in closer harmony with God. 'Etenim res creatae exserto capite observantes exspectant revelationem filiorum Dei.' At brief moments Vaughan writes of nature and childhood as Wordsworth and Blake were to write, but generally with the addition of some little pietistic tag which betrays his century. It is indeed only in short passages that Vaughan achieves adequate imaginative vision and utterance, but the spirit of these passages is diffused through his religious verse, more quietistic, less practical, in spirit than Herbert's.
Where no rude shade or night
Shall dare approach us; we shall there no more
Watch stars or pore
Through melancholy clouds, and say,
'Would it were Day!'
One everlasting Sabbath there shall run
Without succession, and without a sun.
| Vaughan's quietist and mystical, Herbert's restrained and ordered, temper and poetry are equally remote from the radiant spirit of Richard Crashaw. Herbert's conceits are quaint or homely analogies, Vaughan's are the blots of a fashion on a style naturally pure and simple. Crashaw's long odes give the impression at first reading of soaring rockets scattering balls of coloured fire, the 'happy fireworks' to which he compares St. Teresa's writings. His conceits are more after the confectionery manner of the Italians than the scholastic or homely manner of the followers of Donne. Neither spiritual conflict controlled and directed by Christian inhibitions and aspirations, nor mystical yearning for a closer communion with the divine, is the burden of his religious song, but love, tenderness, and joy. In Crashaw's poetry, as in the later poetry of the Dutch Vondel, a note is heard which is struck for the first time in the seventeenth century, the accent of the convert to Romanism, the joy of the troubled soul who has found rest and a full expansion of heart in the rediscovery of a faith and ritual and order which give entire satisfaction to the imagination and affections. And that is not quite all. The Catholic poet is set free from the painful diagnosis of his own emotions and spiritual condition which so preoccupies the Anglican Herbert: |
How should I praise thee, Lord! how should my rhymes
Gladly engrave thy name in steel,
If what my soul doth feel sometimes
My soul might ever feel!
Although there were some forty heav'ns or more,
Sometimes I peer above them all;
Sometimes I hardly reach a score,
Sometimes to hell I fall.
| The Catholic poet loses this anxious sense of his own moods in the consciousness of the opus operatum calling on him only for faith and thankfulness and adoration. It is this opus operatum in one or other of its aspects or symbols, the Cross, the name of Christ, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the life of the saint or death of the martyr, which is the theme of all Crashaw's ardent and coloured, sensuous and conceited odes, composed in irregular rhythms which rise and fall like a sparkling fountain. All other moods are merged in faith and love: |
Faith can believe
As fast as love new laws can give.
Faith is my force. Faith strength affords
To keep pace with those powerful words.
And words more sure, more sweet than they
Love could not think, truth could not say.
| Crashaw's poetry has a limited compass of moods, but it has two of the supreme qualities of great lyric poetry, poetry such as that of Shelley and Swinburne, ardour and music.|| 29|
| Of the other poets from whose work I have selected not much need be said. Quarles hardly belongs to the 'metaphysical' tradition. In his paraphrases of Scripture he continues the Elizabethan fashion of Drayton and the later Giles Fletcher, but in the Emblemes [1635, 1639 1643] he is a religious lyrist of real if unequal power, with the taste for quaint and homely analogy of Herbert. I have felt no disposition to cut and carve the sincere and ardent poems selected to represent his sense of alienation and reconcilement. To include Milton's Hymn in an anthology of metaphysical poems will seem less warrantable, for Milton is not enamoured of the quaint, the homely, or the too ratiocinative evolution, though he was also an erudite poet. Yet it would be to fail in literary perspective not to recognize that in this poem Milton wrote in a manner he was not to use again, that his models here are Italian rather than classical (the poem may owe something to Tasso's Canzone sopra la Cappella del Presepio), that the verses are a sequence of poetical and delightful conceits, some of which, as that of the blushing earth and the snow, or the |
are not very remote from the blushing dagger on which Boileau commented. Milton's style was to become more uniformly classical, but with the conceits departed alas! also the tenderness of spirit that gives to this early poem an ineffable charm.
Glimmering Orbs 'that' glow,
Until their Lord himself bespake, and bid them go,
| Milton's young friend Andrew Marvell imbibed no more of Milton's classical inspiration than his graceless nephews and pupils, the Phillipses. In his religious as in his amorous and descriptive verses he is a 'metaphysical' dallying with poetic conceits in pure and natural English. But the temper of these few poems is of the finest that the Puritan movement begot, as devoted to the 'restrictive virtues' as Milton's, with less of polemical narrowness and arrogance; the temper of one in the world yet not of the world, recognizing and loyal to a scale of values that is not the world's: |
Earth cannot show so brave a sight
As when a single soul does fence
The batteries of alluring sense,
And heaven views it with delight.
| In no poetry more than the religious did the English genius in the seventeenth century declare its strong individuality, its power of reacting on the traditions and fashions which, in the Elizabethan age, had flowed in upon it from the Latin countries of Europe. There are individual poets who have risen to greater heights of religious and mystical feeling—some of the mediaeval hymn-writers, Dante, perhaps John of the Cross—but no country or century has produced a more individual or varied devout poetry, resting on the fundamental religious experience of alienation from and reconciliation to God, complicated by ecclesiastical and individual varieties of temperament and interpretation, than the country and century of Giles Fletcher and John Donne, Herbert and Vaughan, and Traherne and Crashaw, of John Milton, to say nothing of great poet-preachers like Donne and Taylor, or the allegory of Bunyan and the musings of Sir Thomas Brown.|| 32|
|When Dryden and his generation passed judgement, not merely on the conceits, but on the form of the earlier poetry, what they had in view was especially their use of the decasyllabic couplet in eulogistic, elegiac, and satiric and narrative verses. 'All of them were thus far of Eugenius his opinion that the sweetness of English verse was never understood or practised by our fathers ... and every one was willing to acknowledge how much our poesy is improved by the happiness of some writers yet living, who first taught us to mould our thoughts into easy and significant words, to retrench the superfluities of expression, and to make our rhyme so properly a part of the verse, that it should never mislead the sense, but itself be led and governed by it.' 'Donne alone', Dryden tells the Earl of Dorset, 'of all our countrymen had your talent: but was not happy enough to arrive at your versification; and were he translated into numbers and English, he would yet be wanting in the dignity of expression.' Sweetness and strength of versification, dignity of expression—these were the qualities which Dryden and his generation believed they had conferred upon English poetry. 'There was before the time of Dryden no poetical diction, no system of words at once refined from the grossness of domestic use, and free from the harshness of terms appropriated to particular arts.... Those happy combinations of words which distinguish poetry from prose had been rarely attempted; we had few elegances or flowers of speech, the roses had not yet been plucked from the brambles, or different colours had not been joined to enliven one another.' Johnson is amplifying and emphasizing Dryden's 'dignity of expression', and it is well to remember that Scott at the beginning of the next century is still of the same opinion. It is also worth remembering, in order to see a critical period of our poetical history in a true perspective, that Milton fully shared Dryden's opinion of the poetry of his time, though he had a different conception of how poetic diction and verse should be reformed. He, too, one may gather from his practice and from occasional references, disapproved the want of selection in the 'metaphysicals'' diction, and created for himself a poetic idiom far removed from current speech. His fine and highly trained ear disliked the frequent harshness of their versification, their indifference to the well-ordered melody of vowel and consonant, the grating, 'scrannel pipe' concatenations which he notes so scornfully in the verse of Bishop Hall: |
And so he well might, and all his auditory besides, with his "teach each"' (An Apology for Smectymnuus). But the flowers which Milton cultivated are not those of Dryden, nor was his ear satisfied with the ring of the couplet. He must have disliked as much as Dryden the breathless, headlong overflow of Pharonnida (if he ever read it), the harsh and abrupt crossing of the rhythmical by the rhetorical pattern of Donne's Satires, but he knew that the secret of harmonious verse lay in this subtle crossing and blending of the patterns, 'apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another'. Spenser was Milton's poetic father, and his poetic diction and elaborately varied harmony are a development of Spenser's art by one who has absorbed more completely the spirit, understood more perfectly the art, of Virgil and the Greeks, who has taken Virgil and Homer for his teachers rather than Ariosto and Tasso. Dryden's reform was due to no such adherence to an older and more purely poetic tradition though he knew and admired the ancients. His development was on the line of Donne and the metaphysicals, their assimilation of poetic idiom and rhythm to that of the spoken language, but the talk of which Dryden's poetry is an idealization is more choice and select, less natural and fanciful, and rises more frequently to the level of oratory. Like other reforms, Dryden's was in great measure a change of fashion. Men's minds and ears were disposed to welcome a new tone and tune, a new accent, neither that of high song,
'Teach each hollow grove to sound his love
Wearying echo with one changeless word.
nor of easy, careless, but often delightful talk and song blended, which is the tone of the metaphysical lyric, but the accent of the orator, the political orator of a constitutional country.
To their own music chanted,
| It was in satire, the Satires of Hall, Marston, and Donne—especially the last—that the 'unscrewing' of the decasyllabic couplet began, in part as a deliberate effort to reproduce the colloquial ease of Horace's, the harshness of Persius's satiric style and verse. The fashion quickly spread to narrative, eulogistic, elegiac, and reflective poetry, and like other fashions—vers libre for example—was welcomed by many who found in it an easier gradus ad Parnassum, a useful discovery when every one had at times to pen a compliment to friend or patron.|| 34|
| After Spenser Elizabethan narrative poetry suffered almost without exception from the 'uncontented care to write better than one could', the sacrifice of story and character to the elaboration of sentimental and descriptive rhetoric. Shakespeare's Venus and Aldonis and Rape of Lucrece are no exception to this failure to secure that perfect balance of narrative, dramatic and poetic interest, which makes Chaucer's tales unsurpassed models in their kind. The 'metaphysical' fashion changed merely the character of the rhetoric, shifting the weight from diction and verse to wit, to [Greek]. One can study the result in Davenant's Gondibert and Cowley's Davideis, where the dramatic thread of story is almost lost to sight in the embroidery of comment and 'witty' simile: |
The most readable—if with somewhat of a wrestle—is Chamberlayne's Pharonnida. The story is compounded of the tedious elements of Greek romance—shepherds and courts and loves and rapes and wars—and no one can take the smallest interest in the characters. The verse is breathless and the style obscure, as that of Mr. Doughty is, because the writer uses the English language as if he had found it lying about and was free of it without regard to any tradition of idiom or structure. Still Chamberlayne does realize the scenes which he describes and decorates with all the arabesques of a fantastic and bewildering yet poetic wit:
Oswald in wars was worthily renowned;
Though gay in Courts, coarsely in Camps could live;
Judg'd danger soon, and first was in it found;
Could toil to gain what he with ease did give.
Yet toils and dangers through ambition lov'd;
Which does in war the name of Virtue own;
But quits that name when from the war remov'd,
As Rivers theirs when from their Channels gone.
The Spring did, when
The princess first did with her pleasure grace
This house of pleasure, with soft arms embrace
The Earth—his lovely mistress—clad in all
The painted robes the morning's dew let fall
Upon her virgin bosom; the soft breath
Of Zephyrus sung calm anthems at the death
Of palsy-shaken Winter, whose large grave,
The earth, whilst they in fruitful tears did lave,
Their pious grief turned into smiles, they throw
Over the hearse a veil of flowers; the low
And pregnant valleys swelled with fruit, whilst Heaven
Smiled on each blessing its fair hand had given.
| But the peculiar territory of the metaphysical poets, outside love-song and devout verse, was eulogy and elegy. They were pedants but also courtiers abounding in compliments to royal and noble patrons and friends and fellow poets. Here again Donne is the great exemplar of erudite and transcendental, subtle and seraphic compliments to noble and benevolent countesses. One may doubt whether the thing ought to be done at all, but there can be no doubt that Donne does it well, and no one was better aware of the fact than Dryden, whose eulogies, whether in verse or in prose, as the dedication of the State of Innocence to Mary of Modena, are in the same seraphic vein and indeed contain lines that are boldly 'lifted' from Donne. They are not vivid by the accumulation of concrete details, though there are some not easily to be surpassed, as Ben Jonson's favourite lines: |
But the most vivid impressions are secured not by objective detail, but by the suggestion of their effect upon the mind. The nervous effect of storm and calm is conveyed by Donne's conceits and hyperboles in a way that is not only vivid but intense.
No need of lanterns, and in one place lay
Feathers and dust, to-day and yesterday.
| One cannot say much for the metaphysical eulogies of Donne's imitators. Even Professor Saintsbury has omitted many of them from his collection of the other poems by their authors, as Godolphin's lines on Donne and on Sandys's version of the Psalms, which are by no means the worst of their kind. He has, on the other hand, included one, Cleveland's on Edward King, some lines of which might be quoted to illustrate the extravagances of the fashion: |
The last word recalls the great poem which appeared along with it:
I like not tears in tune, nor do I prize
His artificial grief who scans his eyes.
Mine weep down pious beads, but why should I
Confine them to the Muses' rosary?
I am no poet here; my pen's the spout
Where the rain-water of mine eyes run out
In pity of that name, whose fate we see
Thus copied out in grief's hydrography.
The Muses are not mermaids, though upon
His death the ocean might turn Helicon.
. . . . . . .
When we have filled the roundlets of our eyes
We'll issue 't forth and vent such elegies
As that our tears shall seem the Irish Seas,
We floating islands, living Hebrides.
Cleveland is not much worse than Joseph Beaumont on the same subject, and neither is quite so offensive as Francis Beaumont in his lines on the death of Mrs. Markham:
Where ere thy bones are hurl'd,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world.
It would be difficult to imagine anything in worse taste, yet, from the frequency with which the poem recurs in manuscript collections, it was apparently admired as a flight of 'wit'. There are better elegies than these, as Herrick's and Earle's and Stanley's on Beaumont and Fletcher, Cleveland's (if it be his) on Jonson, Carew's noble lines on Donne, but in proportion as they become readable they cease to be metaphysical. Donne's a priori transcendentalism few or none were able to recapture. Their attempts to rise meet the fate of Icarus. The lesser metaphysical poets are most happy and most poetical when their theme is not this or that individual but death in general. Love and death are the foci round which they moved in eccentric cycles and epicycles. Their mood is not the sombre mediaeval horror of 'Earth upon earth', nor the blended horror and fascination of Donne's elegies, or the more magnificent prose of his sermons. They dwell less in the Charnel House. Their strain is one of pensive reflection on the fleetingness of life, relieved by Christian resignation and hope:
As unthrifts grieve in straw for their pawned beds,
As women weep for their lost maidenheads
(When both are without hope of remedy),
Such an untimely grief have I for thee.
Like as the damask rose you see,
Or like the blossom on the tree,
Or like the dainty flower in May,
Or like the morning of the day,
Or like the sun, or like the shade,
Or like the gourd which Jonas had—
Even such is man: whose thread is spun,
Drawn out and cut and so is done.
If none can scape Death's dreadful dart,
If rich and poor his beck obey,
If strong, if wise, if all do smart,
Then I to scape shall have no way.
O grant me grace, O God, that I
My life may mend since I must die.
| In Abraham Cowley 'metaphysical' poetry produced its last considerable representative, and a careful study of his poetry reveals clearly what was the fate which overtook it. His wit is far less bizarre and extravagant than much in Donne, to say nothing of Cleveland and Benlowes. But the central heat has died down. Less extravagant, his wit is also less passionate and imaginative. The long wrestle between reason and the imagination has ended in the victory of reason, good sense. The subtleties of the schoolmen have for Cowley none of the significance and interest they possessed for Donne: |
The influence of the new philosophy simplified with such dogmatic simplicity by Hobbes has touched him,—atoms and determinism, witness the ode To Mr. Hobbes and the half-playful, charming Destinie; and though that philosophy might appeal to the imagination, the intellectual imagination, by its apparent simplicity and coherency, it could make no such appeal to the spiritual nature as the older, which had its roots in the heart and conscience, which had endeavoured to construct a view of things which should include, which indeed made central, the requirements and values of the human soul. Cowley is not wanting in feeling any more than in fancy, witness his poem On the Death of Mr. William Hervey, and he was a Christian, but neither his affections nor his devotion expressed themselves imaginatively as these feelings did in Donne's most sombre or bizarre verses or those of his spiritual followers; his wit is not the reflection of a sombre or bizarre, a passionately coloured or mystically tinted conception of life and love and death. The fashion of 'metaphysical' wit remains in Cowley's poems when the spirit that gave it colour and music is gone. Yet Cowley's poetry is not merely frigid and fantastic. The mind and temper which his delightful essays, and the poems which accompany them, express has its own real charm—a mind of shy sensitiveness and clear good sense. It was by a natural affinity that Cowley's poetry appealed to Cowper. But wit which is not passionate and imaginative must appeal in some other way, and in Dryden it began to do so by growing eloquent. The interest shifted from thought to form, the expression not the novelty of the thought, wit polished and refined as an instrument of satire and compliment and declamation on themes of common interest. Dryden and Pope brought our witty poetry to a brilliant close. They are the last great poets of an age of intense intellectual activity and controversy, theological, metaphysical, political. 'The present age is a little too warlike', Atterbury thought, for blank verse and a great poem. With the peace of the Augustans the mood changed, and poetry, ceasing to be witty, became sentimental; but great poetry is always metaphysical, born of men's passionate thinking about life and love and death.
So did this noble Empire wast,
Sunk by degrees from glories past,
And in the School-men's hands it perished quite at last.
Then nought but words it grew,
And those all barbarous too.
It perish't and it vanisht there,
The life and soul breath'd out, became but empty air.
| I have closed my selections from seventeenth-century poetry not with Cowley or Dryden, but with Butler as a reminder of the full significance of the word 'metaphysical', which has a wider connotation than poetry. The century was metaphysical, and the great civil war was a metaphysical war. So many constitutional developments have been the ultimate consequence of the movement which the war began that it has obscured to our eyes the issue as it appeared to the combatants. To them the main issue was not constitutional. Pym and Parliament were more indifferent to the constitution than Charles and Clarendon. Cromwell's army was not inspired by any passion for the constitution; it fought to found the Kingdom of the Saints. Butler's Hudibras is a savage record of what the human spirit had suffered under the tyranny of metaphysical saints.|| 39|
| My selection, like every selection, is a compromise between what one would like to give and what space permits. Inevitably, too, I have omitted one or two poems which on second thoughts I might prefer to some of those included. I regret especially that 'wonderful piece of word-craft', Musics Duel. Such as it is, my selection owes more than I can easily define to the suggestions, encouragement, advice—even when we occasionally differed in opinion—and patient scrutiny of the general editor, Mr. David Nichol Smith.|| 40|