Carew's response to Jonson and Donne.
Nixon, Scott. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 v.39 no1. p89- . 19.01.1999.
Thomas Carew's verse letter to Ben Jonson and his elegy on John Donne are arguably two of the most accomplished examples of literary criticism in English verse. Given the stature of their respective subjects, it is perhaps no surprise that these two poems have received more attention in the last two decades than the rest of Carew's verse put together. In a recent article in this journal, John Lyon surveys the range of responses to the elegy on Donne, and demonstrates that the different contexts within which this poem has been interpreted have led to different and often contradictory readings. On the one hand, this goes to underline the richness of possibility offered by the densely textured language and images of Carew's verse. On the other hand, it might suggest, as Lyon argues, that contexts "often have less explanatory power than we are at present inclined to credit them with."(1) Lyon is clearly skeptical of the New Historicism, dismissing one critic as in "thrall to Greenblattian notions of self-fashioning."(2) This skepticism appears to derive from a sense that the enterprise of constructing a historical context is usually undertaken with a view to the outcome: that is, the desired reading dictates the parameters of a context which can produce that reading. So, Lyon's challenge is not directed at the basic proposition that context can influence the interpretation of text, but rather at the means by which context is selected and defined.
The problem that Lyon identifies could be seen as arising, at least partly, from the adoption of a purportedly "historical" focus to literature, with little regard for the original circumstances of publication. Critics have tended to approach Carew's poetry via the standard modern text (edited by Rhodes Dunlap), which itself follows the early printed editions. Few, if any, have discussed the significance of the fact that the verse letter to Jonson and the elegy on Donne were, like most of Carew's verse, first published and read not in print, but in manuscript. A more refined historical approach is to examine the extant seventeenth-century witnesses of these two poems and to focus our consideration of context on the evidence which they furnish about the date at which the poems were written, the identity of their readers, the extent of their circulation, and the poems in the company of which they were most commonly read. Of course, the material which survives represents only a fraction of what once existed, and hence any conclusions will be based on partial evidence. However, this is a danger inherent in all historical scholarship, and is not sufficient ground for refusing to deal with the documents which are available. It must also be conceded that such an approach involves moving from our own selective construction of context toward an equally selective construction by third parties, namely the scribes and publishers responsible for the extant seventeenth-century texts. But at least the latter form of selective construction is itself contemporary with the production and initial circulation of the poetry. In this sense, a study of the surviving artifacts is an inquiry into the way in which contemporary readers responded to Carew's verse, and this may assist the interpretation of those poems by modern readers who are geographically, temporally, and culturally remote from the occasion of their being written. So, this article will focus on the main medium within which Carew's verse was read in the Caroline period - the manuscript verse miscellany - and will argue that his two poems concerning Jonson and Donne should be approached in terms of the tradition of answer-poetry which was generated by the competitive ethos of that literary form. When this context is recovered, the audacity and skill of Carew's responses to Jonson's ode and Donne's death are more readily appreciated: Carew does not seek merely to celebrate, but actively to engage with both writers, and demonstrates his ability to distill, reflect, and move beyond their poetic achievement.
There are over 200 extant seventeenth-century manuscripts which contain copies of poems by Carew, two-thirds of which were compiled before 1640, when the first (posthumous and unauthorized) edition of his verse was published. These manuscripts provide nearly 1500 witnesses of his poetry (including dubia), only one of which is an autograph copy? On the basis of these figures, which probably represent only a small fraction of the manuscripts that once existed, Carew appears to have been one of the most popular poets of the 1630s. However, his verse was rarely read as a discrete collection. The overwhelming majority of manuscripts containing witnesses of Carew are verse miscellanies, which do not usually group poems according to author. It is more common to find poems arranged, if at all, within broad genres such as a group of elegies or songs. The writers represented in the miscellanies range from the major and minor poets of the period whose names we know today, through a whole cast of anonymous or forgotten figures, to the scribes who compiled individual manuscript collections and added their own compositions for good measure.
A frequently used metaphor for the miscellany is the garden, where all manner of plants grow. There is
rarely a claim (except in printed miscellanies, where there is an obvious profit motive) of uniform quality.
More often, the reader of the miscellany is invited to exercise choice and discretion. An illustration is
provided by the anonymous poem, "To the reader of this booke," which opens one such collection:
This booke is like a garden in [w.sup.ch] growesIn the garden of the verse miscellany, the poem that stands out is the one which will be transplanted into another reader's compilation. Indeed, Henry King uses this very image in lines written to accompany the gift of a blank volume, the raw material with which to compile a personal miscellany:
When your faire hand receives this Little Book,Each collection of verse reflects the individual reader's tastes and priorities. Even a miscellany which appears to be copied from another will not agree exactly in the contents and arrangement of poems. There is inevitably an element of selection and reordering.(6) The act of copying out a text can be regarded as an assertion of its value by the scribe. So, the writer who wishes his verse to survive and be republished must demonstrate his poetic abilities, not in the corpus of his work, but in the individual piece.
Significantly, in "An Elegie upon the death of the Deane of Pauls, Dr. John Donne," Carew's praise for
the deceased poet is couched in terms of "garden" imagery:
The Muses garden with Pedantique weedesCarew considers the essence of Donne's achievement to be his "fresh invention," the novel manner in which he approaches standard poetic situations and material. It is undoubtedly this quality in Donne's verse that results in its being copied and recopied in verse miscellanies throughout the early seventeenth century.
One issue which has often been debated is how this praise for Donne's invention squares with the
following passage in Carew's verse letter "To Ben Johnson vppon occasion of his Ode to Himself":
& if thow ouercomeThe apparent conflict can be resolved in terms of the dynamics of the verse miscellany. Imitation and invention are not seen as mutually exclusive. In Carew's view, the poet to be admired is the one who can take up the material used by other poets, and, by virtue of his superior control of language and thought, or, by the "invention" of a novel conceit or speaking voice, produce a more dazzling performance. In addition, there is, in the selection of material for poetic treatment, an emphasis on taste and discretion: the wise poet can tell the difference between "Pedantique weedes" and "rich spoyles." A similar stress on the quality of imitation is made by Jonson in Timber: or, Discoveries: "Not, to imitate serviley, as Horace saith, and catch at vices, for vertue: but, to draw forth out of the best, and choisest flowers, with the Bee, and turne all into Honey, worke it into one relish, and savour: make our Imitation sweet: observe, how the best writers have imitated, and follow them."(9) One recalls the image of the bee in "A Rapture," plundering Celia's body, selecting and exploring the possibilities of sensual poetry.
The verse miscellany encourages a poet to define his own work in terms of that of his contemporaries. It fosters an element of self-consciousness about the adoption, imitation, and parody of poetic conventions, and even an element of competition between individual writers. The desire to demonstrate superior poetic skills is most obviously manifested in verse which directly answers, challenges, or rebuts other poems or poets. At its most basic level, answer-poetry could consist of the exchange of insults between writers. In the manuscript miscellany such arguments, often bordering on invective, flourished. For example, when Richard Corbet wrote a poem criticizing Daniel Price's anniversary sermon on the death of Prince Henry, which was printed in 1614, Price replied with an attack on Corbet. Corbet then responded to Price's reply, as did Brian Duppa, who was to succeed Corbet as Dean of Christ Church in 1629. These four poems appear consecutively in George Morley's manuscript, which is central to a group of miscellanies related to Christ Church in the 1620s and '30s.(10) Similarly, the miscellany of Tobias Alston, which is associated with Cambridge, contains a set of exchanges between the "comoedians" of that university and a student of the Inns of Court, concerning a play denigrating lawyers.(11)
Such connections point to the institutional aspect of answer-poetry, which worked to reinforce professional rivalry or social contacts.(12) This is not surprising, given the overwhelming tendency for networks of textual exchange (and hence reading communities) to correspond with social groupings.(13) However, answer-poems were not limited to ad hominem attacks; the various forms of this literary phenomenon which flourished in the miscellany include lines written in parody of an existing lyric, or by way of response, or by way of imitation or elaboration of a theme. In the first extended study of answer-poems, E. F. Hart describes most of them as devoid of life and energy: "these poems are really as dead as butterflies in a cabinet."(14) By returning to miscellanies, it is possible to recapture something of the vitality of these poetic arguments, as they bring together personal conflicts, aesthetic arguments, social gossip, and professional rivalry.
In this context, it is possible to give a fresh reading of Carew's letter to Jonson and his elegy on Donne, and to question what is almost a cliche of literary criticism: namely, that Carew's poetic style derives from the combined influence of these two acknowledged masters. It is generally assumed that Carew and his contemporaries must have approached Donne and Jonson with awe. According to Richard Helgerson, in Caroline verse there is little of the earlier conflict between poetic generations: the writers of the 1630s were "content to remain admiring Sons of Ben, dutiful pupils in the School of Donne."(15) The metaphor most commonly employed by critics is one of inheritance. For example, Renee Hannaford writes, that as "the acknowledged forefathers of seventeenth-century poetry," both Donne and Jonson "spawned schools of 'poetic minnows.'"(16)
As regards Carew, some argue that one influence predominates over the other, albeit with some cross-fertilization. For example, Joshua Scodel characterizes Carew as "a Jonsonian who yet like many other Sons of Ben felt the power of Donne's highly original verse."(17) Other critics identify different influences in different poems. So, Ada Long and Hugh Maclean argue that in one group of poems we see the influence of Donne, in another group Jonson, and in a third "Carew is clearly his own man."(18) Nonetheless, the general consensus seems to be that Carew is the poet of the generation succeeding Donne and Jonson who most completely blends their influence.(19) Indeed, it is in these terms that Lyon analyses the elegy on Donne, describing Carew as pouring "Donnean wine into a Jonsonian bottle."(20)
By mixing the influences of Donne and Jonson, Carew is usually seen as diluting both of them. George Parfitt writes that Carew tends to "simplify" Donne and Jonson, "reducing Jonson's range of concern and his moral firmness, smoothing Donne's intense verbal attacks on experience, his ability to make words think."(21) This has led to Carew's work being undervalued: if Carew is simply a combination of Donne and Jonson, without their brilliance, why bother reading Carew? Perhaps the most damning comment in this regard is that of Douglas Bush: "without Donne Carew would have been poorer but . . . without Jonson he would not have been a poet at all."(22)
Such analysis ignores the extent to which Carew was a contemporary and competitor of Donne and Jonson. Because printed works impose what is perceived to be a fixed chronology on the order in which poems were written and read, it is simply presumed that Carew must have regarded Donne and Jonson as past masters, rather than poets whose work was published alongside his own. However, Carew commenced circulating poetry soon after the publication of Jonson's first folio (1616), probably wrote most of his verse before the first edition of Donne's Poems (1633), and died before Jonson's second folio (1640) appeared in print. In the 1620s and '30s, all three writers were being published and republished, but in manuscript rather than print. Moreover, since miscellanies tended to be compiled over much longer periods than printed books, often spanning several years or even a decade, it is not uncommon to find poets, whom we usually regard as belonging to different literary generations, transcribed alongside one another. For example, Walter Ralegh's poetry is popular throughout the Caroline period. Likewise, Donne's love poetry, much of which may have been written at the end of the Elizabethan era, becomes, by virtue of a delay in achieving wide circulation and its enduring popularity, most common in manuscript during the reign of Charles I. In the miscellany, he shares company not with other Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, but with poets such as William Strode, Henry King, and Thomas Randolph.
Carew's poem "To Ben Johnson vppon occasion of his Ode to Himself" was provoked by Jonson's
vehement attack on popular taste in the wake of the failure of The New Inne, and appears to be a
direct challenge to the addressee's superiority complex. It is significant that Carew chooses to adopt
for this purpose the form of the verse letter, which has been described as "the outgrowth of
conversation among civilized equals about matters of personal interest."(23) Indeed, an anecdote of
James Howell suggests how close the correspondence to conversation might be, with Carew reported to
have whispered sentiments similar to those expressed in his verse letter at a dinner party which Jonson
I was invited yesternight to a solemn Supper, by B.J., . . . there was good company, excellent cheer,This anecdote suggests another important point: that Carew's sentiments are not intended for Jonson alone, though no doubt he would have read them. The poem is written to be circulated among readers of manuscript verse. It forms part of a literary debate, and hence it combines a public voice with the direct address to "deere Ben." While framing their comments with a discussion of decorum rather than the nature of the scribal medium, Long and Maclean similarly emphasize the combination of private and public reference in this poem, with Carew both speaking "to the mind of the person addressed" and answering "fitly to the matter in hand."(25)
In the first few lines, an intimate voice is immediately adopted and developed by the poet. The casual
opening, which sets up the poem as a response to something that has gone before, and the familiar
vocative establish the sense of an informal discussion among friends. The phrase "'Tis true," which
partly endorses Jonson's anger, is picked up by the balancing phrase "& yet 'tis true," which partly
endorses the criticism directed at him (lines 1, 4). The run-on opening lines establish a conversational
and even colloquial tone. The speaking-voice is forceful and yet restrained, achieving a balance which
is markedly different from the opening of the poem that prompted Carew's response:
Come leaue the lothed stage,Carew acknowledges the justness of Jonson's use of terms such as "the detracting world," "malice," and "rowte" to describe the general public (lines 28-9). Few in Carew's coterie audience, the "wiser world" (line 49), would disagree with these sentiments. However, the proper response is silence rather than an outburst of wounded pride. The failings of the public do not merit a response; on the other hand, those of Jonson quite clearly do. The thrust of Carew's verse letter is not so much approval of the substance of Jonson's complaint, as disapproval of the embarrassingly intemperate manner in which it was delivered. The most appropriate response to criticism is seen to be a witty and polished restraint which reinforces literary superiority.
The sense of interaction, and confrontation, is heightened when Carew's verse letter is copied out immediately after the ode to which it replies. Such an arrangement is nowhere found in print, but is preserved in four manuscript miscellanies that are datable to the 1630s.(27) Indeed, contemporary scribes often "contextualize" Carew's verse letter even further, by copying out as a discrete group a number of the poems which were provoked by Jonson's ode. For example, in Huntington Library, HM 198 (part 1, pp. 114-7), Jonson's ode is followed by Randolph's defense of Jonson, and then by Carew's verse letter, which offers more measured and cautious support. The arrangement is repeated in Folger Library, MS V. a. 170, with the addition of two further poems, namely Latin translations of Jonson's ode by each of Randolph and Strode. In contrast, in British Library, Sloane MS 1446 (fols. 55v-57r), Carew's letter is immediately succeeded by Owen Felltham's parody of Jonson's ode ("Come leaue this sawcy way"), which is given the final word.(28) It is perhaps the result of conscious choice on the part of the scribe that these two poems are copied out straight after Jonson's lyric "Come [w.sup.th] or voices lett vs warr," which highlights the idea of competitive performance and display. Clearly, the order in which individual items are selected and arranged affects the way in which they are read.
The scribe of Folger Library, MS V. a. 322 adopts a particularly interesting arrangement, which highlights notions of a literary community involved in debate and dialogue. Four poems are set out in a parallel fashion: Jonson's ode, Randolph's response, and the translations by Randolph and Strode. Each poem follows the form of Jonson's ode and consists of six stanzas. At each opening of the manuscript (pp. 170-81), the scribe copies one stanza of each of the four different poems: the English poems by Jonson and Randolph on the verso, the Latin translations on the recto. The manuscript gives a sense not of one poem following another, but of four poems being written and performed simultaneously. Indeed, yet another miscellany arranges Jonson's ode and Randolph's reply in the form of a dialogue, with alternate stanzas given to "B:I:" and "T:R:"(29)
Nor was the fracas over The New Inne an isolated incident.(30) A miscellany which was compiled by the Royalist captain Nicholas Burghe, and which is signed and dated 1638, illustrates the frequency and vibrancy of literary debates. As well as containing "The Cuntrys Censure on Ben Iohnsons New Inn," Jonson's ode and Felltham's parody, Burghe's manuscript includes an invective against Jonson by George Chapman, a poem by Alexander Gill the younger criticizing Jonson's The Magnetic Lady, a reply to Gill by Zouch Townly, a poem by John Eliot mocking Jonson's lines to the Lord Treasurer, and a reply to Eliot by Jonson himself.(31) Though none of these poems, other than Jonson's ode, was printed in the 1630s, all of them were published and republished in the scribal medium.
In approaching Carew's verse letter against this background, we can read it not as a statement of homage to a master, but as a qualified statement of support for a contemporary whose faults are wittily delineated. Indeed, if the chambermaid dubbed "Queen Cis" in The New Inne is a satirical barb in the direction of Cecilia Crofts (who was a Maid of Honor), Carew's poem may be read, in terms of a further network of alliances, as a mocking criticism partly motivated by a desire for literary revenge on behalf of the Crofts family.(32)
It is frequently noted that Carew's poem adopts a "Jonsonian" style, with polished couplets arguing for sense and restraint. Louis Martz claims that this element of imitation sums up Jonson's artistic achievement; in judging Jonson according to his own criteria, Carew paid "his master Ben the ultimate tribute."(33) In contrast,Joseph Summers argues that the poem is so Jonsonian that it must have made Jonson "wince," while Diana Benet suggests that the elder poet must have "hated" Carew's imitation of his own manner.(34) Various explanations of Carew's motives are offered. Michael Murrin suggests that the poem is an exercise in "mirror" criticism, whereby the poet adopts "the style of the author he wishes to evaluate, and simultaneously demonstrates the limitations of that author";(35) and Hannaford argues that the aim of the poem is to draw attention to the speaker's own poetic performance, "imitating but also improvising fictive selves" in an attempt to "win applause from Carew's audience and perhaps solicit patronage for him in the constant struggle for preferment at court."(36)
None of these critics links the style of Carew's poem to the medium of the manuscript verse miscellany and the convention of the answer-poem. Typically, when one poet sought to answer another, he would adopt the other's style, and show that he could use it to greater effect. Often this involved employing the precise form used by the other poet. So, for example, Felltham adopts the form of Jonson's ode in order to mock it, and Randolph adopts the same form in Jonson's defense. In this sense, Carew's poem is not as "Jonsonian" as it might have been, since he uses a distinct poetic form. Nonetheless, the verse letter is a form which Jonson did much to develop in English poetry, and by adopting it in a poem which urges restraint on Jonson's part, Carew calls for the reader to compare the abilities of the two poets.
In this regard, it is interesting that Carew specifically refers in his poem to the audacity of anyone
comparing himself to Jonson: "Whoe hath his flock of caqueling Geese compard / To thy tun'd quire of
Swans?" (lines 15-6). Robert Jungman identifies here an echo of Virgil's self-effacing remark in the Ninth
nam neque adhuc Vario uideor nec dicere Cinna digna, sed argutos inter strepere anser oloresIn addition, Hannaford points out that Carew's lines pick up Jonson's reference to William Shakespeare as "Sweet Swan of Avon."(38) However, the image is not necessarily one of unqualified praise. The indignant tone of the question is more readily seen as mirroring Jonson's own sense of outrage than Carew's measured stance. In this light, the reference to cackling geese perhaps says more about Jonson's pride and self-esteem than Carew's sense of literary merit. Moreover, Jungman may be missing an undercurrent of competitiveness in Virgil himself; when the poet calls for the reader to compare his own work with that of Cinna and Varius, he is probably confident that he will not be disgraced, but rather flattered, by the comparison. Finally, it seems surprising that critics should miss one of the most common associations of the image adopted by Carew, namely that the swan sings only when it is dying.(39) It is true that Jonson uses the image to describe Shakespeare, but he does so in an elegy. Here, Jonson is very much alive, inflamed with anger at the lack of respect for his talents. Nonetheless, in Carew's eyes, Jonson's ode is his swan song.
In terms of another image in the poem (borrowed from Longinus), Jonson, having passed his zenith, is approaching his sunset.(40) Indeed, by adding the epithet "blushing" (which is not in Longinus), Carew suggests that Jonson's twilight is proving more embarrassing than graceful. The younger poet confidently and cheekily parades his poetic abilities in front of Jonson. Far from being a loyal member of the Tribe of Ben, Carew comes across as a poet who is willing to challenge Jonson within the miscellany, and confident enough to demand a comparison of their respective poetic talents.
Similarly, Carew's elegy on Donne should be approached as a poem of competition and self-definition
rather than one of unqualified praise. Just as Carew's verse letter is usually described as Jonsonian, so
his elegy is labeled "Donnean." Martz memorably claims that "if we grasp the poem we grasp
Donne."(41) Once again, there has been much discussion of Carew's motives for adopting Donne's style.
However, no critic, as far as I am aware, has linked the style to the tradition of the answer-poem in
the verse miscellany. This oversight can partly be explained by the assumption that Carew's elegy was
written for print publication in the 1633 edition of Donne's Poems. In fact, there is very strong evidence
that the elegy was first published and circulated in manuscript. A number of other elegies, printed in the
1633 volume, deliberately echo Carew's poem. Indeed, Henry King seems to answer Carew almost
word-for-word.(42) Henry King's elegy was printed before the publication of Donne's Poems, appended
anonymously to Deaths Duell (1632). So, King must have encountered Carew's poem in manuscript
before this date. More significantly, he must have believed that his readers were sufficiently acquainted
with Carew's poem that they would pick up his extensive references to it.(43)
Can we not force from widdowed Poetry,On this basis, Carew's poem could be datable within a few months (possibly even weeks) of Donne's death on 31 March 1631. That is, it was probably written around the same time as the literary fracas surrounding the publication of Jonson's "Ode to Himselfe." The elegy on Donne should be read in terms of that atmosphere of poetic debate and confrontation.
The first and most important element of competition in Carew's poem is competition with Donne himself.
The death of the poet presents a challenge to the elegist: is it possible to proclaim the death of
poetry, and yet write a fitting poetic tribute? Carew responds in the same way as his contemporaries
responded to other challenges in the medium of the verse miscellany, namely by writing an
answer-poem which picks up the techniques and language of the deceased poet and demonstrates the
elegist's control over them. In pursuing this strategy, Carew's poem accords with the advice laid down
in Corbet's epitaph on Donne:
He that would write an Epitaph on theeIndeed, in mourning the death of the (poetic) world while writing a poem of great verbal energy, Carew's elegy recalls Donne's Anniversaries.(45) Carew argues that he can produce "Gasping short winded Accents" (line 78) only by drawing on the rapidly diminishing, and soon to be extinct, force of Donne's poetry:
So doth the swiftly turning wheele not standThis echoes Donne's own explanation in The Second Anniuersarie of how he is able to continue writing poetry following Elizabeth Drury's death. Just as a ship "which hath strooke saile, doth runne, / By force of that force which before, it wonne," so Donne's poem draws on a lingering force in the carcass of the world, "For there is motion in corruption."(46)
The adoption of Donne's style does not amount, as Rufus Blanshard argues, to an open avowal of
Carew's "discipleship."(47) Indeed, in the context of the miscellany, it suggests quite the opposite.
Carew is bold enough to break the period of reverent silence after the death of a great poet, and even
more boldly calls for comparison between his own poetic skills and those of Donne. Interestingly, there
are echoes of "A Rapture" in Carew's elegy on Donne. For example, the erotic description of the bee in
Carew's libidinous poem - "So will I rifle all the sweets, that dwell / In my delicious Paradise" - is echoed
in the lines used to describe classical writers in Carew's elegy on Donne:(48)
They had the start, so did they cull the primeSimilarly, the speaker's celebration of Celia's complete nakedness in "A Rapture," with the exposure of "the rich Mine, to the enquiring eye,"(49) is echoed in Carew's praise for the way in which Donne's poetic achievement has "open'd Us a Mine / Of rich and pregnant phansie" (lines 37-8).(50)
Given these parallels between Carew's two longest (and arguably most famous) poems, it is possible to
detect a hint of mockery in his often-quoted characterization of Donne's struggle with language:
to the awe of thy imperious witThe imagery recalls Carew's depiction in "A Rapture" of "The Gyant, Honour" as a "stalking Pageant" that moves with "borrowed legs, a heavie load to those / That made, and beare him" (lines 15-7). This Gyant is a "weake modell" that (from a distance) looks imposing, but is a figure of "scorne" for the nimble lovers who move easily and freely between his "Collosses legs."
Strangely, those critics who have commented on these lines have missed the echo of "A Rapture," and have instead fixed upon the final clause as evidence of Carew's sense of inadequacy in the face of Donne's talent. For example, Martz argues that Carew praises Donne in a way that seems to castigate himself, since he is a writer of "soft melting Phrases."(52) Similarly, Edward Selig claims that Carew faces a dilemma, since, in order to praise Donne's accomplishments, he must implicitly criticize his own.(53) Indeed, Scodel writes that Carew "abases himself before Donne's 'Giant phansie.'"(54)
However, such readings depend on a modern critical assumption: namely, that Donne's "line / Of
masculine expression" (lines 38-9) is a more impressive poetic achievement than Carew's "soft melting
Phrases." It is by no means certain that Carew was of the same opinion, and certainly at least one of
his contemporaries stated a preference for his style. In his verse letter to Carew on the death of
Gustavus Adolphus, which specifically refers to Carew's elegy on Donne, Aurelian Townshend declares:
I loue thy witt, that chooses to be sweeteCarew's image of Donne's struggle with language is more easily read as a reference to Donne's limitations than his greatness: his verse is awkward, and the expression of his fancy is cumbersome, as he allows his "imperious wit" to rule unchecked. A poem by Richard West, "To the pious Memory of my deare Brother-in-Law Mr Thomas Randolph," which was published with the posthumous works of Randolph in 1638, supports the argument that the term "Gyant" when applied to literature could be less than complimentary:
There's none needs feare to surfet with his phrase,In fact, Donne makes a similar use of the word "giant" in his mockery of Thomas Coryat's Crudities:
Therefore mine impotency I confesse;Significantly, a shift occurs after the moment when the "crowne of Bayes," which symbolically refers to the preceding poetic tribute, is thrown onto Donne's "funerall pile" and consumed by flame (lines 83-6).(58) At this point, Carew leaves behind the "Donnean" elegy and adopts a series of balanced couplets for the remainder of the poem, including the famous epitaph. This structure suggests that Carew, having shown that he can master Donne's style, has now moved beyond his suspended syntax, speech-like rhythms, and elaborate conceits: he has met and answered the challenge posed by Donne's death.
Though modern critics may miss the implications of Carew's poem, his contemporaries did not. It was no
doubt in reaction to Carew's perceived impudence that a number of elegists felt the need to answer him
directly. Henry King, one of Donne's executors, chooses to rebuke Carew in Carew's own terms. To this
end, King echoes key phrases from Carew's elegy in writing his own poem "Vpon the Death of my ever
Desired freind Dr Donne Deane of Paules":
Indeed a silence does that Tombe befitt,Avon Jack Murphy cites King's elegy as a prime example of "mirror criticism," summarizing and commenting upon Donne's verse through imitation.(60) However, if King's elegy does contain elements of Donne's style, it does so in answer to Carew's poem, which itself is an answer to Donne. Indeed, as Michael Parker eloquently notes, these echoes of Carew in King's poem undermine its central argument: in seeking to establish Donne's inimitability, King falls back on the language of Carew's imitation to make the assertion, and hence "blame becomes an indirect form of praise."(61) Of course, the same point might be made about the incorporation of stylistic features of Jonson and Donne into Carew's poems concerning those two authors. However, the difference is that, in King's case, we must recognize an element of admiration in what appears to be a critical poem. The problem with Carew's verse letter and elegy has been the failure of critics to recognize an element of criticism in two poems which are overtly concerned with praising their subjects. This raises another important competitive element in the elegy, namely the competition between elegists themselves. The elegy was one of the most popular poetic forms of the period. It is not uncommon to find entire sections of verse miscellanies devoted to elegies and epitaphs. Carew knows that, even if (as is possible) he is the first to eulogize Donne, he will by no means be the last. Indeed, Carew concludes his elegy on the pretext of giving others the chance to speak: "Let others carve the rest" (line 93). At the same time, he intends that there should be little left to carve.(62)
In his monograph on the funeral elegy, Dennis Kay characterizes it as a literary form which encourages
"emulation and competition."(63) Just as Carew's verse letter answers not only Jonson, but also others
who reply to his ode, so Carew's elegy responds both to Donne and to other elegists. Lord Herbert of
Cherbury emphasizes this point in explaining his failure to praise Donne:
Having deliver'd now, what praises are,This passage brings together important themes of imitation and competition. Because Donne is dead, there is no longer "in use" the only language in which he could have been praised. Since Lord Herbert cannot imitate and hence effectively commemorate Donne, he cannot "strive" with Carew who is able, by virtue of his wit, to celebrate Donne's achievement. Given this element of competition between elegists, Sidney Gottlieb is undoubtedly right to argue that reading Carew's elegy in the context of other poetic tributes to Donne puts us in a better position "not only to measure but, more importantly, to understand" its success.(65)
As the example of Henry King shows, one elegist might respond specifically to another, and construct a form of dialogue between poems that are themselves in dialogue with the deceased writer's verse. When referring to King's elegy, I have quoted from a verse miscellany which was compiled by one of King's amanuenses, Thomas Manne. In this manuscript, Carew's elegy is followed by Corbet's poem on Donne (quoted above), Henry King's elegy, and an epitaph written by John King (Henry's brother).(66) This arrangement highlights the sense of communication and conflict among the individual poets: Carew takes up, emulates, criticizes, and attempts to move beyond Donne's style. Corbet suggests that no poet can write an elegy on Donne unless he can "bee / Such as thou wert"; Henry King responds to Carew's poem; and then John King's epitaph omits reference to Donne as poet, and depicts him as giving his life to Christ's work. The contest between Henry King and Carew is for control of the critical heritage of Donne, for the authorized reading of his life and work; whereas Carew gives a central place to both "Dr Donne" and "Jack Donne" in his elegy, King tries to erase memory of the latter altogether.(67) Indeed, the entire series of elegies that was printed in 1633 can be read in terms of a struggle to define the extent to which Donne was both poet and priest;(68) and it seems that that struggle grew out of King's angry reply to Carew's critical reply to Donne, in particular Carew's emphasis on Donne as secular poet and his suggestion in the final line that it was Apollo, rather than God, who had the first claim to Donne's loyalty. Henry King's decision to print his elegy appended to Donne's final sermon was no doubt motivated by a desire to reverse the impact of Carew's elegy, which may have circulated widely in manuscript and could well have had added force by virtue of being the first posthumous appraisal of Donne's achievement.
Murphy identifies the formal elements of the critical elegy as praise, lament, and consolation. Carew is said to depart from this pattern, moving from lament to praise and back to lament.(69) Similarly, Long and Maclean point out that there is no consolation in Carew's poem, but argue that this break in the pattern is appropriate to a poet who broke conventions as often as Donne.(70) However, it is possible to read the poem as conforming to the traditional pattern, so long as it is read against the competitive background of the verse miscellany. The praise of the elegy focuses on Donne's literary achievements, which are adumbrated by way of comparative criticism. Donne is named alongside the classical writers, and is said to outstrip his contemporaries, whose poems are dismissed as "ballad rime." Indeed, there is an element of comparison even in the opening image, with the Churchman's "dowe-bak't prose" placed in opposition to the brilliance of Donne's own sermons, and to the literary form of the funeral elegy itself.(71) Secondly, there is lament in the traditional equation of the death of the poet with the death of the arts. Here, the competition is between Carew and other poets to see who can most effectively express the death of poetry in poetry, and who can give the most definitive reading of the dead poet's life, art, and achievement. Finally, there is an element of consolation, which can be located in the competition between the elegist and the deceased poet. Carew's display of his mastery of Donne's conceits and language is intended to send out a clear message to his reader: you might have lost Donne, but you still have me.
1 John Lyon, "Jonson and Carew on Donne: Censure into Praise," SEL 37, 1 (Winter 1997): 97-118, 108. 2 Lyon, p. 105. The present article was written prior to the publication of Lyon's piece, and has been modified to respond to the views there presented.