Bill Morgan
Essay 3

John Donne and the Tradition of English Literature

Just as there are a thousand parts that make up the whole of the "tradition of British literature," there are a thousand different angles from which to view that tradition. One can look at literary styles, at forms and rhymes and media, and trace their evolution as they fall in and out of favor. A historical perspective is possible, digging to discover how a culture effected literature and how that literature in turn changed society. You may pick a theme, a subject, a particular story, and can follow its wavy path as it hikes its way from writer to writer. And you can choose a focus, one poet out of the many, and see how his or her trail intersects these other angles. Considering the enormity of his ups and downs, his changing place within the English canon, the works of John Donne make a particularly revealing place from which to view the tradition of British literature.,p> As far as the poetry of John Donne is concerned, it lies squarely within the English tradition. The reader can be positive that Donne was interested in the past both by what he followed and, more importantly, by what he rejected (and often ridiculed). He took some of the Renaissance ideas that had been overused and reinvigorated them. Many of his poems deal with conventional Petrarchan subjects: love, sadness, separation. Yet Donne turns tradition upside-down, or inside-out, by employing the elaborate conceit and by intellectualizing emotion, traits that would become his trademarks. When he turned to the sonnet, which had been the popular form twenty years earlier but was in decline, he went off in a different direction and wrote the intensely personal Holy Sonnets. With the publication of his Poems in 1633, two years after his death, Donne became part of the tradition in that he began to influence other writers.

This pattern of influence, the rising and falling of a poet's fame through the years, is another aspect of the tradition of English literature. It happens to every poet, as Tennyson wisely noted in Poets and Critics: "What is true at last will tell: / Few at first will place thee well; / Some too low would have thee shine, / Some too high - no fault of thine" (Abrams v 2 1093). One age plucks a particular poet from the mass and exalts him or her above others, while the next trashes that same poet in public defiance of their elders. Certainly this happens to even the best, but few have suffered the rising and falling of changing opinion as much as John Donne.

For fifty years after his death, the works of Donne were the single most important influence on English poetry. Despite the looseness of grouping people by using a term like Metaphysical Poets, they are all connected in their admiration for Donne and in their borrowing freely from his style. Herbert, Crashaw, Vaughan, Herrick, Marvell - to a greater or lesser degree, each owes a debt to Donne. Herbert's tight but contorted syntax, his worldly images, and his mixture of thought and emotion show Donne's teaching. Marvell's global love in "To His Coy Mistress," the extended imagery and the thought hidden behind a poem of passion, are each first-rate influences. Donne's book of poems changed the tradition by itself and through its imitators. While some of these apprentices were beautiful poets and wrote fine poems, many of Donne's traits were picked up by lesser writers and exaggerated until they became monstrous and distasteful.

These excess, as well as the changing public taste brought on by the Puritan revolution, abetted by the habit of hating whatever one's father enjoyed, led to the dismissal of Donne and his followers in the second half of the 17th century. His poems were not restrained enough, had too much intellectualizing for people seeking naturalness. He seems to have been respected for his ideas, his creativity, but not for his poetry. Dryden called him "the first wit, but not the first poet, of our nation" (Bald 45). Though he continued to be read and occasionally printed, the main complaint leveled against him was that his poetry was cold and analytical. They said that there was no passion behind it. Through the writings of Addison and Samuel Johnson, backed up by the worst excesses of Metaphysical poetry taken out of context, these negative opinions became the accepted ones.

If Donne suffered from the changing fashions of the century after his death, the next few eras would be even harsher. To the writers of the Romantic age, the poems of Donne must have seemed alien, cold, unnatural, and ancient. There is no nature in Donne's poetry, very little spontaneity, and his fascination with craft and his unnatural speech would have offended their taste. In the Victorian age that would follow, Donne's earlier poems must have almost been considered obscene. His glorification of lust, his promiscuity, and the poetry's dwelling on the emotions of ecstasy certainly would have been viewed unpleasantly. While there were writers who still admired aspects of Donne's poetry (Coleridge and Browning, as examples), he was largely ignored as the literary world was swept along by the indulgences of Romanticism.

In the beginning of our century, the reputation of John Donne suddenly took an unexpected turn. Provoked by Sir H. J .C. Grierson's 1912 edition of his poems, and propelled by T.S. Eliot's public endorsement, Donne again achieved a wide reading audience. Eliot saw that what earlier critics had accused Donne of, that he was intellectual without being passionate, was an unfair complaint. The Romantics were guilty of the opposite but equal folly, of separating emotion from thought and looking only at their feelings. They had split the two and decided that if Donne wasn't writing about emotions, he was writing with his brain. Eliot correctly saw that John Donne's greatest gift was mixing the two together, realizing that they came from the same source and were intertwined. On his own and through T.S. Eliot, Donne influenced many poets in the twisting years after the first World War.

In 1995, the assignment of John Donne's poetry brings a groan from both students and teachers. While not forgotten, he has again been placed in the second or third rank of poets, loosely holding on to his lesser spot in the English canon. Unlike my contemporaries, I find his poetry fascinating, as I certainly showed by my slanted reporting of his history. Each poem is a finely crafted puzzle, causing the reader (especially the modern reader) to first solve the syntax, and then work on the complex images. Agreeing with Eliot, I think Donne wonderfully mixed emotions and thought. He took powerful feelings and coldly crafted them into words - the "emotion recollected in tranquility" praised by Wordsworth. The reader is forced to translate these mental codes back into emotion, a habit foreign to the modern reader and apparently unpleasant. Fashions change, and our age likes their poems loose, formless and flowing, filled with private imagery of personal metaphor. Too much of modern poetry is mysterious because the clues are all in the writer's head, someplace where I may never gain access. The more they write their souls, the more you are shoved to the outside. I believe that John Donne's poetry is the opposite - intimidating from the outside, accessible from the inside, with all the codes included in the text - and that is why I step out of current opinion and compliment him.

Which brings me to another aspect of tradition, the one that John Donne emphasizes so well - that it is constantly changing, and that I have the power to influence the future canon of English literature. As a lover of books, my opinions carry the weight of interest. I've earned my opinions be reading and comparing. Every time I pick up a book, speak about literature to a friend, or recommend a particular poet, I am participating in the tradition of English literature. I have done the same, picked up cues from others and been handed the pleasures of Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Kerouac, and I've passed them along. As a person interested in teaching English to high school students, I gain an extra measure of power through my choice of career. I have been influenced in the past by my teachers, taught to love Thoreau, Wordsworth, Browning, learned to despise Keats and Byron, and been shown a handful of ways to look at the whole of literature. It is a daunting responsibility. It is what fascinates me about the tradition of literature. As long as it is open to change, as long as the editions of anthologies grow and grow, I have the choice of helping to push and pull certain works around in the canon, a power I treat with the utmost respect.

Works Cited and Consulted:

  1. Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. 1 and 2. 5th ed. New York, 1986.
  2. Bald, R. C. Donne's Influence in English Literature. Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1965.