John Donne

Critic: T. S. Eliot
Source: "John Donne," in The Nation and the Athenaeum, Vol. XXXIII, No. 10, June 9, 1923, pp. 331-32.
Author Covered: John Donne (1572-1631)

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Essay | Source Citation
[An Anglo-American critic, Eliot is closely identified with many of the qualities denoted by the term Modernism: experimentation, formal complexity, artistic and intellectual eclecticism, and a classicist's view of the artist working at an emotional distance from his creation. He was one of the key revivifiers of modern critical interest in metaphysical poetry, thanks largely to his seminal essay "The Metaphysical Poets," originally published in 1921 and later reprinted in his Selected Essays (1932). In the following excerpt from a review of Love Poems of John Donne, he argues that in his works Donne reflected the preoccupations and intellectual tone of his day in a manner that foreshadows the work of the twentieth-century Modernists.]

One of the characteristics of Donne which wins him, I fancy, his interest for the present age, is his fidelity to emotion as he finds it; his recognition of the complexity of feeling and its rapid alterations and antitheses. A change of feeling, with Donne, is rather the regrouping of the same elements under a mood which was previously subordinate: it is not the substitution of one mood for a wholly different one.

Impossible to isolate his ecstasy, his sensuality, and his cynicism.

With sincerity in the practical sense, poetry has little to do; the poet is responsible to a much more difficult consciousness and honesty. And it is because he has this honesty, because he is so often expressing his genuine whole of tangled feelings, that Donne is, like the early Italians, like Heine, like Baudelaire, a poet of the world's literature.

There are two ways in which we may find a poet to be modern: he may have made a statement which is true everywhere and for all time (so far as "everywhere" and "for all time" have meaning), or there may be an accidental relationship between his mind and our own. The latter is fashion; we are all susceptible to fashion in literature as in everything else, and we all require some indulgence for it. The age of Donne, and the age of Marvell, are sympathetic to us, and it demands a considerable effort of dissociation to decide to what degree we are deflected toward him by local or temporary bias.

The age objects to the heroic and sublime, and it objects to the simplification and separation of the mental faculties. The objections are largely well grounded, and react against the nineteenth century; they are partly--how far I do not inquire--a product of the popularization of the study of mental phenomena. Ethics having been eclipsed by psychology, we accept the belief that any state of mind is extremely complex, and chiefly composed of odds and ends in constant flux manipulated by desire and fear. When, therefore, we find a poet who neither suppresses nor falsifies, and who expresses complicated states of mind, we give him welcome. And when we find his poetry containing everywhere potential or actual wit, our thirst has been relieved.

Neither the fantastic (Clevelandism is becoming popular) nor the cynical nor the sensual occupies an excessive importance with Donne; the elements in his mind had an order and congruity. The range of his feeling was great, but no more remarkable than its unity. He was altogether present in every thought and in every feeling. It is the same kind of unity as pervades the work of Chapman, for whom thought is an intense feeling which is one with every other feeling. Compared with these men, almost every nineteenth-century English poet is in some way limited or deformed.

Our appreciation of Donne must be an appreciation of what we lack, as well as of what we have in common with him. What is true of his mind is true, in different terms, of his language and versification. A style, a rhythm, to be significant, must embody a significant mind, must be produced by the necessity of a new form for a new content.... The dogmatic slumbers of the last hundred years are broken, and the chaos must be faced: we cannot return to sleep and call it order, and we cannot have any order but our own, but from Donne and his contemporaries we can draw instruction and encouragement.

Source Citation: Eliot, T. S., "John Donne," in The Nation and the Athenaeum, Vol. XXXIII, No. 10, June 9, 1923, pp. 331-32.