Criticism by A. Alvarez

Critic: A. Alvarez
Source: in his The School of Donne, 1961. Reprint by Pantheon Books, 1962, 211 p.
Criticism about: "Elegie XIX. Going to Bed"; "A Nocturnall upon S. Lucies Day, Being the Shortest Day"; "Elegie IV. The Perfume"; Elegies; "The First Anniversarie. An Anatomie of the World"; "The Second Anniversarie. Of the Progres of the Soule"
Author Covered: John Donne (1572-1631)

[Alvarez is a prominent British critic, editor, poet, and novelist. In his writings of the early 1960s, he campaigned against what he viewed as the excessive gentility of British poetry since World War II, advocating instead a poetry of extreme personal, emotional, and political import. In his insistence upon seeing the whole individual, Alvarez stands as a modern Metaphysical, himself a follower of `the school of Donne.' In the following excerpt, he appropriates and sharpens the thematic focus of one of T. S. Eliot's assessments of Donne, outlining the nature of Donne's poetic realism.]

Donne was not only one of the most supremely intelligent poets in the language, he was also the first Englishman to write verse in a way that reflected the whole complex activity of intelligence. A number of Elizabethan poets embodied the philosophical truths of their period in verse of considerable elegance and power. But Donne created a poetic language of thought, a mode of expression which so took for granted the intellectual tone and preoccupations of his time that it made of them, as it were, the stage on which the intimate give-and-take of personal poetry was played. He was, in short, the first intellectual realist in poetry.

Eliot first made much the same point as early as 1923 in an article that has, to my knowledge, never been reprinted [see excerpt dated 1923].... The difference between the time at which Eliot wrote this and our own lies in the way in which psychology can now be taken more or less for granted. The complexity and contradictoriness of the emotions are no longer fighting subjects. Instead, the contemporary problem is to write with an intelligence that recognizes this complexity and controls it in all its baffling fragmentariness.

Eliot's insights into Donne's originality were largely sidetracked by later critics in their search for a technique to produce certain effects. Hence the inordinate concentration on the `outlandish conceit', as though the whole of Metaphysical poetry were reducible to a single, rather ostentatious trick of style. I simply want to replace the stress on the element of realism in Donne, the skill by which he created a poetic language in which technique was at the service of a fullness of the intelligence.

Nowadays `realism' usually means a certain wilful harping on the facts of life, an insistence on the short, frank word and the daringly, or drearily, sordid detail. There is, of course, an element of this kind of frankness in Donne's poetry, but, as often as not, it enters when he is most classical: in, say, `Elegie XIX. Going to Bed', where he is being a kind of new English Ovid. The realism I am referring to is, however something more diffused and its effect is distinctly not of grinding the reader's nose into the dirt. On the contrary, the final impression is one of a peculiarly heightened dignity.

This sense of personal dignity is at the centre of Donne's work. At the simplest level, it is his perennial theme:

She'is all States, and all Princes, I,

Nothing else is:

is an extreme but typical way of putting it. This dignity measures his distance from the more conventional Elizabethans ... [and] it is at the root of his `masculine', `strong' style. More important, it makes for the cohesion of his work, that unity and strength which give his collected poems an importance difficult to pin down in any single one of them. He is, after all, one of the few major poets before this century whose achievement is not summed up in any one really extended work.

Yet despite this unity there is considerable variation in his style. The Elegies, for example, seem definably younger work than the best Songs and Sonets. This is due to something more than their occasional self-consciousness, which was the young Donne's fatal Cleopatra. It is a question of technique. The key to Donne's mature style is his use of logic: the more subtle and complex the emotion, the greater the logical pressure. The mature Donne organizes his poems in such a way that each shift of feeling seems to be substantiated logically. In the Elegies, however, the emotions are simpler and are sustained in their singleness. He adopts a stance and then develops it dramatically, not logically. So instead of a piece of elaborate human dialectics, he leaves you with a situation presented in the vivid colouring of a more or less single strong feeling.

Even the best of the Elegies, in fact, are more uncomplicatedly assertive than most of Donne's other work of the same standard. `Elegie IV. The Perfume', for instance, is perhaps the most inventive of all Donne's poems, but its wit is more ornamental than profound: it has gone into the puns, into the dramatic detail, into maintaining the overriding masculine independence. It is, in short, less analytic than energetic. The only deepening of tone comes at the moment when his masculinity itself is threatened:

Onely, thou bitter sweet, whom I had laid

Next mee, mee traiterously hast betraid ...

It may seem odd that the perfume should inspire a couple of lines which are as moving and as moved as anything Donne ever wrote on the theme of the inconstant mistress. But the reason comes a few lines later:

By thee, the greatest staine to mans estate

Falls on us, to be call'd effeminate ...

The perfume, in fact, has undermined the whole basis of this and most of the other Elegies: the almost belligerent masculinity of the young Donne who was `a great visitor of ladies'. The difference between the Elegies and Donne's maturest technique [exemplified by `A nocturnall upon S. Lucies day, Being the shortest day'] is large and clear.... This is the only one of Donne's poems which might validly be called `modern'. As in The Waste Land, the poet is on the rack to define a complex negative state which he apparently cannot fully understand and, what is even more pertinent to Donne's difficulty, which he cannot properly dramatize. The theme is a depression so deep as to verge on annihilation (he wrote, after all, a defence of suicide). And its root, I think, is inaction, or the impossibility of action, as he described it in the famous letter to Goodyer:

Therefore I would fain do something; but that I cannot tell what is no wonder. For to chuse, is to do: but to be no part of any body, is to be nothing.

He tries to force some kind of clearing through this swaddling depression by bringing to bear upon it an extraordinarily tense logic and a great concentration of learning. Each stanza moves forward to its own temporary resolution; the twisted, pausing, in-turning movement clears to make way for a direct but invariably negative statement:

"The worlds whole sap is sunke"

"Compar'd with mee, who am their Epitaph"

"For I am every dead thing"

" ... things which are not"

" ... made us carcasses"

"But I am None" ...

Unlike most of his other lyrics, the logic of the `Nocturnall' does not exorcise his troubles. Despite all the dialectic and the learning, despite the invocation of the outside lovers and even, in the third stanza, the invocation of his own more dramatic love poems, he is left with the blank fact of his isolation. Yet although whatever pressure he brings to bear on the situation produces no clear answer, it does help him to achieve some kind of balance. The last lines of the poem--"since this / Both the yeares, and the dayes deep midnight is"-- may simply be a restatement of the first--"Tis the yeares midnight, and it is the dayes, Lucies"--but they are a restatement with a difference: the difficult, questioning movement of the start has been resolved into a clearer, more measured statement. He finishes, that is, by accepting the depression, instead of trying, with all the intellectual ingenuity at his command, to wriggle through it. So the poem ends with his facing the adult necessity of living with grief and depression, instead of giving in to them. Donne's logic and learning, in short, were the prime forces in his emotional maturity as a poet.

It is the absence of this quality, incidentally, which marks off Shakespeare's formal verse from Donne's.... Like the `Nocturnall',`Sonnet XCIV' is also, in its way, a rather modern poem: its mode is complex, negative and founded perhaps on the same sexual anger and frustration that produced Othello's "O thou weed / Who art so lovely fair and smell's so sweet / That the sense aches at thee, would thou hadst ne'er been born!" But unlike Donne's, Shakespeare's compression is all in the imagery rather than the argument. Where Donne often begins with a straightforward situation (those famous, or infamous, dramatic openings) and then produces infinitely complicated arguments to justify it, Shakespeare begins with the abstractions and then gives them body....

However far, of course, Donne seems from the usual Elizabethan rhetoric, he did produce a rhetoric of his own. He produced it for his rare public performances--the two Anniversaries, for example--and it was the rhetoric of the intellectual, abstract and analytic. Hence, Ben Jonson's irritated declaration "That Dones Anniversarie was profane and full of Blasphemies. That he told Mr. Done, if it had been written of ye Virgin Marie it had been something to which he answered that he described the Idea of a Woman and not as she was." In the First Anniversarie Donne dissects `the idea of a woman' in order to produce An Anatomie of the World, a theological and political analysis of the state of corruption; that is, he was using the occasion to be deliberately less Donne the poet than Donne the learned wit, author of Pseudo-Martyr. The Second Anniversarie: The Progresse of the Soule, is less abstract, more dramatic and, seemingly, more deeply felt. It is possible, indeed, that its roots were much more personal than those of the First Anniversarie. Donne apparently wrote it well before the date it was due, while he was staying with Sir Robert Drury in Amiens. He had gone abroad unwillingly, full of anxiety for his wife whom he left ill and pregnant. It was at Amiens that he had the terrible dream in which his wife appeared to him with a dead child in her arms. It may be, then, that `the idea of a woman' was, in this instance, his wife, not Elizabeth Drury. Be that as it may, the dramatic meditation on death and the after-life is closer to the style of Donne the preacher or Donne the author of the Devotions than to that of the more analytic theologian of the First Anniversarie. In both poems, his public personality is foremost. Their rhetoric is formally and formidably that of the intellectual, the debater.

Yet fundamentally it is the same rhetoric which, on less public occasions, is used to heighten a personal strength and richness. Philosophy, science, logic, divinity, poetry itself are all means of enhancing the dignity of the individual. His realism lies in the richness of the resources he brings to bear upon more or less conventional subjects and his ability to falsify the full range of his response. Donne's achievement was to take a poetry over which the academic theorists were fiercely haggling, and break down the constrictions of mere aesthetic criteria; to take a dialectical form which had become rigid in centuries of scholastic wrangling, and break down its narrow casuistry; to take the sciences in all the imaginative strength of the new discoveries, and bring them all together as protagonists in the inward drama of his own powerful experience. He substantiated less a poetic technique than a form of intelligence which the most talented men of the following generation could use without, at any point, belying their natural gifts outside the realm of poetry. As a result, the style of Donne lasted until, under the imperative stresses of the Civil War, the whole mode of intelligence changed. We are now far enough removed from the tensions that split the seventeenth century to be able to judge Donne's monarchy of wit not as a trick or a fashion but as one of the greatest achievements of the poetic intelligence.

Source Citation: Alvarez, A., in his The School of Donne, 1961. Reprint by Pantheon Books, 1962, 211 p.