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ROBERT BROWNING, c. 1828 86

ROBERT BROWNING, c. 1828 86

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JOHN DONNE



I remember I was a little lightheaded one long night, and fancied I

had to go through a complete version of the Psalms by Donne, Psalm

by Psalm! Fact!

(iii) In 1842 an admirer presented Browning with a copy of the 1719

edition of Donne’s poems, inscribing it ‘To Robert Browning, Esq.

from Thos. Powell, June 12, 1842’. The book came up for auction at

Sotheby’s in May 1913 among the effects of R.W.Browning, who

had just died, and was sold to Elkin Matthews for £2. It is listed in

the catalogue of the sale, Catalogue of The Browning Collections,

1913, p. 94 (given in Sales Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent

Persons, vi, ed. J. Woolford, 1972, p. 121).

(iv) Elizabeth Barrett several times spoke of ‘your Donne’ in her early

letters to Browning, quoting Satyre ii and ‘The Will’; and Browning,

replying, aptly wove in quotations from a verse letter, the

Epithalamion…St Valentines day, and ‘A Valediction: forbidding

Mourning’ (The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett

Browning 1845–6, ed. R.B.Browning, 1899, i, pp. 27, 145, 196, 420,

440; ii, p. 116).

In this famous correspondence Browning used Donne at times to

suggest a motive he could not explicitly avow. There is an interesting

instance in a letter written on ii September 1845, the day before the

meeting in which they declared their love to each other for the first

time. Miss Barrett had been talking of a trip to Italy she might make

with some of her family, and Browning urged her to go. He returned

to the subject a little later, saying that another of his wishes had just

come true—he had found out the pet name by which her family

knew her:

So, wish by wish, one gets one’s wishes—at

least I do—for one instance, you will go to Italy



Why, ‘lean and harken after it’ as Donne says—



The musical phrase, which Browning closes with a large question

mark, is the opening of an aria from Gluck’s Orpheus and Euridice—

‘Che Faró…?’, ‘What shall I do without you, Euridice?’; and the

quotation replies that he will ‘lean and hearken after’ her, as the

separated lovers respond to each other in Donne’s poem. It amounts

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THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



to a discreet avowal, preparing the way for the open declaration of

love that ensued.1

(v) Sir John Simeon presented Browning with a copy of his

‘Unpublished Poems of Donne’ (see No. 187) which came out in

1856–7. Browning wrote on the title page ‘Robert Browning from

Sir John Simeon’. The copy was sold to Elkin Matthews for £3 10s.

at Sotheby’s in May 1913. (See the Catalogue of the Browning

Collections, 1913, p. 94, in Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent

Persons, vi, ed. J.Woolford, 1972, p. 121.)

(vi) Sir Sidney Colvin, looking back to the acquaintance of his early

manhood, c. 1865, recalled Browning’s ‘coming out once with a long

crabbedly fine screed from John Donne’. It was the Elegie on Mris

Boulstred (Memories and Notes of Persons and Places, 1852–1912,

1921, p. 82).

(vii) William Rossetti made an entry in his diary for 1869 (W.M.

Rossetti, Rossetti Papers 1862–70, 1903, p. 378):

Thurs. 7 January. Browning and others came to Euston Square. B.

speaks with great enthusiasm of a poem by Donne named

Metempsychosis.

(viii) A.B.Grosart dedicated to Browning his edition of Donne’s

poems, 1872–3, with an acknowledgment of Browning’s particular

interest in Donne:

TO

ROBERT BROWNING,

THE POET OF THE CENTURY FOR THINKERS,

I DEDICATE

THIS FIRST COMPLETE EDITION OF THE POEMS OF

JOHN DONNE

(BORN 1573, DIED 1631);

KNOWING HOW MUCH HIS POETRY,

WITH EVERY ABATEMENT,

IS VALUED AND ASSIMILATED BY HIM:

RIGHT FAITHFULLY,

ALEXANDER B.GROSART.

1

Mrs K.Tillotson takes the quotation itself for a neutral inquiry—‘he asks her

why she should lean and hearken after Italy’ (‘Donne’s Poetry in the Nineteenth

Century’, in Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies, ed. Herbert Davis and Helen Gardner,

Oxford, 1959, p. 324). I do not see that this is a possible reading of the passage.



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JOHN DONNE



Browning owned and signed his name in a copy of Grosart’s edition,

which was sold for .£3 5s. at Sotheby’s in May 1913. He also owned

and signed a copy of volume i of the edition which was sold on the

same occasion for £2 15s. (See the Catalogue of the Browning

Collections, 1913, p. 94, in Sales Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent

Persons, vi, ed. J.Woolford, 1972, p. 121.)

(ix) Browning quoted and praised Donne’s Metempsychosis in stanza

114 of his The Two Poets of Crosic, published in 1878:

He’s greatest now and to de-struc-ti-on

Nearest. Attend the solemn word I quote,

O Paul! There’s no pause at per-fec-ti-on.

Thus knolls thy knell the Doctor’s bronzed throat!

Greatness a period hath, no sta-ti-on!

Better and truer verse none ever wrote

(Despite the antique outstretched a-i-on)

Than thou, revered and magisterial Donne!

(x) In another poem, ‘Epps’, dated 1886, Browning describes a heroic

episode in the siege of Ostend and has Donne and Dekker writing

verses to celebrate it. (The poem was printed posthumously in The

Cornhill Magazine and The New York Outlook in October 1913,

and has never appeared in a collected edition of Browning’s poems.

It is given in New Poems by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett

Browning, ed. F.G. Kenyon, London, 1914, pp. 56–9.)

Browning describes how one Epps, a Kentishman, took the flag

from its staff and wrapped it round his own body, then ‘shot and

slashed’ to the point of death, staggered back to save it:

And die did Epps, with his English round:

Not so the fame of the feat:

For Donne and Dekker, brave poets and rare,

Gave it honour and praise: and I join the pair

With heart that’s loud though my voice compete

As a pipe with their trumpet-sound!

Dekker does in fact tell the story of ‘William Eps his death’ in prose,

otherwise just as Browning describes it, in A Knights Coniuring.

Donne in earnest: Discovered in Iest, 1607, 14r-K1v. Possibly

Browning had the epigram on Wingfield in mind when he coupled

Donne with Dekker here.

350



148. Mrs Anna Murphy Jameson

1829



Mrs Jameson (1794–1860) wrote essays on art, on famous

women, and the like, and devoted much time to sick nursing. In

a sentimental account of Donne’s marriage and married life she

made a few comments on his poetry (Memoirs of the Loves of

the Poets, 1829, pp. 94–109).



CONJUGAL POETRY CONTINUED.

STORY OF DR. DONNE AND HIS WIFE.

My next instance of conjugal poetry is taken from the literary history

of our own country, and founded on as true and touching a piece of

romance as ever was taken from the page of real life.

Dr. Donne, once so celelebrated as a writer, now so neglected, is

more interesting for his matrimonial history, and for one little poem

addressed to his wife, than for all his learned, metaphysical, and

theological productions. As a poet, it is probable that even readers

of poetry know little of him, except from the lines at the bottom of

the pages in Pope’s version, or rather translation, of his Satires, the

very recollection of which is enough to ‘set one’s ears on edge,’ and

verify Coleridge’s witty and imitative couplet.—

Donne—whose muse on dromedary trots,—

Twists iron pokers into true love knots.



It is this inconceivable harshness of versification, which has caused

Donne to be so little read, except by those who make our old poetry

their study. One of these critics has truly observed, that ‘there is

scarce a writer in our language who has so thoroughly mixed up the

good and the bad together.’ What is good, is the result of truth, of

passion, of a strong mind, and a brilliant wit: what is bad, is the

effect of a most perverse taste, and total want of harmony. No sooner

has he kindled the fancy with a splendid thought, than it is as instantly

quenched in a cloud of cold and obscure conceits: no sooner has he

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JOHN DONNE



touched the heart with a feeling or sentiment, true to nature and

powerfully expressed, than we are chilled or disgusted by pedantry

or coarseness.

[She quotes in full Elegie xvi, ‘On his Mistris’, in the 1669 version.]

I would not have the heart of one who could read these lines, and

think only of their rugged style, and faults of taste and expression.

The superior power of truth and sentiment have immortalised this

little poem, and the occasion which gave it birth. The wife and

husband parted, and he left with her another little poem which he

calls a ‘Valediction, forbidding to mourn.’

Among Donne’s earlier poetry may be distinguished the following

little song, which has so much more harmony and elegance than his

other pieces, that it is scarcely a fair specimen of his style. It was

long popular, and I can remember when a child, hearing it sung to

very beautiful music.

[She quotes ‘The Message’ in full.]

Perhaps it may interest some readers to add, that Donne’s famous

lines, which have been quoted ad infinitum,—

The pure and eloquent blood

Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,

Ye might have almost said her body thought!



were not written on his wife, but on Elizabeth Drury, the only

daughter of his patron and friend, Sir Robert Drury.



352



149. William Godwin

1831



Godwin (1756–1836), radical thinker, essayist, novelist, was a

sometime associate of Coleridge and Shelley, and the father of

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. He spoke of Donne in his Thoughts

on Man, His Nature, Productions, and Discoveries, 1831, pp. 3–

4 and 83.



What a miraculous thing is the human complexion! We are sent into

the world naked, that all the variations of the blood might be made

visible. However trite, I cannot avoid quoting here the lines of the

most deep-thinking and philosophical of our poets…

[He quotes lines 243b-46 of The second Anniversary.]

[Later in the book Godwin writes of European poets.] One of the

most admired of our English poets about the close of the sixteenth

century was Donne. Unlike many of those trivial writers of verse

who succeeded him after an interval of forty or fifty years, and who

won for themselves a brilliant reputation by the smoothness of their

numbers, the elegance of their conceptions, and the politeness of

their style, Donne was full of originality, energy, and vigour. No man

can read him without feeling himself called upon for earnest exercise

of his thinking powers, and even with the most fixed attention and

application, the student is often obliged to confess his inability to

take in the whole of the meaning with which the poet’s mind was

perceptibly fraught. Every sentence that Donne writes, whether in

verse or prose, is exclusively his own. In addition to this, his thoughts

are often in the noblest sense of the word poetical; and passages may

be quoted from him that no English poet may attempt to rival, unless

it be Milton and Shakespeare. Ben Jonson observed of him with great

truth and a prophetic spirit: ‘Donne for not being understood will

perish’. But this is not all. If Waller and Suckling and Carew sacrificed

every thing to the Graces, Donne went into the other extreme. With

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JOHN DONNE



a few splendid and admirable exceptions, his phraseology and

versification are crabbed and repulsive. And, as poetry is read in the

first place for pleasure, Donne is left undisturbed on the shelf, or

rather in the sepulchre; and not one in an hundred even among persons

of cultivation, can give any account of him, if in reality they ever

heard of his productions.



150. Alexander Dyce

1833, ?1850



Dyce (1798–1869), a clergyman, was a prolific editor of old texts.

He included Donne’s Holy Sonnet x, ‘Death be not proud’, in his

Specimens of English Sonnets, 1833, p. 108, and commented on

the poem in the Notes, p. 214. Dyce owned a copy of the 1633

edition of Donne’s poems, and some time later than 1833 he

made several pages of notes in the endpapers. This copy is now

in the Dyce Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, press

mark D.25.D15.



(i) Sonnet by John Donne, p. 108] Deep-thoughted, and forcible—

from the first edition of his Poems, 1633.

(ii) One page of the notes Dyce made in his copy of Donne’s poems,

1633, is taken up with a list of the unusual words and phrases which

Donne uses. On another page Dyce records his observations as he

read through the volume from beginning to end. He notes some words

omitted or misprinted in the 1633 edition and supplies or corrects

them from a later seventeenth-century text of the poems. He recalls

Wordsworth’s high opinion of Holy Sonnet x, ‘Death be not proud’

(see No. 151). He lists some phrases which Milton and Pope seem to

have imitated from Donne, giving reference to Pope’s Eloisa to

Abelard and The Rape of the Lock. And he indicates passages he

admired—‘“her pure and eloquent blood,” &c’ (The second

Anniversary, line 244), ‘“And, though thou beest,” &c. A grand

passage’ (‘Elegie on Mris Boulstred’, line 31).

354



151. William Wordsworth

1833



Wordsworth wrote to Alexander Dyce early in 1833 advising

him on the choice of poems for an anthology, Specimens of English

Sonnets, which came out later in that year. (The Letters of William

and Dorothy Wordsworth: The Later Years, ed. E.de Selincourt,

Oxford, 1939, ii, p. 652. The text given below is reproduced

from the manuscript in the Dyce collection, Victoria and Albert

Museum.) Dyce included Donne’s Holy Sonnet x, ‘Death be not

proud’, at Wordsworth’s suggestion, and noted Wordsworth’s

regard for this sonnet in a copy of the 1633 edition of Donne’s

poems now in the Dyce collection, Victoria and Albert Museum:

‘When I was preparing my Specimens of English Sonnets,

Wordsworth wrote to me to request that I would not overlook

this one, which he thought very fine.’



…It should seem that the best rule to follow, would be, first to

pitch upon the Sonnets which are best both in kind and perfectness

of execution, and next those, which, although of a humbler quality,

are admirable for the finish and happiness of the execution, taking

care to exclude all those which have not one or other of these

recommendations, however striking they might be as characteristic

of the age in which the author lived, or some peculiarity of his

manner.—The tenth sonnet of Donne, beginning ‘Death be not

proud’, is so eminently characteristic of his manner, and at the same

time so weighty in thought and vigorous in the expression that I

would entreat you to insert it, though to modern taste it may be

repulsive or quaint and laboured….



355



152. James Augustus St John

1835



St John (1801–75) was a traveller, journalist, and historian, who

sometimes tried his hand at fiction. For his exotic tales he took

mottoes from the English poets, and twice used lines by Donne.

He gave lines 91b-92 of Satyre iv as the former of two mottoes

to chapter XLVII of Tales of the Ramad’han, 1835, iii, p. 17, and

lines 53–4 of Elegie xvi, ‘On his Mistris’, as the motto of a story

called ‘Hell’s Hollow’ which appeared in the periodical

Friendship’s Offering, 1835, pp. 321–45. Donne’s lines aptly

introduce ‘Hell’s Hollow’, which is a Gothic melodrama about

banditry in the French Alps and describes a murderous attack in

a narrow precipitous place.



356



153. Richard Cattermole and

Henry Stebbing

1836

The compilers of an anthology of seventeenth-century religious

poetry, both clergymen-authors, devoted some twenty-three pages

of it to Donne’s verse. They give one stanza from the

Metempsychosis, a sonnet from La Corona, six Holy Sonnets,

the funeral elegy ‘Death I recant’, the verse letter to Goodyer

‘Who makes the Past, a patterne for next yeare’ (retitled

‘Improvement’), an excerpt from The Lamentations of Jeremy, a

long excerpt from The second Anniversary, and ‘A Hymne to

Christ, at the Authors last going into Germany’.

The extracts that follow are taken from the essay which introduces

the volume, and the brief life of Donne prefixed to the selection

of his poems (Sacred Poetry of the Seventeenth Century, 1836,

ii, pp. xi and 53).



(i)

It may appear paradoxical, to say of the poets of the Seventeenth

Century that they were not artificial. They were so, in style and

manner; not in sentiment and opinion. From the most fanciful of the

school of Donne and Cowley it is easy to strip off the out-growth of

affectation and conceit; and discover the opinions and feelings of the

writer in all their plainness and genuine simplicity beneath….

(ii)

He was the first, and certainly the most vigorous of that poetical

school which the critics have held up to ridicule under the character

of ‘metaphysical’,—a term sufficiently alarming to modern ears to

have had the effect of limiting the popularity of those writers who

have been assigned to the class so stigmatized. Another inexpiable

offence of Donne is the harshness of his versification. Admitting that

he is frequently rugged and sometimes obscure, the judicious critic

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JOHN DONNE



will yet not deny to this once favourite writer, the praise of a true

and often a delightful poet; nor will it surprise him, that more than is

needful has been said on both points, in times which abound with

readers more capable of relishing voluptuous sweetness of language

than of appreciating depth of sentiment and originality of thought;

and ignorant that it is necessary to reflect on what is read, if we

would correctly judge and effectually profit. There is much,

undoubtedly, in the volume of Donne’s Poems, which cannot be more

fitly disposed of, than as ‘Alms for Oblivion’; but there is also much,

for the sake of which it is worth while making one more attempt to

avert the fulfilment of Ben Jonson’s prediction that ‘for want of being

understood he would perish’.



358



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