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ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, c. 1860

ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, c. 1860

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194. Edward FitzGerald

1861



FitzGerald published translations of Calderon in 1853. He

compared Donne and the metaphysical poets with Calderon in a

letter to E.B.Cowell dated 7 December 1861 (The Letters and

Literary Remains of Edward FitzGerald, ed. W.A.Wright, 1902–

3, ii, pp. 132–3).



I always said about Cowley, Donne, etc. whom Johnson calls the

metaphysical Poets, that their very Quibbles of Fancy, showed a power

of Logic which could follow Fancy through such remote Analogies.

This is the case with Calderon’s conceits also….



439



195. William Francis Collier

1861



Collier (fl. 1861–91) was a grammarian, historian, and writer

for schools. He gave a slipshod account of Donne in A History

of English Literature in a Series of Biographical Sketches, 1861,

p. 168. He declares, among other things, that Donne was buried

in Westminster Abbey.



John Donne…He deserves remembrance as a very learned man, who

began the list of what critics call the Metaphysical poets. Beneath

the artificial incrustations which characterize this school, Donne

displays a fine vein of poetic feeling. He is also noted in our history

as the first writer of satire in rhyming couplets….



440



196. Mrs Katharine Thomson

1861



Mrs Thomson (1797–1862) wrote anecdotal biographies and

historical novels. She spoke of Donne’s poetry in an account of

his friendships with patronesses and others (Celebrated

Friendships, 1861, pp. 305–7).



Donne was eccentric through life. A picture of him at Lincoln’s Inn

is mentioned by Grainger….

[She describes, accurately, the Lothian portrait.]

…of his poems it has been said:

’Twas then plain Donne in honest vengeance rose,

His wit harmonious, but his rhyme was prose.



Satire was Donne’s forte; but, as Dryden observed, his ‘thoughts were

debased by his versification’ ….

Notwithstanding the wit and knowledge of the human mind

displayed by Dr. Donne, he was, during the whole of his life, an

eccentric being.



441



197. Anon., Temple Bar

1861



The following is an extract from an anonymous essay which gives

a dramatic account of Donne’s life and work (‘Donne the

Metaphysician’, Temple Bar, iii, 1861, pp. 78–89).



…Donne had already distinguished himself as a wit who wrote

excellent verses, and his genius found a liberal patron in Sir Francis

Wooley, a distant kinsman. I am afraid that Master Donne toadied

at this time about the crowded ante-chambers of the rich, in the

common but vain expectation of Court preferment. Literature was a

hired jester, not a lady, in those days. She jingled a cap and bells, and

received chance halfpence.

…The great secret of the merits and demerits of Donne’s poetry is

partly to be found in the insatiable desire for book-knowledge which

at this period distinguished his genius, in common with that of Cowley

and the other metaphysical poets. Almost unconsciously, he became

pedantic. Pedantry, coming into contact with a metaphysical habit

of thought, soon made his language a puzzle to vulgar

comprehensions. ‘He dealeth so profoundly,’ said Harrison of John

Heywood’s Spider and Fly, ‘and beyond all measure of skill, that

neither he himself that made it, neither any one that readeth it, can

reach unto the meaning thereof.’ And much the same criticism might

be applied to Donne’s writings. He had always a meaning, sometimes

a beautiful one, but it was too subtle to be easily detected. So with

the rest of the metaphysicians,

Wha ding their brains in college classes,

And syne expect to climb Parnassus,

By dint o’ Greek.



…Add to all this, that he was a wild dreamer, and saw apparitions.

He had imaginary conflicts with Satan, during which he fortified

himself with quotations from Scripture. Satius est supervacua discere

quam nihil. A superfluity of knowledge is better than noodledom.

442



THE CRITICAL HERITAGE



The intense thirst for knowledge which distinguished Donne and the

other metaphysical poets served at least one purpose, if it did not

improve their verses. It elevated them above the follies and meannesses

of the idle Court butterflies, it kept their blood cool and sober, and it

taught one or two of them to meditate divinely on themes beyond

the sunset. They busied their brains with book-lore, they lived

exemplary lives, and they left poems which are often unintelligible.

…‘The metaphysical poets were men of learning,’ says Johnson in

one of his just fits; ‘and to show their learning was their whole

endeavour; but, unluckily, resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of

writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as

stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation

was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting

the syllables.’ This is as true as any criticism Johnson ever penned;

still, like all his criticisms, it is only half true. The metaphysical poets

were for the most part men of genius as well as learning; and their

whole endeavour was not so much to show their learning, as to gratify

their love for quaint fancies. The form was in their eyes so subservient

to the substance, that they neglected the form of their poems

altogether; yet they now and then touch a key-note of melody which

has a deeper and more lingering effect than the music of the more

finished verse-writers. They were addicted to what Dryden calls ‘the

fairy kind of writing.’ They lost sight of nature while racking their

learned heads for queer images. Their pictures, though essentially

poetical, were proportionally false; yet they limned them with an

honest desire to benefit their fellow mortals. They paint at secondhand, taking as models those vague hypothetical memories which,

through a long sojourn in the domains of the fancy, have been

distorted into a picturesqueness not their own. They are lavish of

metaphor, generally far fetched, but seldom more than pretty. All

these faults were most prominent in their love-verses,—a kind of

composition which ought to be peculiarly free from such affectations.

But, you see, ever since Queen Elizabeth, (whom Mr. Froude has, on

the no-evidence of a Spanish prelate, just turned traitor to) taught

her maids of honour to study Greek, in which language she herself

was a proficient,—ever since Queen Elizabeth had studied Plato, and

grown jealous of Amy Robsart,—the fine ladies had become very

learned and clever. The poets, therefore, saddled their Pegasi, placed

their mistresses on the crupper, and, to the astonishment of worthy

burghers, who could not read Marino, galloped away into the

443



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