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ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, c. 1860
194. Edward FitzGerald
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….
195. William Francis Collier
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….
196. Mrs Katharine Thomson
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
197. Anon., Temple Bar
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.
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