John Donne's Wit & Myth of Poetry

We have seen the history of English poetry rewritten by critics convinced of Donne's cardinal importance. This change was partly the effect of the reception into England of French Symbolist thought and its assimilation to the native doctrines of Blake, Coleridge, and Pater. Poets and critics were struck by the way Donne exhibits the play of an agile mind within the sensors body of poetry, so that even his most passionate poems work by wit, abounding in argument and analogy.

A series of poets, culminating in Mr. Eliot, proclaimed their affinity with Donne. They also searched the past ignored to discover the moment when the blend of thought and passion that came so naturally to Donne, and with such difficulty to themselves, developed its modern inaccessibility. One answer was that this occurred during the lifetime of Milton, who helped to create the difficulties under which modern poetry labors. This very characteristic, symbolist, historical myth is usually called by the name Mr. Eliot gave it, the "dissociation of sensibility. Donne has been distorted to serve this myth, but it is true that earlier criticism had treated him harshly. As Ben Johnson suggested, his kind of poetry runs the risk of neglect, especially in periods that value perspicuity. Dryden thought of him as a great wit, rather than as a poet, and a normal late seventeenth century view of Donne was that this "eminent poet became a much more eminent preacher." Johnson's brilliant critique occurs more or less accidentally in his life of Cowley. Coleridge and Lamb, Browning and George Eliot admired him, but Gosse, is patronizing about the poetry and calls Donne's influence "almost entirely malign." The revaluation of Donne has certainly been radical. The present is probably a favorable moment for a just estimate. 

Wit is a quality allowed Donne by all critics, of all parties. In his own time people admired his "strong lines," and perhaps the best way of giving a general account of his wit is to try to explain what this expression meant. Donne is notoriously an obscure poet. In fact, this obscurity is often over estimated, but he is never easy, and this is often because his manner is tortuous and in his own word, 'harsh'. Carew's famous tribute emphasizes the strain he put on Language: "To the awe of thy imperious wit our stubborn language bends." Carew speaks his "masculine expression." Donne was not writing for the many. He expected his readers to enjoy difficulty, not only in the scholastic ingenuity of his arguments, but in the combination of complicated verse-forms and apparently spontaneous thought. This kind of writing belongs to a rhetorical tradition ignored by much Elizabethan poetry which argued that language could directly represent the immediate play of mind-style as the instantaneous expression of thinking. Hence, this is why Donne will always appear to readers "whom the rhythm of thought itself attracts by virtue of its own peculiar convolutions." Ben Johnson, himself not a stranger to the strong lines was only the first to accuse Donne of overdoing. But for a while "strong lines" was a eulogistic term. Fuller said that "his Epithets were pregnant with metaphors, carrying in them a difficult plainness, difficult at the hearing, plain at the considering thereof." However, there was opposite to what Walton called "the strong lines now in fashion." Hobbes called them "no better than riddles." The taste for strong lines is not universal, nor are the powers they require of poets. 

As strong lines directly record mental activity, they contain concepts, or, in the contemporary form of the word, "conceits." The value of such lines obviously depends on the value of the concepts they express, and these were usually metaphors. The world was regarded as a vast divine system of metaphors, and the mind was at its fullest stretch when observing them. Peculiar ability in this respect was called by the Italians and the English wit. We cannot think of Donne without thinking of relentless argument. He depends heavily upon dialectical sleight-of-hand. Still, it is wise to learn what we can from continental critics of witty poetry, and the most important lesson, brilliantly suggested by S.L. Bethel, is that they regarded the conceit of argument as the highest and rarest kind of conceit. This is Donne's commonest device. (Some aspects of Donne's Jesuit training would help him in the business of analogy, but primarily the conceit of his secular poetry is derived from his later religious studies. What made him a poet, also made him an Anglican; The revaluation of a tradition.)

A great deal has been made of his interest in the "new philosophy," and the disturbance supposed to have been caused him by such astronomical discoveries as the elliptical movement pf planets; the movement of the earth, and so on. Donne was aware of such developments. But it is the greatest possible misunderstanding of Donne to suppose that he took this as any more than another proof, of the imperfection of human intellect. Sometimes he uses "new philosophy" more seriously, to illustrate some moral or theological assertion. There is always an antithesis in Donne, between natural and divine knowledge, the first shadowy and in exact, the second clear and sure. New philosophy belongs to the first class. We may speak confidently of a "libertine" or "naturalist" Donne only if we use the terms as applying to literature and thought rather than to life. Donne openly despises the ritual and indirection of Platonic love, he will follow nature and pluck his rose. 

Donne's wit depends on the assumption that a joke can be a serious matter. Wit, as he understood it, was born of the preaching of the word. Walton says: "His fancy was inimitably high, equalled only by his great wit. He was by nature highly passionate." It will never be regretted that the twentieth century, restored him to his place among the English poets, and wit to its place in poetry.