John Donne

John Donne (1537-1631), the leader of the Metaphysical school of poets, had a very checkered career until be became the Dean of St. Paul. Though his main work was to deliver religious sermons, he wrote poetry of a very high order. His best-known works are The Progress of the Soul; An Anatomy of the World, an elegy; and Epithalamium. His poetry can be divided into three parts: (1) Amorous (2) Metaphysical (3) Satirical. In his amorous lyrics which include his earliest work, he broke away from the Petrarchan model so popular among the Elizabethan poets, and expressed the experience of love in a realistic manner. His metaphysical and satirical works which from a major portion of his poetry, were written in later years. The Progress of the Soul and Metempsychosis, in which Donne pursues the passage of the soul through various transmigrations, including those of a bird and fish, is a fine illustration of his metaphysical poetry. A good illustration of his satire is his fourth satire describing the character of a bore. They were written in rhymed couplet, and influenced both Dryden and Pope.

Donne has often been compared to Browning because of his metrical roughness, obscurity, ardent imagination, taste for metaphysics and unexpected divergence into sweet and delightful music. But there is one important difference between Donne and Browning. Donne is a poet of wit while Browning is a poet of ardent passion. Donne deliberately broke away from the Elizabethan tradition of smooth sweetness of verse, and introduced a harsh and staccato method. His influence on the contemporary poets was far from being desirable, because whereas they imitated his harshness, they could not come up to the level of his original thought and sharp wit. Like Browning, Donne has no sympathy for the reader who cannot follow his keen and incisive thought, while his poetry is most difficult to understand because of its careless versification and excessive terseness.

Thus, with Donne the Elizabethan poetry with its mellifluousness and richly observant imagination came to an end, and the Caroline poetry with its harshness and deeply reflective imagination began. Although Shakespeare and Spenser still exerted some influence on the poets, Donne’s influence was more dominant.