DONNE, we sometimes forget, was an Elizabethan. Scholars do well to warn us against over-simplifying the pattern of literary change into a simple succession ofmovements and ‘reactions’, and to remind us that in periods of heightened vitality developments in different directions often exist side by side. 1 By no means all of what we now consider typically Elizabethan poetry was in existence when Donne began to write.
It remains true, nevertheless, that Donne chose to do something different from his predecessors and from those of his contemporaries who were still exploiting and developing the existing modes; and younger followers like. Carew looked back on this choice as revolt or form: The Muses garden with Pedantique weedes O’rspred, was purg’d by thee; The lazie seeds Ofservile imitation throwne away And fresh invention planted …. An Elegit upon the death of the Deane of Pauls, DrJohn Donne
Modem students ofrhetoric have argued that Donne’s innovations did not run counter to contemporary rules,2 but even if he is to be regarded as implementing existing theoretical possibilities, his practice remains the kind ofnew departure which marks a decisive alteration in the course of literary history. In considering the nature of Donne’s poetic originality, it is common to begin with his development of the metaphysical conceit. Yet there is a great deal to say on the subject ofhis verse style before broaching the topic of imagery at all.
The first point likely to strike the reader who comes to Donne from the smooth fluency of the average Elizabethan lyric or sonnet is the surprising directness of the speaking voice conveyed by his rhythms and diction: For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love, Or chide my palsie, or my gout, My five gray haires, or ruin’d fortune ? lout, 98 THE POEMS OF JOHN DONNE With wealth your state, your minde with Arts improve. Take you a course, get you a place, Observe his honour, or his grace, Or the King’s reall, or his stamped face Contemplate, what you will, approve,
So you will let me love. The Canonization Here the occasional inversions of normal speeeh-order and the fact that line 4 by itself might come from an eighteenth-century couplet hardly affect our general impression that technique and conception are essentially dramatic; the colloquial outburst of line I, the heavy stresses on ‘palsie’ and ‘gout’, the contemptuous alliteration ofline 3, above all the play of an exasperated splutter of short phrases across the intricate stanza form, all impose on the reader the desired emphasis, tone, and mood.
Plainly the aim here is not sweetness, grace, or verbal melody, either for its own sake or to accommodate any pQSoO sible musician who, as Donne complains in The Triple Poole, his art and voice to show Doth Set and sing my paine. It is rather a realistic expressiveness of the kind developed in the I590S by the dramatists, above all by Shakespeare, and nothing quite like it had previously appeared in lyric poetry,s in spite of certain foreshadowings in Wyatt.
As in dramatic verse, the aim of realism is, of course, not absolute; whatever metrical licences are taken, the pattern ofline and stanza remains, to reinforce, modify, or generally play against the rhythms of speech with the effects of heightened intensity and concentration proper to poetry. When we speak of realistic expressiveness we use a shorthand term for the maximum of realistic expressiveness compatible with a sense of artistic form. Donne’s lyrics have a music of their own, though the immediate effect is of vivid speech rather than song: Deare love, for nothing lesse than thee Would I have broke this happy dreame,
It was a theame For reason, much too strong for phantasie, Therefore thou wakd’st me wisely; yet 99 PART THRBB My Dreame thou brok’st not, but continued’st it, Thou art so truth, that thoughts of thee suffice, To make dreams truths; and fables histories; Enter these armes, for since thou thoughtst it best, Not to dreame all my dreame, let’s act the rest. The Dreame That Donne could write with a simple lyrical sweetness when he chose is shown by one or two songs to existing airs, especially ‘Sweetest love, I do not goe, For weariness of thee’,’ though even here his originality comes out in the careful subtlety of the poem’s argument.
He was a conscious artist, and his avoidance of conventional fluency of movement and courtliness of diction must be assumed to be deliberate. As with the lyric stanza, so in his satires and degies with the couplet, Donne makes use oflicences similar to those ofdramatic blank verse. Always the formal devices ofpoetry – metre, rhyme, alliteration, and other effects of sound – are made to serve an expressive purpose; a constant control of pause, stress, and tempo works to the same end.