Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Age of John Donne

The age of Donne was an age of transition, standing midway between the age of Shakespeare and the Jacobean age (1572-1631). The age of Donne would effectively and substantially cover the first thirty years of the seventeenth century. This age stands midway between the age of Shakespeare-and the age of Milton. There is, however, some over-lapping which cannot be avoided because literary periods or ages cannot be separated chronologically.

It was a period of remarkable literary activity, a sort of prolongation of the Elizabethan age. The revival of learning had influenced not only Italy and Germany but also England. The classics were studied minutely and from a new angle. The re-discovery of the literature and culture of the past-known as humanism-gave the writers a new outlook on life. Life was a gay game and not a sorry penance. The new ideal man was to be a perfect courtier, a perfect soldier, a perfect writer and, above all, a perfect gentleman. For this, he had to undergo comprehensive training and a rigorous discipline.
The age of Donne was a period of transition. Many changes in the political, social and economic domains were being effected. Colonial expansion and increase in industry and trade made people materialistic. The study of medieval literature developed the minds of the readers. Though education was not so widespread, the common man spared no opportunity of obtaining knowledge from any source. Medieval beliefs held their ground both in Donne and his contemporaries.
The Reformation was a direct challenge to Rome. Why should Pope be supreme in the matters of religion? Religion, after all, is a personal matter and no dictation should be tolerated from-outside. Nationalism in its wider connotation was responsible not only for a new literature, but also a new faith. The abuses and weaknesses of the Catholic religion were laid bare. The new Church of England came into being. Donne, like some of his contemporaries, felt within himself the conflict of faith. His scepticism, his humanism and his learning made him challenge the faith of his ancestors. The result was that after a good deal of heart-searching and vacillation, Donne embraced the Established Church of England by 1598. But it was not until he was ordained in 1615 that he became a confirmed Anglican.
Peace and prosperity of Queen Elizabeth
The heritage of Queen Elizabeth, who died in 1603, was one of peace and prosperity. It was also one of centralization. Although her monarchy had not been an absolute one, she delegated her authority wisely, and patriotism was loyalty to the Queen. Religion and politics were closely linked. Elizabeth, as the supreme head of the Church of England, maintained religious tolerance as the Puritan and Catholic minorities strengthened. Elizabethan developments in science were great, and included new discoveries in navigation, astronomy, cartography and medicine. England came to accept the Copemican view of the earth instead of the Ptolemic system.
James I and disillusionment
James I, formerly James V of the Scotland, took over the English throne in 1603 at the death of Elizabeth. Though widely hailed at first, Englishmen rapidly became disillusioned with him. James did not understand the people he ruled, nor the nature of his office. He allowed his favourites and the Spanish government to influence him; his failure to recognize the rising power of Parliament, his reversion to rigid views of absolute monarchy, and the luxury and the corruption of his rule, and religious schisms widened and Puritanism and Roman Catholicism became more militant in their fight against the established Church of England. Political strife, intermingled with growing religious dissension, was brought to a head by his insistence on the oneness of Church and state.
Pessimism and optimism in the age of Donne
In such circumstances, the spirit of the age became one of doubt and scientific analysis. The stretching of space in astronomy and geography, and the recognition of the great, unexplored territories in an expanding world threw man’s place in the scheme of things into doubt. Both pessimism and optimism were offshoots of this need and quest for authority, the former as a natural manifestation of man’s insecurity in a world increasingly governed by scientific law indifferent to man’s position in the universe; the latter, as a natural assertion of man’s greater control of his environment and a better life. It was an age of psychology, of biography, and of self-analysis at all social levels, as the works of Izaak Walton, John Donne, or Robert Burton show; it was also an age of scientific materialism as the works of Bacon and Newton show.
The conflict between the Church and the State
The conflict between Church and State led men to wonder which was superior, with the answer resting in man’s own conscience. The questioning of civil authority, of where true sovereignty should lie, made it possible to rebel against a king. The growth of the middle class, the rise of political parties, and the estrangement of the Puritans led to a long civil war. Charles I, who began his rule in 1629, following the death of his father, was beheaded in 1649, whereupon a Commonwealth was begun by the Puritans, leading to the eventual military dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, who, nevertheless, brought some measure of peace and stability to a turbulent England. Yet the idea of a military dictatorship was abhorrent to Englishmen and upon Cromwell’s death in 1660, Parliament invited Charles II, in exile in France, to return to England and resume the rule of the Stuart kings.
The discovery of the physical world in the age of Donne
The discovery of the physical world was another aspect of this age. Columbus discovered America and Vasco de Gama found a new route to India. The English ships sailed round the world and revealed the riches and the glories of ancient but hitherto-unknown lands. Donne was intensely interested in the extension of the limits and the knowledge of the physical world. His comparisons, references and allusions to different lands and the maps of new regions show conclusively that he was inspired by the wonder and the expanding horizon of the world he lived in:
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown.
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
The creative faculty of writers was encouraged to imagine new worlds and islands on the basis of the new discoveries.
The seventeenth century was fundamentally an age of transition and revolution. The old medieval world of ideas was undergoing rapid transformation. But there was an element of underlying continuity of tradition. So, one of the basic features of this age is the presence of a tension between the old and the new. The medieval thinker was religious. His outlook on science was theological and metaphysical. He was interested in the origin and the final end of man.
The approach of the new science was quite different The scientific thinker was interested in the world itself. He expressed a concern with the sequence of phenomena. He, therefore, appealed to observation and experiment. Thus, there was far-reaching repercussion on the creative minds of the age. For example, John Donne indicated the scepticism of the conflict between the old and the new. In his poem, The First Anniversary, he indicated that the earth was shaking under his feet. His central problem was the relation of man to God. Previous explanations of this problem had already been displaced by the new trend in scientific thinking. The dichotomy between religion and science, reason and faith, in no small measure affected the intellectual altitude of the seventeenth century. Jacobean pessimism had its origin in this dichotomy. If we consider the representative minds of the seventeenth century, we might say that “normality consists in incongruity”.
In domains of human experience, we note the medieval and the Renaissance attitude co-existing in the seventeenth century. This is especially evident in many of the attitudes of the seventeenth century life. The Petrarchans praised love and in the Elizabethan lyrics we find the influence of Petrarch. But the medieval attitude to love was ambiguous. On the one hand, it condemned all love of created beings; on the other hand, love had to be tolerated as a necessary passion. Courtly love represented this evil aspect of love. But the attitude of the church was modified partly by Neo-Platonism. The Neo-Platonics were acutely aware of the love of God, through the world of the senses. They saw in human love a reflection of the divine love. According to Neo-Platonics, love held the world together.
Typical Renaissance poets apply these philosophical conceptions to the realm of erotic love. Beauty was the divine idea in the material object and love was the perception of that idea. The Renaissance Neo-Platonist found ideal truth in the beauty of his mistress and he could transcend into higher things by his love for her. The lover loved with a religious fervour. Thus, in the period of Renaissance, Neo-Platonism gavel to the conception of love a totally different significance than the one which medieval religion had given to it. An attitude of lyrical irony towards this new significance, is the essence of Donne’s love lyrics. Donne expresses both attitudes to love. In fact, John Donne sums up the intellectual situation of the seventeenth century in his poem The First Anniversary:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt.
The element of fire is put out;

The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him when to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world is spent
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they seek that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies,
It is all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply and all relation.
Empirical science
Empirical science was a new development bringing about rapid changes in the sphere of science. There was unfettered exercise of reason and judgement. Copernicus gave a new view of astronomy. His views were further supported by Galileo with his telescope. This development gave a rude set-back to the old Ptolemic cosmology which changed the whole mental horizon of Europe. Its pressure did not attract so far literary figures of the day. Donne did not refute the old Ptolemic cosmology.
Habit of reading
Habit of reading was increasing gradually in this period. There was considerable increase in the number of books printed annually. But many of the books were yet circulated in manuscripts among the authors, friends and acquaintances. The poems of Donne and Herbert were read chiefly in manuscript. But Browne’s Religio Medici was printed. The writers of this period reveal an astonishing versatility and range of knowledge.
University education
There was no change in the pattern of University education. The under-graduates used to study the traditional subjects like logic and metaphysics. The aim of education was for imparting theological knowledge and thus producing priests. There were theological contro­versies at Cambridge.
Donne, the founder of a new school of poetry
A wave of romance swept the minds of creative writers. There was a spirit of adventure in literary output, in the efforts to create new literary forms and metres, the desire to reject the old traditions and conventions of theme and expression in literary writing. Donne was wholly unconventional in theme and expression. His independent spirit refused to submit to Petrarchan convention and Platonic idealism. His love poetry is fresh and original; he goes deep into his heart and dissects his own Elizabethan feelings. Donne’s revolt against the sweetness and harmony of verse is illustrated by the ruggedness and dissonance of his lines. He went to the colloquial, to that which was nearest to the speech of men, for revealing his feelings. And yet he did not abandon the Elizabethan conceit. He gave it a new form, a new vitality. He made his poetry dramatic and rhetorical. For example, he asserted:
For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love.
Donne is original not only in the matter of love but also in the concept of woman. Except his beloved, all women are false and faithless:
Nor can you more judge woman’s thoughts by tears,
Than by her shadow, what she wears,
O perverse sex, where none is true but she,
Who’s therefore true, because her truth kills me.
Probably in his early youth, he had known many women inside out. He knew love as sex attraction, as an impulse for physical gratifica­tion. He boasted of his conquests and ridiculed jealous husbands in his poems. But at the same time, he was not oblivious of love as the marriage of true minds, as the merging of one soul into another. His passionate pleas to his beloved for union in Love’s infiniteness is a case in point. True love is neither subject to time nor decay :
All other things to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay.
Every great writer is both a creature and creator of the age. In certain aspects, he is influenced by his times; in certain ways, he gives a new ideal to the age in which, he is born. Donne reflects in his poetry the aspiration, the adventure and the conflict of the age. He reacts to the humanism and the religious fervour of his time. He also gives a new direction to the literary activity of his age. He, in a sense, founded—the “metaphysical lyric” which was practised by a score of writers. He also set up new traditions in versification. By and large, Donne must be regarded as an original poet, a poet who gave much more than what he borrowed from his age:
So the fire,
That fills with spirit and heat the Delphic quire,
Which kindled first by the Promethean breath,
Glow’d here a while, lies quench’t now in the death;
The Muse’s garden with Pedantic weeds
O’rspred was purg’d by thee; the lazie seeds
Of servile imitation thrown away;
And fresh invention planted, thou did pay
The debts of our penurious bankrupt age.
An intellectuality of temper made Donne grapple with his sensations and emotions and transform them into intellectual moulds. In this lies his unification of sensibility, otherwise his thinking is unsystematic. There is an indiscriminate mixing of the old and the new, and he arrives at no synthesis as scientific thinker, although it is with him that the new temper of the Renaissance culture, and the scientific temper, enters poetry. Of all the poets of the Jacobean age, he most successfully articulated the scientific ideas of his time. It was an age of intellectual and cultural transition and Donne was analytically concerned with the forces shaping contemporary thought and sensibility. It was this duality of his mind which, more than anything else, made him the founder of a new school of poetry.

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