Ben Jonson followed meticulously classical rules in his poetic and dramatic work. He was a classicist. He was a champion of decorum, discipline, symmetry and regularity. So, he was not in favour of bold liberty as was taken up by Donne in his poetical composition. But Jonson appreciated Donne as well for revolting against Petrarchan conventions in Elizabethan poetry. Like Donne, Ben Jonson revitalized English lyric poetry which had lost its glamour, vitality and vigour because of its mere imitation of Petrarchan convention. Ben Jonson considers Donne as “a first poet in some things”. We have already discussed the greatness of Donne as a poet at various places in this book. We here elaborate in outline the various aspects of his poetry indicating his greatness.
Donne was the first poet who included thought and idea in poetry side by side
Donne neglected the Elizabethan conventions straightaway. He expressed his varying personal moods and idiosyncracies. He infused the realistic mode of personal urge and immediacy in his lyrics. In the Middle Ages, poetry was divorced from thought and reason. It was purely written for expressing emotions and feelings. Petrarchan influence was a predominating factor in Elizabethan poetry because of the advent of the Renaissance. Thus, by and by, the lyric poetry of Elizabethan era became vigourless and lifeless husks of mere conventions which were imitated without any symptom of personal urge. Donne’s lyric poetry is quite reverse to the prevailing traditions of the Elizabethan age.
Originality in diction marks Donne’s poetry
This originality in diction includes words not merely from the vocabulary of science but from colloquialism. He selected colloquial diction which has vigour, freshness and originality. He discarded literary words and phrases which became rusty because of repetition.
Donne deliberately rejected the conventional conceits and images such as flowers, sky, moon, river and stream etc.
He coined new images which were outcome of popular belief of scientific discoveries. In this respect, we have quoted various examples from his poems in the chapter, Donne’s Diction and Versification. His vocabulary is rich and diversified. It scrupulously avoids the hackneyed poetical and colourful words and expressions. He exploits the resources of the colloquial, trite and plebian words which may be unhesitatingly yoked with a set of learned technical terms, with a generous vision of verbal eccentricities, ambiguity and confusion. Consequently, there is production of a bizarre effect. The vigour of colloquialism is evident in his poem The Good Morrow as the opening lines given below show:
I wonder by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we lov’d..
Did till we lov’d..
Donne repudiated Elizabethanism in lyric poetry
His rhythmical structure is governed by the nature of the passion, feeling and mood and at the same time it is in perfect accord with the diction, imagery and attitude in a poem. His love poems are not concerned with limited number of moods of love as is the case with Elizabethan lyrics of love. While in Elizabethan lyric, there is the mood of despair and frustration in love and their themes are concerned with despondency and bewailing of the lover for the beloved, in the Donne lyric, there is the variety of moods, even, the mood of fulfillment and joy of consummated love. He is the first poet who has delineated ecstatic joy of fulfilled love in The Sun Rising, The Anniversary and The Good Morrow. Thus, everything contributes to the vigour and vitality of the poems. His songs are entirely different from those of the Elizabethan lyricists like Campion and Daniel.
Originality in imagery and use of sound
Donne was the first English poet who has used facts of scientific discoveries of his time in the poetry—the objects, which are utilized in the laboratories such as compasses, and the globe with the maps of earth pasted on it, and various other objects derived from various branches of science like biology, physics and chemistry etc.
His poems have a unique clangour of poetic sounds...now exquisitely melodious, now complicated and contorted almost beyond ready comprehension, but never really harsh, and always possessing, in actual presence or near suggestion, a poetical quality which no English poet has ever surpassed.
The complexity of Donne’s personality and the quick glancing flight of his fancy and the jagged gyrations of his vigorous and all-devouring wit bent and cracked not only the smooth surface of the conventional diction but also the rhythm of the conventional slow-moving and musical lines. He was creating the same revolution in the non-dramatic versification as was effected by the dramatists headed by Shakespeare in the structure of blank verse. The form was subjected to the changing configuration of meaning and thought, and rhythm of the lines was made to respond to the inflexions of the speaking voice and the impassioned eloquence of dialectical reasoning. If we examine the single lines, the impression will be one of harshness and discord, but if we take the whole poem as a single entity it will be apparent that his discords are the ‘harmonies not understood’.
Donne’s rhythmical effect
Grierson has described him as one of “the first masters of elaborate stanza or paragraph in which the discords of individual lines and phrases are resolved in the complex and rhetorically effective harmony of the whole group”. He plays with rhythmical effects as with ‘conceits’ and words and seems to be bent upon startling or even shocking the readers into alertness necessary for threading the labyrinth of his thoughts and arguments. His rhythm is an irritant or gadfly which goads the readers continually to move forward and then, all on a sudden, pulls him up sharp with some arresting turn.
Various aspects of Donne’s imagery
Originality, novelty and heterogeneous yoking together of the trite, the abstract and the concrete, are the marks of his imagery which is drawn mostly from unexpected and unpoetical sources. His images are the manifestations of fantastic operations of his ‘wit’ to which feelings and passions are eventually subject. It may lead him to the hyperbole of imaging his mistress as more divine than an angel and a ‘bracelet’ of her hair as a holy relic apt to inspire idolatry and then descend lo the level of anticlimax of comparing the lovers to compasses or making the flea a symbol of their hearts’ union. When this fantastic wit is supported by passion the result, though disconcerting, is unique; unsupported by strong emotion, it comes perilously near the ridiculous.
One peculiarity of Donne’s imagery calls for special notice. He was most sensitive to the factual effect and his poems abound in shapes which are sharp, solid, pointed and immediately apprehensible by touch. He is sensitive to space, continuity and linear or irregular movements. He was naturally attracted by mathematical analogies and geometrical and other scientific instruments which were calculated to reduce the mysterious universe to the solid and the tangible and make the infinity to contract within a span.
Donne’s revival in twentieth century
The poetry and criticism of T.S. Eliot has brought the rivival of Donne to full flowering. Eliot, ungrudgingly applied the poetic devices of Donne in his poetry of the Volumes of 1917 and 1920. He found his artistic devices indispensable for the contemporary poetic practice. Thus, he has been considered “the poet’s poet” in the history of English poetry. Other critics like Richards, Leavis, Herbert Read, Empson and Graves noted Donne’s poetry which possessed richness, vitality and vigour of living poetry. These critics exalted Donne, while Dryden and Dr.Johnson condemned and degraded him by their critical dictums. The definition of great poetry in the present century is that it is an expression of the whole experience which is a mixture of contradictory and opposed thoughts feelings and sentiments. Donne’s rich imagery and conceits indicate his agility and vigilance of fertile mind which have deep rooted association with his feelings and experience. They indicate his sharp, all-inclusive and all-comprehensive wit. His poems, small as well as long, possess the unity which emerges out of the intensity of passion and of the conclusiveness of argumentation. He is a great metaphysical poet because of the rich themes of his poetry, as well as his treatment and structure. The themes of most of his poems are based upon religion and love and thereby indicate the deep-rooted relationship between body and soul and God, man and his own self. His poetic artifice is to put forth arguments in a controversial manner. Thus he shines on the firmament of the history of poetry not only in England but in the whole of European poetry.
The besetting sin of Elizabethan lyricism, especially Spenserian, was its luxuriance and prolixity, the decorative, colourful and meretricious dressing of simple and plain ideas, which were almost concealed under the weight of elaborate rhetoric like idols in temples under the layers of floral offerings. Donne rescued the lyric from this suffocating ornamentation by wedding it to a passionate speaker which cuts at once to the very heart of the meaning.