Sunday, November 7, 2010

Dr. Johnson declared that Donne, “for not being understood would perish”. How far is this verdict justified?

Donne’s poetry stands in a class by itself. Being a metaphysical poet, he rejects the traditional poetic vacabulary. His originality lies in his experimentation in metre, rhythm and pattern. As his thought is rugged, so is his diction. Ben Jonson expected that Donne would follow the regular verse patterns like a traditional poet.
The fact is that Donne is modern and colloquial in his verse. He exploits flexbility and liveliness of current idiom. Just as Shakespeare uses blank verse with great variety to suit the mood and the theme, in the same way Donne changes the rhythm pattern to suit his subject-matter. This is why his verses are rugged and rhetorical. He does not offer us versified lollipops; rather he makes new and unusual experiments. He rarely repeats the same metrical form. He also makes variations of line length. Redpath remarks: “Stanzas of more than six lines seem to give Donne the scope he so often needs to develop the complex interplay of thoughts and feeling which is typical of him”. Undoubtedly, Donne rejects the verse patterns of the Elizabethans and uses intricate rhythmic patterns corresponding to his complex themes. “Every twist and turn of the sound pattern he uses, corresponds with the twists and turns in his thought process.” This is responsible for the ruggedness and harshness of which some critics complain.
Dr Johnson was a classicist. He predicted that Donne would perish, when he was casting a glance over the future of the literary world through the prism of classical ideology. But Johnson did not visualise how far the world was rapidly changing because of the tremendous upheaval caused by the scientific discoveries, technology and philosophy, and psychology. Johnson’s prediciton might be correct in his age. His conviction was that Donne’s language was complex, vague, and obtuse. It was obtuse, and all incorporating. It was full of many scientific and geographical terms. It had many colloquialisms. Johnson was of opinion that Donne was a realist who did not keep into consideration aesthetic and artistic unity of his poems. According to him, his poems are incoherent and fragmentary. Samuel Johnson and his predecessor, Dryden approved of the statement of Ben Jonson. All the three had ridiculed the poetic devices of Donne and other poets of the metaphysical school. Thus Donne was appreciated even in the end of the 17th century, but consequently in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the critics did not find any greatness in him.
Ben Jonson was a classicist and as such could not appreciate the experimentation and flexibility of Donne’s verse. Donne makes use of personal imagery and a flexible rhythm. Legouis defends Donne because the latter rejected the highly regular metres and monotonous and harmonious cadences. He remarks in connection with Ben Jonson’s censure: “Closely examined, this crime, for such it is, derives from his subordination of melody to meaning, his refusal to submit to the reigning hierarchy of words, sometimes from his lapse into the expressive, spoken tongue, in defiance of the convention of poetic rhythm.” Donne has melody of his own though thought dominates over feeling in his verse. Grierson remarks: “Donne’s verse has a powerful and haunting harmony of its own. He is striving to find a rhythm that will express the passionate fulness of his mind, the fluxes and refluxes of his moods, and the felicities of verse are as frequent and startling as those of phrasing....The ‘wrenching of accent’ which Jonson complained of is not entirely due to carelessness or indifference. It has often both a rhetorical and harmonious justification. Donne plays with rhythmical effects as with conceits and words and often in much the same way....Donne is perhaps our first great master of poetic rhetoric, “of poetry used for effect of oratory rather than of song.”
We may, therefore, conclude that Ben Jonson is not justified in condemning the lack of rhythm or melody in Donne’s poetry. The complex nature of Donne’s themes, the need to prove a point, the exploitation of the conceit require suitable adjustments in versification and rhythm-patterns for which Donne deserves credit father than censure. Modem critics have revealed the craftsmanship of Donne’s verses and. greatly commended his innovations.
Donne’s obscurity springs from the very nature of the poetry he was writing—dramatic, colloquial, unconventional and intellectually analytical. Such elements stimulate thought. His poetry cannot be easily enjoyed by lazy minds. However, the very fact that he is read and appreciated shows that he has been understood, and he has not “perished.

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