Sunday, November 7, 2010

“It is not impossible to see why Donne’s poetry should be over-rated in the 20th century and under-rated in the eighteenth.” Comment.

As a leader of the Metaphysical school of poetry, Donne exercised a considerable and healthy influence on his contemporaries. His rhythms, conceits and phrases’ are imitated by Herbert on whom his influence is really great. Herbert’s poems reveal brain-work and the structure of his poems is logical.
Vaughan too draws upon many of the images and ideas of Donne’s poetry. Similarly, Crashaw and Andrew Marvell came under the influence of Donne’s poetry and his love of the fantastic and the paradoxical. It may be that many of the similarities and parallels between Donne’s poetry and those of his contemporaries are superficial, because the orginality of some of their work is undeniable. Helen Gardner observes in this connection: “The best pupils in the school of Donne learnt from their master how to speak; their own minds in their own voices.” Undoubtedly, Donne influenced their work but each one of them had-his own contribution to make to the seventeenth century poetry.
Fluctuations in the reputation of Donne
The first edition of Donne’s poems was published in 1633, two years after his death. During his life-time, his poems were circulated in manuscript from among his friends and his admirers. Six editions were published during the next thirty-six years and this showed the popularity of his poetry. Carew called him the “King of the Universal monarchy of wit”. He is known for his wit and not his passion. In the classical age of the eighteenth century his reputation declined on account of his lack of decorum and harshness of tone. His love poetry fell into disrepute.
“Dr. Johnson revived interest in Donne’s poetry. He drew the attention of contemporary writers to the wit of Donne which is “at once natural and new…..a combination of dissimilar images, of discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” His originality was recognised and his ability to impose a unity on different experiences was commended.
In the Romantic Age (early nineteenth century) the study of Donne was limited to a few poets. They admired his love poetry and his religious poetry. There was no general revival of interest in Donne’s poetry as such.
Discovery and rehabilitation in twentieth century
The Donne revival came in 1912 with Grierson’s edition of Donne’s poems. The reason for the popularity of Donne in this century are obvious. There is a marked and close similarity between the age of Donne and the modern age. Both the ages were periods of transition, when the old values were challenged. There was a conflict between the old and the new; there was loss of faith in religion and the groping for a new ideal or belief. Both periods were disturbed by political conflict, violence and insecurity. The twentieth century had to undergo the strain and destruction of two global wars. People lacked security and .thought that the entire human civilisation might be destroyed. It is the sameness of the conditions and environments between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries which accounts for the revival of interest in Donne’s poetry. The uncertainties of modem life, the destruction caused by conflicts and wars, and the spiritual chaos of the present century are similar to the conditions which prevailed in Donne’s age. W.B. Yeats, Rupert Brooke, W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot came under the spell of Donne’s poetry. Eliot found in him the fusion of thought and feeling, and the unification of sensibility. He commended Donne’s images, conceits, abruptness, juxtapositions, his ‘unique wit’ and loved all his literary craftsmanship. He remarked that Donne would be remarked as ‘a greater reformer of the English language than of English verse’. The large number of books on the criticism of Donne’s poetry published during the last thirty years is ample testimony of the current interest in Donne. However, deep studies of his poems have shown that he is not as great a poet as Shakespeare or Milton, but one whose best poems are ‘achieved wholes’, remarkable for their mastery of experience and expression. The current revival of interest in Donne is both significant and rewarding.
T.S. Eliot asserted: “I believe, Donne’s poetry is a concern of the present and the recent past, rather than of the future.” He used poetic devices and artifices of Donne in his poetry. He found that Donne was the most suitable poet whose an” and technique of poetry is appropriate for giving vent to the basic complications of the modem age. The other modern poet W.H. Auden adopted the poetic devices of Donne for expressing the current issues of the age. Hence, Ben Jonson’s dictum cannot be accepted while keeping in view the immediate relevance of Donne to our age.
Reasons for Donne’s discovery in the present age
John Hayward felt that Donne’s poetry “expresses for us our own hopes and fears of an analogous human condition with all its situation of foreboding and frustration and its occasions for irony and dismay created by our personal relationship and social responsibilities, by our sense of insecurity in a world in which private and public morality has failed to keep pace with scientific progress..” In the beginning of the twentieth century the beliefs and attitudes, conventions and traditions of the Victorian age had crumbled to the ground. New convictions were coming into prominence. The Victorian assumptions and values lost their significance because of the disillusionment of the First World War. Similarly, in the end of the sixteenth century and in the beginning of the seventeenth century the Elizabethan ideologies were losing their significance. Man was victim of confusion and dilemma. New values were taking birth. Donne dealt with all the new problems which cropped up in the two sections of the longer poem The Anniversaries. He is the living poet as he enables the twentieth century poets to give vent to the multifarious problems and issues of the confused present world.
The stereotyped traditions of the Victorian and Georgian periods are inadequate to cope with the baffling issues of the present disillusioned age. English language and rhythm need vitality and vigour in the present age which was given by Donne because the poets of the present generation felt the necessity for his rehabilitation in the present century. As Eliot pointed out Donne made it possible to think in lyric verse keeping in view the prevailing conditions of the present generations. Moreover, like Donne Eliot reformed the English language and introduced the skills of conversational tone and colloquial devices in his poetry.
As the English language was corrupted by the artificial conventionalism of the Elizabethan lyric poets, and subsequently Donne was the first poet who extended its scope and made English vigorous in order to expess various moods ranging from the comical to the tragical, similarly T.S Eliot made English language virile, masculine, concrete and capable of harmonising the opposites and contradictions of living experiences in the first half of the twentieth century. T.S. Eliot’s contemporaries like W.H. Auden and others used all these techniques to make the modern language healthy and vigorous after the so-called Victorian compromise and the clogging traditions of the Georgian poetry. As Shakespeare made the English drama universal because of his dramatic techniques, similarly Donne has contributed to English lyric by universalising it by extending its possibilities and scope.

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