John Donne in verse and prose
I am a little world made cunningly
Of Elements, and an Angelike spright,
But black sinne hath betraid to endlesse night
My worlds both parts, and (oh) both parts must die. . . .
The thirty-fifth episode of TLS Voices complements the lead review in this week's paper, in which Russ McDonald considers John Donne and how the critics and scholars are far from being (let's get the obvious pun over with) done with him.
"Of course", McDonald recalls being told by a young colleague recently, "everybody likes Donne." Well, a guardedly gushing Ben Jonson did call him "the first poet in the world in some things" (where does the emphasis in that sentence fall – on the unspecified "some things"?). And despite those who, between our time and his, "demoted and mostly neglected him", Jack Donne the poet has remained popular. The same cannot be said of Dr Donne of St Paul's Cathedral – one of "Gods conduits", as he called those "grave Divines" whose works, in his first Satire, help to fill the poet's wooden chest of books.
In 1921, T. S. Eliot could write in the TLS of that "metaphysical" strain of verse in which Donne excelled, of the "brief words and sudden contrasts". Two years earlier, though, Arthur Clutton-Brock could talk of a selection from Donne's sermons revealing "wonderful living fragments of art, of eloquence, of passion". "The worst fault of the sermon, as literature, is that it is preaching" – whatever common ground of belief securely connected those who heard Donne preach at St Paul's (or, some years earlier, John Knox in Edinburgh), Clutton-Brock could not share it. "The great poet was not lost in the preacher, but transmuted. . . . he remained a wild poet like Poe even when he tried to speak the language of a dean."
Both guises have their wonders, certainly, and their admirers, as shown once more by the books McDonald reviews: Achsah Guibbory's essays of the past thirty years; Daniel Starza Smith's study of the circulation of Donne's poems in manuscript; and the new Oxford edition of Donne's sermons, with its innovative approach to "some of the liveliest and most eloquent prose in English". (Some miscellaneous further signs of these critical times: this earlier Donne survey; Starza Smith's fascinating account of "Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward", published a couple of years ago; and, if you can track down a copy, Maureen Duffy's poem "In St Paul's – for Jack Donne".) On St Lucy's day, December 13, marked by Donne in an alchemical, twisting "Nocturnal", this selection for TLS Voices concentrates on a selection of the most dramatic poems by a poet who never wrote a play, but put Eliot in mind of Shakespeare, Webster and Middleton.