John Donne

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(A review of Hugh l'Anson Fausset's John Donne: A Study in Discord.)

The eighteenth century, with its regard for symmetry and definition, preferred to keep biography and criticism separated; or, if they were combined, as by Johnson and Voltaire, they were viewed as two separate functions. The critic contemplated his author's works as objects of art; expounded, censured, praised them in relation, not to the author, but to a set of defined standards generally agreed upon by men of culture. Thus, biography limited itself to the narrative of a man's life, and criticism to a minute, sometimes word-by-word, examination and comparison of his writings. With Sainte-Beuve, criticism changed and became a method of investigating and classifying minds; the reader's attention was drawn away from the works themselves and concentrated upon the personality of the authors.

These methods still exist as they have been variously developed. The one school, we may say roughly, is interested in art; the other in artistic personalities. Each is liable to abuse in feeble hands. The one sinks into an abyss of pedantry, collects hosts of tedious facts, traces "movements" which possibly never existed, investigates "influences" which are of no importance; the other becomes a compilation of gossip and anecdotes, discovers arbitrary and fanciful relations between the author and his work, distracts our mind from the contemplation of art into remote speculations, and may even degenerate into moral uplift and a hunt for "messages." But each method has its virtues, each is useful when directed with skill and good sense, and each is particularly adapted to a different sort of author. There are cases when a man's personality is as interesting and important as his works; and this is especially true of personal poets. Their poetry is so interwoven with their lives that a critic is almost forced to adopt the "study of personality" method.

It is hard to imagine a writer more suitable for the latter method than Donne. At all events, in Mr. Fausset's hands the methods is justified by the result. Whatever faults his book may have (and what book is free from them?) are more than compensated by its achievements. Mr. Fausset writes with the eloquence of conviction; one might add, with the artifices of eloquence; he interests, excites, convinces his reader. He also provokes query and dissent; and this is all to the good, for one either has to accept what he says or to find solid reasons for disagreement. Mr. Fausset is a stimulating writer. His confident, lofty manner, his mastery of a complex subject, his close-packed thought which is evidence of long meditation, his flashes of intuitive insight, the well-ordered marshalling of his exposition, may all be counted as literary virtues. A still more considerable merit is that he compels his reader to reconsider Donne, to test a previous conception by this fresh and persuasive exposition. To reread Donne's poems with Mr. Fausset's book at hand is a valuable experience, and only by so doing can his interpretation be justly estimated. Moreover, such an examination illustrates the advantages and defects of the "personality" method of criticism.

The evolution of Donne's personality followed a not uncommon course; what is remarkable is the intensity with which he lived the phases of his career, the violence of his reactions to life, his profound, perplexed meditations on human destiny, and the expression of all this in writings which have puzzled many readers by their mixture of startling sincerity and extreme artifice. Excess, one might say, was the most obvious characteristic of Donne in his life and in his art; he was excessive in love and in piety, in his realism and in his mysticism.

As a youth Donne was an "Amorist," subtle but coarse and violent in his desires, "one that slept in the contriving of lust and waked to do it." As such young gentlemen are apt to do, he wasted his patrimony, revolted from his pleasures, and abused women as extravagantly as he had formerly pursued them. Again, as such a man frequently does, he fell deeply in love with an inexperienced girl and contracted a rash, runaway marriage, with disastrous consequences; he was imprisoned, and lost his post in Sir Thomas Egerton's services at the suit of his infuriated father-in-law. When he was released and able to join his wife, he embarrassed their poverty with a family numerous even in that age of reckless breeding, and lived disconsolately in the melancholy of his poor estate and religious perplexities. Necessity forced him to court the great in terms of lavish adulation (authorized, however, by the custom of the period), and for some years he was uncomfortably depended upon noble patrons. After several refusals to take holy orders, he finally yielded to the King's positive command, and doubtless to his tardy religious convictions, and became a priest of the Church of England. He was soon made Dean of St. Paul's, and enjoyed a wide reputation as a preacher; his enjoyment of affluence was almost at one quenched in melancholy through the death of his sorely tried, but much-loved wife. He died in 1631, after fantastic and excessive broodings upon death and dramatic preparations for dissolution.

With ingenuity, imagination, and persuasiveness Mr. Fausset has recreated Donne's life, traced its evolution an described the conflicts of his mind as the violent sensual became the violent mystic. In a fondness for rhetorical alliteration, or perhaps with a glance at the fancifulness of Donne, Mr. Fausset divides this life into four phasesthe Pagan, the Penitent, the Pensioner, and the Preacher. So convenient a device at once awakens suspicion that the subject has been forced into arbitrary frames, that his mingling of biography, criticism, and psychology has resulted in a clever piece of fiction, a last development of the historical novel. And the suspicion is rather strengthened by the confidence with which Mr. Fausset generalizes for his own purposes such complex and vague things as the Renaissance, Medievalism, Puritanism, Paganism; and by his delight in speech more orotund and picturesque than exact. Yet it would be unjust to leave an impression that his book is factitious and pretentious. Undoubtedly, there is a gifted and energetic mind at work in these pages, a mind which creates a sensation of fullness and readiness, which, if it sometimes irritates, more often delights. One result of such a book is that the attention is gradually diverted from it as an interpretation of Donne to its interest as a revelation of the author. While he is eloquently explaining the conflict in Donne's mind and the subtleties of his wrestlings with God, we incline to feel that Mr. Fausset is stating not so much the convictions of Donne as his own convictions which he has compelled Donne to accept.

The chapters on Donne's last years narrate very graphically the strange reveries and morbid practices of the mystic. Indeed, throughout the book, the reader is illuminated by flashes of insight and presented with thoughts about Donne which force attention and meditation. It is a book which few contemporary critics could have achieved, and one which everybody who cares for English seventeenth century poetry will have to read. I do not know where a more stimulating book on Donne is to be found.

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