May 18, 2007

A New John Donne Biography

John Donne (c. 1572-1631), one of the great poets of the Winters Canon and an English Renaissance poet whom Winters frequently discussed or mentioned, is the subject of a new biography. Winters wrote of Donne both very approvingly (concerning his finest poems) and somewhat disapprovingly (concerning much of work that remains popular to this day, the poetry that came to be called “metaphysical”). The biography has been reviewed in the May 13, 2007 issue of the New York Times Book Review. The article is entitled “Love’s Deity” by the fine writer Thomas Mallon and can be found at:

Perhaps mistakenly, Winters chose only two of Donne’s poems for inclusion in Quest for Reality:

1. “Holy Sonnet VII” (“At the round earth’s imagined corners”). Pictured is a drawing by Fra Bartolommeo from about 1500 “One Angel Blowing a Trumpet and Another Holding a Standard,” in honor of this sonnet’s first line. It’s a pen and brown ink drawing, squared in red chalk for transfer on laid paper (National Gallery of Art, Washington, Woodner Collection, 2006).

2. “A Valediction: Of My Name In The Window”

I should point out, however, that Winters extensively discussed another Donne poem, “Holy Sonnet I,” “Thou hast made me and shall Thy work decay,” in his trenchant essay on Gerard Manly Hopkins (reprinted in The Function of Criticism), which happens to be one of his finest discussions of several individual poems in his writings. In that essay, Winters opens with a comparison of “Thou hast made me,” which he praises quite highly, and Robert Bridges’s “Low Barometer” (even more highly praised) to Hopkins’s “The Windhover,” a discussion which gives deep insights into his theory of literature. He mentioned this sonnet as well in one list of exceptionally great poems in his book on Edwin Arlington Robinson. We will come around in time to considering the poems of Donne’s that Winters chose for the Winters Canon, and at that time I probably will consider a couple other poems by Donne and the reasons Winters might have left “Thou hast made me” out (and whether it belongs back in).

Winters deemed Donne’s early work, that which remains famous, as experimental. You will have to read the essay “Poetic Convention” in his first book Primitivism and Decadence (reprinted in In Defense of Reason) to understand why. Winters’s simplest summary of the matter links Donne to others who might surprise you:

Experimental poetry endeavors to widen the racial experience, or to alter it, or to get away from it, by establishing abnormal conventions. In one sense or another Spenser, Donne, Milton, Hopkins, Laforgue, and Rimbaud are experimental poets of a very marked kind.
I find Winters’s argument for Donne’s classification as an experimentalist convincing, for the most part. But I have never read anyone else who has sided with him in great part on his account of the early Donne. In the same book, in the essay “Primitivism and Decadence,” Winters made a comment that revealed his once very high assessment of Donne’s Holy Sonnets in the 1930s, an assessment which he would gradually lessen, especially concerning the experimental work, in the decades to follow:

The gap between the sonnets of Shakespeare and the sonnets of Donne is not extremely great.
Yet though Winters came to distance himself from that judgment (of both poets, in fact), I would tend to agree with it still. I feel that Winters incorrectly downgraded Donne during the second half of his career. Thomas Mallon’s concluding sentence sums up his very high opinion of Donne:

[This biography] has juice and, best of all, a kind of fearlessness in approaching the “frequently convoluted” emotions of a poet who possessed, if not English literature’s greatest imagination, quite possibly its greatest intellect.
Those are certainly curious judgments to make -- and perhaps indefensible. I’d like to see the case for them made, though, since I like challenging ideas. But, sad to say, Mallon makes not even a brief attempt at a defense. Judging from what I know, Donne did not possess the “greatest imagination” in our literature. Shakespeare would, almost obviously, take that title, in my judgment and that of many, many others, though there are other contenders as well -- Dickens, say. It all depends, of course, on how you define and then apply the concept “imagination.” But I doubt that any case could be made that John Donne is the “greatest intellect” in our literature. My oh my, there are some great intellects that exceed Donne’s by a nautical mile or two: Sam Johnson, Ben Jonson, possibly Shakespeare again, Matt Arnold, Sam Coleridge -- Yvor Winters, for that matter -- and so on.

But clearly, Mallon has a very high opinion of Donne’s poetry, and he makes his life sound as though it would be quite interesting and enlightening fare for study and reflection. Donne’s poetry is inconsistent and sometimes even fatuous, but a good portion of it is worth reading, certainly. The late meditations on religion and the Holy Sonnets have been especially important to me. The earlier love poems, the wild, overly witty, indomitably playful experiments, do not do much for me... but, alas, I find love poetry to have been frequently wildly overrated in any case; as a genre, it has never seemed all that valuable to me.

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