Studies of a Biographer/John Donne
There is something curiously and yet intermittently fascinating about Donne. His fame has been fitful. After the obscuration of the eighteenth century Coleridge and Lamb felt a charm which has been potent with some later critics. Browning was drawn to him by a congenial subtlety of intellect, and Lowell, an equally ardent lover of all that is quaint and witty, read and annotated him carefully. But his poetry seems to be for the select few. Not one of his lyrics appears in The Golden Treasury, whether because Palgrave disliked a style which is the antithesis of Tennyson's, or because he thought it unfit for the ordinary reader. To read Donne's verses is, indeed, for most people, to crack very hard nuts on a doubtful chance of finding a sweet kernel. Mr. Gosse, in the Life which has just appeared, professes his belief that Donne contains the quintessence of poetry; but even Dr. Jessopp—an enthusiastic admirer of the prose honestly confesses that the poems are not to his taste. I may, therefore, take courage to confess that I too find them rather indigestible. They contain, I do not doubt, the true inspiration; but I rarely get to the end, even of the shortest, without being repelled by some strange discord in form or in substance which sets my teeth on edge. 'Donne is full,' says Lowell, 'of salient verses that would take the rudest March winds of criticism with their beauty, of thoughts that first tease us like charades, and then delight us with the felicity of their solution.' I fully accept Donne's poetical merits upon the authority of men blessed with a greater poetical sensibility than I can claim, and perhaps less out of harmony with his whole spirit. A charm, however, which one only recognises when it has been pointed out to one, is a charm of which one had better not speak. I will only say, in fact, that I am attracted as much as repelled. The man himself excites my curiosity. What was the character and the mind that could utter itself in so unique a fashion? Nothing less could have been required than extraordinary talents at the service of a most peculiar idiosyncrasy, and exposed to some trying combination of circumstance. For explanation one has hitherto been referred to the admirable Izaak Walton. His life of Donne is said to be the masterpiece of English biography. Critic after critic labours to show a genial appreciation of that performance. If, indeed, the book is to be read as we read The Vicar of Wakefield—as a prose idyl—a charming narrative in which we have as little to do with the reality of Donne as with the reality of Dr. Primrose, I can only subscribe to the judgment of my betters. But there are two objections to the life if taken as a record of facts. The first is that the framework of fact is of the flimsiest; and the second that the portraiture has a palpably 'subjective' element. Hagiography in general is more attractive than trustworthy. As we read, we imagine Walton gazing reverently from his seat at the dean in the pulpit, dazzled by a vast learning and a majestic flow of elaborate rhetoric, which seemed to his worthy but unlearned disciple to come as from 'an angel in the clouds,' and offering a posthumous homage as sincere and touching as that which no doubt engaged the condescending kindness of the great man in life. The book illustrates the most attractive aspect of the Anglicanism of those days. It recalls John Inglesant and the holy Mr. Ferrar of Little Gidding. But the real Donne—the strange complex human being, with his weaknesses, his passions, his remorse, his strange twists of thought and character—has disappeared, and just enough is revealed to make us ask for more. Our petition has been heard. For fifty years Dr. Jessopp has been collecting materials. He has made them over to Mr. Gosse, who cordially acknowledges the generosity of his ally. Mr. Gosse, already an independent inquirer and an accomplished historian of literature, has given us all that can now be discoverable. There are still gaps—gaps which suggest regrets that we cannot cross-examine Donne himself, and doubts whether, if we could, he would be a satisfactory witness. Mr. Gosse modestly avows that, to some extent, Donne 'eludes' him. The last secret of that singular character remains impenetrable or to be guessed from imperfect glimpses. If Mr. Gosse hesitates after so much study and such familiarity with details, it is not for one who depends chiefly upon Mr. Gosse himself to speak with confidence. Biography, alas! even the biography of intimate friends involves, as soon as one tries to penetrate the inner life, a great deal of guesswork. Donne, with his strange facility for seeing things in unexpected lights, was so ingenious in discovering reasons that he probably misunderstood his own motives. How are we, judging from fragmentary records and ambiguous utterances and rose-coloured sophistications, at a distance of some three centuries, to speak with any confidence?
Without over-confidence, however, one may point out some elements of this curious psychological problem. From the outset events conspired to make life one long problem in casuistry for Donne himself. He was involved in the great religious struggles of the day, and his sympathies were curiously distracted. He came of the staunchest Catholic breed; no family, he said himself, had supplied more sufferers in the cause. An ancestress was sister of Sir Thomas More; other relations had risen under Mary and been exiled under Elizabeth; his mother, who survived him, was a strong Catholic to the last; her two brothers were both Jesuits, and in Donne's childhood one of them was in an English gaol and unexpectedly fortunate in just avoiding the gallows to which his fellow-prisoners were sent. Donne, a singularly precocious child, might have been expected to catch the contagion of religious zeal. No one, we should say, had a mind or imagination more accessible to the manifold fascinations of the Catholic system. It would have been in the natural course of things had he been sent to Douay, become a seminary priest, and either attained eminence as a casuist or died as a martyr at Tyburn. He had, however, been entered at Oxford at the early age of eleven. He could thus avoid the oath of allegiance, imposed only at the age of sixteen, and his mother apparently assumed that supplies of knowledge could be inserted at any age. Donne, therefore, was brought up to be a rigid Catholic, and yet encouraged to mix with a Protestant world and attempt a secular career. His father had left him sufficient means, and at nineteen he was reading law at Lincoln's Inn. Before long his Catholicism was certainly fading; but how and why is not to be easily decided. How did he come to snap the chain which bound him so closely to a family of zealots? Was it simple indifference to religion in general? or sacrifice of conscience to worldly interests? or a genuine process of intellectual change? Donne's answer is simple. It was the force of reason. He set to work, he says, to 'survey and digest' the whole body of controversy. He specially studied and elaborately annotated the great Catholic champion, Bellarmine, and 'about his twentieth year' came to be, if not a decided Protestant, yet far less than a decided Papist. This investigation, meanwhile, was but part of a wide range of study. He was 'diverted from legal studies' by the 'worst voluptuousness, which is an hydroptic immoderate desire of human learning and languages.' Undoubtedly, Donne 'sucked at the flagon' with 'a sacred thirst,' and honestly sought for escape from an awkward position by launching upon the boundless ocean of controversy. It is the natural impression of a youthful enthusiast in learning—especially the learning of that day—that a decision can be reached by worrying through endless disputations. The process is more likely to land a man in scepticism or rapid oscillation between different creeds than in any definite creed; and, in fact, Donne seems to have been left in a rather neutral position. He 'betrothed himself,' says Walton rather vaguely, 'to no religion that might give him any other denomination than Christian.' Donne himself asserts the slowness of his decision as a proof of his honesty. It would, that is, have been clearly to his interest to be converted at once. But it was also clearly to his interest to be converted as soon as he could. The desire to investigate implies some doubt; and what, we should like to know, raised the doubt in a man so steeped in the purest Catholic tradition? He was, somehow, induced to test the strength of the intellectual fetters, which were obstacles to every ambition, but how far or with what intensity various motives—intellectual curiosity or the promptings of interest—operated is one of the insoluble questions.
This wide reading did not wholly absorb him. The eager student, while imbibing masses of law, divinity, and 'human learning' in general, was also, it appears, seeing life after the fashion of the young men in the later days of Elizabeth. He left his books, divines, philosophers, and chroniclers, as he tells us, to keep company 'with fighting and untrussed gallants.' The strange adventurers of the day, disbanded soldiers, and shifty hangers-on of the nobility, broke in upon his seclusion, and added the book of life to his studies. He saw the plays and masques of the great time; he joined—if a solitary indication may be trusted—the wit-combats at the Mermaid; and he certainly became a friend of Ben Jonson. It is plain, too, that he laid up causes for future remorse. The 'satires,' 'elegies,' and many early poems are left to indicate his state of mind; but the indication itself requires an interpreter. The 'satires' represent one natural outcome of the time. By a not unnatural coincidence three or four contemporaries, especially Joseph Hall—whose career was closely parallel to Donne's—and the dramatist Marston, were independently writing similar satires. Brilliant young men, at once scornful of the world and yet proud of a premature interest in its ways, were inevitably satirists. Their position was analogous to that of the young Edinburgh Reviewers, showing their superiority by contempt for the world around. The precedent of the Roman satirists, who had not as yet been imitated, occurred to them all as a happy thought to determine the best form of utterance. They all, moreover, made the blunder of assuming that satire must be rough and uncouth and obscure. A satirist must be a thorough cynic, a snarling foul-mouthed Diogenes, carrying his lantern into the slums and using coarse and indecent language to describe ugly sights. They had not made the simple discovery that the better our manners the more easily we can rub in a good caustic phrase. The movement was therefore a failure; but, meanwhile, Donne's attitude is no doubt significant both of his own character and of the time. Mr. Gosse insists upon the contrast between his poetry and the exquisite 'rose-coloured Elizabethan idealism.' Donne represents a change of sentiment in the rising generation symptomatic of the domestic discords which were to supersede the patriotic enthusiasm of the Armada period. It may perhaps be doubtful whether Mr. Gosse does not attribute to Donne too much of deliberate and conscious literary revolt. Donne was not, like Wordsworth, the deliberate prophet of a literary 'reaction,' But no doubt he was sitting in the seat of the scornful, and despised what we now take to be the glories of the age. The friendship with Jonson, who represented learning, and a critical superiority to people who had 'small Latin and less Greek,' is significant. Donne was the thoroughly trained scholar and gentleman, who belonged therefore to the aristocracy of the literary world, and looked down upon the rabble of unlearned scribblers and playwrights with hands subdued to what they worked in.
Donne's poems, however, raise a far more interesting personal problem. Some of them show, to put it gently, a remarkable frankness. It is altogether surprising that he thought of printing, if not publishing, them at a period when he was aspiring to preferment in the Church. Certainly, as Mr. Gosse points out, they were calculated to make Archbishop Abbot's hair stand on end, and would be only too much to the taste of the courtiers of James I. It is strange, though characteristic, that Donne, even in his saintly days, could not find it in his heart to destroy, though he could not make up his mind to publish. The question arises, how far they represent genuine autobiography? Mr. Gosse holds that they tell a true story of an intrigue with a married woman, which, after a year, ended with a bitter quarrel and curses upon the now hated mistress. If Donne were as generally interesting as Shakespeare, his poems might be interpreted as variously as Shakespeare's sonnets. But I cannot think that the foundation of fact, if any existed, is really ascertainable. One remark must be made. The frank disregard of decency is but too intelligible. What is strange is Donne's insistence upon the ugly and repulsive collateral consequences. The lady's husband had to be injured, and the objections of her father and mother to the suspected intimacy were inevitable. Donne's passion might blind him to their wrongs; but to insist upon that aspect of the question triumphantly and emphasise disgusting details is, to speak mildly, not pretty. If the poems were to be taken in their 'first intention' as deliberate utterances of his sentiments, we should have to call him not simply immoral, but unequivocally brutal. To me it seems that we merely have an illustration of a morbid tendency, not peculiar to Donne. In one of the 'elegies' Donne gives a description of another woman, only exceeded in offensiveness by some of Swift's worst performances. Swift's friends tell us that he was personally cleanly, even to scrupulosity, and that he contemplated filthy images because they had a perverse fascination for him. He was a self-torturer by nature, and dwelt upon disgusting things precisely because they disgusted him. Donne, I fancy, had in this respect a real affinity to the later dean. Carried away by his passions, he does not blind himself to the brutality involved, but rather emphasises and insists upon it. For the moment his audacity in facing and minutely analysing consequences gives zest to his love or is a proof of the strength of passion which makes even this ingredient tolerable. But, when the passion declines, the feeling will turn into remorse, and perhaps is already, though half-consciously, remorse in disguise.
The interpretation may seem over subtle, but subtlety was the essence of Donne's nature. Both the student and the wild gallant appear in the poems of this date, and they are strangely combined in the qualities which led Johnson to describe Donne and his followers as the 'metaphysical' school. Literary critics have dwelt sufficiently upon the far-fetched conceits which gained currency at the same time in other countries. They are, it would seem, the natural utterances of the schoolman coming to court. Donne was all this time plunged in his omnivorous studies of divinity and philosophy. The philosophy in which he had been initiated at the Universities meant, of course, the still dominant scholastic philosophy. To reason was to 'syllogise'; to suppose that all truth was attainable by constructing vast piles of syllogism, defining, distinguishing, spinning whole webs of argumentation, and becoming an accomplished master of the art of logical fencing. Donne had studied the application of the art to casuistry; had a special familiarity with the Spanish Jesuits of his time; and was steeped in whole masses of scholastic controversy. The training was calculated to produce abnormal skill in dialectics; to sharpen the purely logical perceptions, but also to encourage mere quibbling and ingenious evasions for real solutions of difficulties. Now, the sophistries and tricks of intellectual wrestling correspond exactly to the conceits of the 'metaphysical poets.' A commentator upon Donne's poems would have occasionally to illustrate his author from the schoolmen. Other poets, for example, have compared young women to angels; but to Donne, thoroughly acquainted with the natural history of angels, the comparison suggests new and strange points of resemblance. The schoolmen had taught him by syllogism that angels make temporary bodies out of air; and Donne makes poetical capital of this in the lyric called 'Air and Angels.' So his 'obsequies' to Lord Harrington raise the old problem whether angels in moving from one place to another pass through all the intermediate spaces. In the 'Hymn to the Saints and to Marquis Hamilton' he turns to account the scholastic doctrine that every angel is itself a 'separate species.' He several times expounds in verse the theory of three souls: vegetative, sensitive, and rational; and he knows at what precise moment the soul takes in 'the poisonous tincture of original sin.' Fuller information upon all these 'tickle points of niceness' may be found in the Summa of Aquinas, where they are carefully argued out. What strike us as unaccountable conceits are simply applications of the current philosophy. His mind is obviously full of such delicate inquiries, and he applies the same method to other topics. A characteristic poem is 'The Will.' He supposes himself to be dying, and bequeaths his moral and intellectual possessions. Then he works out a problem. A gift has not the proper virtue when the receiver is not benefited either (1) because he has a superfluity of the thing, or (2) because he does not know the use of it, or (3) because it is unpleasant to him, or (4) because it is really his own already, or (5) because accidents make it useless. His mistress has exemplified all these cases in her reception of him, and he concludes logically that he will die intestate. This ingenious scheme might be stated as a theory or the ethics of giving—When is a present not a present? With Donne it becomes rhymed casuistry, or a brilliant little poem in six stanzas. Mr. Gosse quotes it as illustrating the phase in which his passion is turning to bitterness. Mr. Gosse may be justified; but it is the more characteristic that an outburst of passionate bitterness should be thus crammed into a close logical framework, which must, one supposes, have taken as much hard thinking as strong feeling. It is, in fact, this odd combination of syllogism and sentiment which gives one peculiar flavour to Donne's poetry, and makes him, as Coleridge put it, 'wreathe iron pokers into true-love knots.' Sometimes he seems to be merely a schoolman trying in spite of nature to be a poet; and at times reveals himself as a genuine poet, cramped and distorted by the training of the schools.
Donne, we are told, became a learned lawyer; but his mind, it is clear, could not be concentrated upon law-books. It was too discursive to confine itself within the limits of Coke. He might have become a divine: but his life hitherto had not been exactly clerical; his religious opinions were vague; and to take orders would have been to shock his relations by an unqualified breach with their Church. For one career, however, he might seem to be admirably qualified. Where in our time a youth enters a public office, a youth of those days entered the 'family' of a great man. The relation was personal as much as official. At the age of twenty-four Donne, who had already accompanied Essex to Cadiz and on the Islands voyage, became secretary to the Lord Keeper Egerton. He must have felt himself to be well on the way to fortune. Learned and acute enough to be eminently useful to his patron, man of the world enough to be socially acceptable, and possessed of a special charm of manner and power of subtle flattery which specially recommended him to all the great ladies of the circle, the young secretary obviously had his foot on the ladder. And then comes the famous catastrophe which determined his future. 'His marriage,' says the worthy Walton, 'was the remarkable error of his life.' In spite of his ability in maintaining paradoxes, he was 'very far from justifying it,' and, indeed, 'would occasionally condemn himself for it.' The phrase, no doubt, refers to the clandestine proceedings which he had to employ; but one could have wished that he had used his skill in casuistry to justify the means necessary for so good an end. To us who are at a different point of view, it is the one passage in Donne's life which gives us an unequivocal reason for loving him. Whatever his early faults, he was capable of a devoted and enduring passion. He probably did not foresee the consequences of his rashness, when he made his clandestine match with the girl of sixteen, who lived in his patron's house, and was the daughter of the rich Sir George More. He was prepared for some difficulty, and makes a quaint excuse for his folly. To have acted openly, he tells his indignant and involuntary father-in-law, 'would have been to impossibilitate the whole matter.' The remark seems to show that an acute logician does not always perceive how different an argument looks from the other side of the question. The matter, as More and Egerton considered, ought to have been 'impossibilitated.' Donne hoped, perhaps, that by the help of his persuasive tongue and his distinguished friends the matter would be smoothed over, and the marriage become a help instead of a hindrance to his fortunes. Egerton, however, refused to reinstate the secretary, even at More's request; and More, though he forgave as a Christian, declined as a man of business to make his daughter an allowance. Donne's own fortune had disappeared. Years of hardship and suffering followed, and it is pleasant to find that Donne in one way took the position as a man should. A man of baser nature might have punished the cause of his suffering by moody ill-temper. Donne observes in the midst of his troubles, that as he had 'transplanted his wife into a wretched pasture,' he was bound to conceal his depression from her and do all he could to cheer her. His love is shown in a striking poem, which, in spite of some strange incongruities, made Lamb's voice tremble when he read it. The famous story of the 'thought-transference,' which made him aware in France of her dangerous illness in England, may prove, even to a sceptic, that his mind was dwelling upon her; and all that we hear testifies to the strength of his devotion. Poor Mrs. Donne, indeed, had a hard time of it. In fifteen years of marriage she bore twelve children, of whom five died in her lifetime. Her health broke down, and though she saw the beginning of prosperity, she remains a pathetic though a faintly-perceived image of suffering and anxiety compensated by devoted love. It is essential to keep this in mind if we are to do bare justice to Donne. A sickly wife and a growing family imply cares which must have haunted Donne, himself 'neurotic' and often in bad health, even when he buried himself in his books, or was over head and ears in controversies with learned Jesuits. His prospects depended entirely upon his power of attracting patrons: and (taking for granted all proper apologies about the manners of the times) the story is not altogether attractive. Donne flattered with a will. The great Duchess of Bedford was praised by other poets, such as Jonson and Daniel, and, we will hope, deserved it. Donne was certainly not last in the race for adequate hyperboles. To commend oneself to the successful courtiers in the days of James I. was a process which involved some trial of self-respect. Lord Carlisle, the best of the race, was apparently a real friend; but when we find some declaring that he lives upon the bounty of the now infamous Somerset; and when, after Somerset's fall, he shows his courtier's instinct by hanging on to Buckingham, the weakness becomes unpleasant. Happily, the charge that he wrote a certain repulsive document in support of Somerset has been fully disproved. But with all excuses, enough remains to show that Donne was not above extricating himself from his difficulties by the methods familiar to the courtiers of the time. The most singular case was that of Sir Robert Drury. Drury, a man of great wealth, lost an only daughter in her fifteenth year. Donne had never seen the girl, but hearing of the father's grief composed a 'funeral elegy,' declaring, among other things, that death could—
'Find nothing after her so great to kill,
Except the world itself so great as she.'
The gratified father at once gave Donne a room in his great house in Drury Lane, and afterwards took him for a companion on a foreign tour. Donne carried on his hyperboles in two successive poems, commemorating anniversaries of the child's death, and rashly promised an annual celebration. His friends were scandalised by his outrageous compliments, and Ben Jonson told him that the poems might have been appropriate if addressed to the Virgin Mary. Donne argued that he was at liberty to treat Miss Drury as the ideal woman without reference to fact. The poems may be a warning that we must not infer genuine autobiography from his utterances, for, if the truth had been unknown, injudicious critics might have constituted a romance out of lines intended simply to attract a patron. They hardly suggest, indeed, real feeling, although they are very curious illustrations of Donne's 'metaphysical' subtleties, and contain some of his most striking phrases. Meanwhile, it is singular, as Mr. Gosse points out, that Drury vanishes entirely from Donne's life, and is hardly mentioned in his letters. Possibly, as a cynic might observe, the explanation is to be guessed from Drury's relation to Donne's contemporary, Joseph Hall. Drury had patronised Hall, and Hall, as he tells us, had given him up because another patron offered more liberal terms.
Donne's hopes were long fixed on secular preferment. Some great man was to make him Secretary to the Virginia Company, or Ambassador at Venice; and yet, in spite of worries and ambitions, he was still immersed in his favourite studies. He was learning the 'Eastern tongues,' reading Spanish divines and poets, and following religious controversy, besides turning out an occasional 'epithalamium ' or elegy. One occupation suggests a problem. From 1605 to 1607, Donne, as Mr. Gosse thinks, was chiefly employed in what lawyers would call 'devilling' for the learned Dr. Morton, who was arguing with the Jesuits, and in 1607 was rewarded by the Deanery of Gloucester. Many years afterwards, Morton, then Bishop of Durham, reported to Walton a conversation with Donne. Morton proposed upon his preferment to resign to another benefice, in order that Donne might take orders and succeed to it. Donne refused upon the ground that according to the casuists a man ought not to take orders unless the glory of God were his first end. Though he had repented of certain 'irregularities,' men would remember them, and think that he was really moved by the desire for an income. Mr. Gosse remarks that the account is 'far too circumstantial not to be in the main correct,' and inclines to think that Morton spoke from notes taken at the time. I confess that I cannot quite follow this. The more 'circumstantial' an old gentleman of seventy-six (at least) is about events a third of a century old, the less I believe in his exactness, and, when his statement is transmitted through a third person, given to edifying embroidery, the evidence becomes exceedingly shadowy. Yet Mr. Gosse, accepting the statement as Morton's, thinks that Morton misunderstood Donne. Donne's real reason must have been that he was still 'hardly an Anglican.' I confess that I am not convinced, though this is one of the psychological puzzles which must remain doubtful. Anyhow, the conversation, authentic or not, suggests a very natural ground for hesitation. Donne, as I read him, was a man full of scruples, intellectual and moral; morbidly sensitive to the opinions of his fellows, and aware that if he had taken orders, all the courtiers, and most of his friends, would have given the obvious reason—Here is a man in difficulties, taking orders in order to escape them. Mr. Gosse incidentally calls Donne a man of 'stalwart will.' The phrase strikes me as inappropriate. Donne was a man of overpowering impulses, but little self-control; not with one strong will, but with many conflicting wills. His whole career was forced upon him, not carved out by his own taste. His thirst for learning was crossed by a thirst for pleasure; the impulse which led him to marry and upset all his prospects, had made him a dependent, appealing to any patron towards whom he was drifted, anxious to turn any of his talents to account, and certainly in some ways not over-scrupulous. And yet, his remorse for irregularities and his obvious thirst for sympathy and respect, would naturally make him shrink from a step certain to be misinterpreted—if, indeed, we should not rather say, to be too truly interpreted. Donne's ordination would scarcely have been ascribed to a genuine 'vocation,' though now, as always, profoundly interested in dogmatic discussion. In short, if he had taken orders, we could hardly have doubted that the main motive was of the worldly kind, and the belief that his other hopes would now be realised. Donne, I suspect, saw that very clearly, and shrank from the reproach. Moreover, the cynic must again intrude the remark that the proposed preferment was in Yorkshire, and would have fixed Donne to his remote country living, far away from his great friends at Court. His writings at this time seem to illustrate his state of mind, for after helping Morton, he published his Pseudo-Martyr in 1610—a kind of corollary from the previous controversy. The point under debate was the Oath of Allegiance, which Catholics refused to take. A popular disputant might have defended the oath on the simple ground that the recusants were spies and traitors—if they were hanged, it would serve them right. That, no doubt, would not persuade Catholics, but it might excuse Protestant zeal. Donne takes a remoter point. The recusants, he says, were not genuine martyrs, because, on their own principles the Pope had no right to suspend the law which they were breaking. Donne's merit was acknowledged by an Oxford degree, and his book at once recognised, says Dr. Jessopp, as the 'most solid and masterly contribution' to a controversy already carried on by our most learned divines. It is plain, however, that 'learned divines' alone could be much interested. Catholics would hold that they were better judges than Donne of their own dogmas, and Protestants care nothing for the recusants' way of settling their own scruples. The book might prove that Anglicans could be as learned and logical as Papists, but for practical purposes was mere byplay. But with this is connected the curious book called Biathanatos. It is a defence of the proposition that in some cases suicide might be not under all circumstances sinful. The doctrine seemed to be so scandalous that Donne kept the book in manuscript and showed it only to a few trusted friends. It has, moreover, scandalised later critics, who have urged in extenuation that the argument was 'idealist only.' I fully subscribe to Mr. Gosse's view that this implies misconception. Donne had excellent reasons for interest in the question. If 'suicide' means voluntary death, suicides include all the martyrs and heroes who deserve our heartiest admiration. How are we to draw the line between the man who prefers death by torture to telling a lie, and the gentleman who shot himself rather than give up buttered muffins? Both choose death, though one earns adoration and the other contempt, and yet one case shades into the other by imperceptible degrees. Now, Donne was discussing exactly this point in respect of the Jesuits. Did the sufferers in his own family, the men of whom they had been proudest, deserve the crown of martyrdom, or were they traitors who had got their deserts? He was arguing against all his early associations, and no wonder that his argument suggested a problem. It had clearly, too, a personal application. Donne, in his troubles, thought, he tells us himself, of seeking refuge in death. It pleased him, he says, to reflect that he had 'the keys of his prison in his own hand,' a reflection which anticipates some recent pessimists. He wished, as Mr. Gosse says, to hold that if ever he should yield to the impulse, he might still be free from deadly sin. Nothing, at any rate, can be more characteristic than his mode of solving the problem. It was the finest imaginable case of casuistry. He goes to the civil law and the canon law, and distinguishes between positive suicide when you seek death, and negative suicide when you let death seek you, and provides a whole armoury of subtle legal distinctions which it would be very difficult to call up at the moment of temptation. There was a strain of the Hamlet in Donne, and Hamlet would have been still more puzzled whether to be or not to be if he had been as well crammed as Donne with whole bodies of casuistical divinity.
This, I fancy, gives us a significant glimpse into this most complex and perplexing character. His early errors of morality suggest at once defiance and remorse. His romantic love suggests gratitude for the blessings and repentance for the blunder. His poetical impulses are confused and distorted by his philosophy. His intellect, amazingly nimble and discursive rather than powerful, stimulates a boundless curiosity which tends to overwhelm his reason under vast masses of learning. He reminds us of Bacon by his fertility of illustration, and oddly enough seems, as Mr. Gosse points out, to have been more receptive than Bacon of the new astronomy of Kepler and Galileo. And yet he remains hopelessly buried in the scholastic system upon which Bacon was pronouncing sentence. He wanders in a vast labyrinth of speculation instead of striking at once to the heart of the problem. Though his early prejudices drop off, he only sidles and shifts by slow degrees and with infinite complications into the Anglican position, always holding to its continuity with Catholicism. His life is as distracted and dependent as his thought. He cannot fairly decide to be the divine, and apologises for his want of learning while he is displaying learning enough for a whole bench of bishops. The Court still charms and fascinates the accomplished flatterer, and he cannot help hoping that one of the great favourites to whom he can make himself so acceptable will, at last, lift him out of his troubles. All the time the poor man is 'neurotic,' troubled by ill-health, weighed down by family cares, and driven to speculate upon the ethics of suicide. The knot of these tangled difficulties was at last to be cut, and by the most appropriate deus ex machina. Nobody was better qualified than James I. to appreciate Donne's abilities, and for once at least the wisdom of our Solomon dictated judicious action. Donne himself was characteristically undecided. He had, in 1612, introduced himself to Somerset by a petition. That worthy nobleman would, he hoped, add to his many services to religion by patronising a new divine. Somerset, at the eve of his fall, consented to recommend his client for a clerkship of the Council. James judiciously told Donne in an interview, reported with abundant 'rose-colour' by Walton, that he was better fitted to be a preacher. Donne consented—after some final hesitation—and in a couple of months was ordained. The effect upon Donne was decisive. Walton glows with fervour as he records the result. The Church of England had gained 'a second St. Austin.' He had a 'new calling, new thoughts, and a new employment for his art and eloquence; now all his earthly affections were changed into divine love, and all the faculties of his own soul were engaged in the conversion of others.' Donne, the wit, the poet, and the courtier, was sublimed into the saint, and a burning and shining light of the Church. Are we to reduce or qualify this ardent panegyric? That raises a rather delicate question. Walton holds, I take it, that Donne was already a saint potentially, and, at this point, finally cast off the impediments which had bound him to the world and covered his light under a bushel. Now, I do not doubt the continuity of Donne's development. Even a 'conversion,' which to the man himself seems to imply a change of nature, often seems to outsiders to imply merely a change in the direction of his energies. Yet the striking thing is often the resemblance of the new man to the old. The change in Donne at this crisis of his life was certainly not a transformation of character. It is quite impossible to doubt the sincerity of his belief in his creed, or the depth of his religious sentiment. That, again, is enough to justify a good Anglican like Walton in inferring that he was a saint. Unfortunately, this is not exactly my position. A man, I fancy, may most sincerely believe all the thirty-nine articles, and be deeply religious, and yet be a bigot and a sour and selfish fanatic, content to save his own soul and to resign himself, complacently or savagely, to the damnation of his fellow-creatures. He may be an ascetic whom we may respect for his conquest of the lower appetites, and whom we may yet hold to be making a dark prison-house of the world. Or he may be a man full of the love of his fellows, and really doing his best to rouse them to the pursuit of higher ideals. A strong religious feeling implies that a man is not merely frivolous or indifferent; but it may be totally misguided or may be really composed of some very objectionable ingredients which, without conscious hypocrisy, may be disguised in the general result. Now, Donne's religion, like his poetry, seems to be singularly difficult to analyse. His sincerity does not prove that it did not include some elements rather repulsive than admirable. One point seems to be implied by the obvious facts of his life. Donne did not become one of the saints who find it necessary to renounce altogether the career which they have hitherto pursued. He did not retire to a cloister. He accepted preferments, and though we must of course admit the normal reference to the 'standard of the age,' he does not appear to have been more or less averse than other clergymen of the day to a comfortable addition to his income, involving no increase of duty. According to one of Walton's anecdotes, he showed a creditable reluctance to accept an addition to his fortune when it was uncertain whether he would live to discharge the duties of his position. One little incident strikes one rather disagreeably. In 1623, Donne married his eldest daughter, then only twenty, to Edward Alleyn, the founder of Dulwich, who was fifty-eight, and had lost his first wife just six months before. The affair was transacted in a purely commercial spirit, and led to some quarrelling over money matters. One cannot avoid the reflection that Donne had passed a little too completely out of the state of mind in which he had committed his own 'remarkable error.' Men, however, married their daughters in those days as they let their farms, and it would be unfair to dwell upon such matters. Donne, it is enough to say, was not retiring to a hermitage, but becoming an eloquent divine on the road to a bishopric. But a real and serious change came over him by degrees. In 1617, the patient, suffering wife was taken from him; and Donne was a man to feel the whole force of the blow. Preferments and success and life itself, he knew too well, would be henceforth sad and colourless. A dangerous illness in 1623 brought him to the brink of the grave. Mr. Gosse has brought out the personal significance of the 'devotions' which he composed at the time. He describes with singular vividness the fears and fancies which distract him as he lies unable to sleep, listening to the clock or trying to divine the opinion of his physicians. They are unable to give morphia, but 'apply pigeons to draw the vapours from his head.' If, however, the treatment was antiquated, the emotions of the patient were modern, and, indeed, also ancient enough. Singular conceits still occur to him: they were strange enough and would mix well with delirious dreams; but no one could lay bare more effectively the emotions which must rise in all ages to an exquisitely sensitive nature lying in an antechamber of death. We see already the Donne who a few years later was to rise from his deathbed, and, standing in his shroud, to be drawn for the ghastly portrait, which stood by his bed during his last hours. The same figure is represented by the statue in St. Paul's. A few weeks had then passed since Donne, as Walton puts it, had preached his own funeral sermon. His friends, as they saw him in the pulpit, thought that he could only 'preach mortality by a decayed body and a dying face.' He was, however, able to speak, though in a 'faint and hollow voice and with many tears'; and so ended his strange career most characteristically. If, as Mr. Gosse observes, there is to us just an overtouch of the dramatic and self-conscious in that matter of the picture, we can see at least how profoundly he impressed Walton and his contemporaries. He was one who, after early errors, had been chastened by long suffering and deep repentance, and had been finally purified from all earthly stains. Baxter, we are told, preached 'as a dying man to dying men.' Walton's description of Donne's preaching might suggest that the phrase was applicable to Donne. We are told how deeply he was in earnest; how his hearers wept with him; how some were 'carried to heaven in holy raptures,' and others enticed to amendment by 'a sacred art and courtship'; how he made vice ugly and virtue beautiful, and preached 'like an angel from a cloud,' though not in a cloud himself. We turn from this panegyric to the sermons to verify the impression. The tendency of oratory to fall flat when it is read instead of heard is a commonplace, and we are prepared for some disillusion. Donne tells us himself that a good sign of the times was the 'hunger for hearing.' Elsewhere he speaks of the 'murmuring and noises' made when a preacher had 'concluded a point.' They often took up, he declares, a quarter of the hour habitually assigned to a sermon. Donne's own sermons, as printed, stretch sometimes to nearly three times that length; but it seems that he spoke from notes on a carefully prepared scheme, and afterwards expanded and revised for publication. In any case, it is clear that Donne's audiences were prepared to be receptive of pulpit eloquence to a degree not easy now to realise. It is not strange if we find their raptures surpass our own; though we can share one part of their wonder. Donne's sermons, whatever else they may be, are astonishing intellectual feats. In spite of ill-health and many distractions, he published, as Dr. Jessopp counts, one hundred and eighty sermons; each itself rather a short treatise than a brief flight of rhetoric; first elaborated, then spoken, and then elaborately rewritten. As mere exhibitions of learning they are remarkable, and the more so, because Donne does not seem to be turning out a commonplace book, or going out of his way to display learning. He has a mind so full of learning that references crowd in spontaneously. He makes, it may be noticed, few allusions to the classics, but he is thoroughly at home with all the fathers and ecclesiastical history; Augustine is at his fingers' ends, and St. Bernard is a special favourite. Then he applies Aquinas and the schoolmen; or shows his profound familiarity with the whole Catholic theology of his time; or calls in the Protestant champions, Luther, and Melanchthon, and Calvin; or is attracted by some great writer of the day, now forgotten, such as Collius, who had investigated with untiring industry the posthumous fate of Pagan souls. Evidently his hydroptic thirst has stored his mind with masses of anecdote, argument, and reflection, over which he can range at will whenever he needs an apt illustration. Then, as he quaintly remarks, the pastor must not only distribute 'manna'—fruits known to all—but 'quails,' 'meat of a stronger digestion'—that is, be at home in whole systems of dogmatic and casuistical theology. The congregation is in the mental attitude of students in a professor's lecture-room. The preacher claims the authority of an expert, and speaks as the exponent of the judgments of countless learned doctors. The doctors did not all agree, it is true; but the mere weight of so many great names warns the ignorant that he is not to presume an opinion of his own.
This attitude of mind, the impression that the preacher is condescending from the vantage-ground of mysterious learning, has become as strange as Donne's political attitude. The King for him is scarcely short of an earthly god. We wonder whether he was perfectly sincere. In one of his most elaborate performances Donne applies a text from Proverbs, saying, that the King shall be the friend of him 'that loveth pureness of heart.' In a glowing peroration this is applied to James. Donne, of course, includes purity of doctrine, to which James might make a claim; but nobody knew better than Donne what was the moral purity of the favourites who had been rewarded by James's friendship. Neither he nor his congregation, we must presume, looked too closely; but Donne, if he turned over a certain satire which lay in his desk, might have remembered that such a panegyric might be turned into the bitterest irony.
But, putting this aside, we must admit another point. Donne's learning is, after all, subsidiary to a marvellous intellectual activity. In his poems the dialectical subtlety seems to fetter him. The fancy is condensed as well as constrained. He seems to labour till he can squeeze the imaginative impulse into a logical formula at the price of crabbed obscurity. But in the prose the two faculties play freely into each other's hands. There is a crowd and rush of thoughts and illustrations. His subtle intellect evolves endless distinctions and startling paradoxes and quaint analogies so abundantly, that he might apparently have preached for a week as easily as for an hour. He takes up one fancy after another, and revels in various applications till the display becomes astonishing. His most famous predecessor, Andrewes, was perhaps equally learned and logically subtle; but—so far as I have been able to get, not, I confess, very far—his desire to be logically convincing overweights him and keeps him to the earth. Jeremy Taylor, Donne's greatest successor, can yield frankly to his imagination, and takes daring flights into the region of pure poetry. Donne represents the fusion of the two faculties. He conscientiously begins his sermons by laying down his logical framework. Any text on his method may serve, as he says of one, for introducing a lecture upon grammar logic, ethic, rhetoric, or philosophy; though, of course, every clause, or even single word, may have to be strangely tortured and sublimated in the process. The style, again, is essentially logical, perfectly clear, and thoroughly articulate even in the longest sentences, now that he has not to force his words into metrical fetters. It is thoroughly alive; never flagging, relaxed, or clumsy, however elaborate. He is specially master of one device. He reaches a climax, as you suppose, and that only leads to another more surprising, and so to a third, which eclipses its predecessors. Or sometimes a sentence contains an accumulation of apparent synonyms, intended to make the idea flash new sparkles from different facets. Donne, at least, never goes to sleep, and the alertness and versatility indicated is constantly surprising.
This, of course, involves the string of quibbles and conceits which would strike a modern congregation sometimes as puerile and sometimes as profane. He can take suggestions from all manner of topics. He can at times appeal to mathematical analogies. He has been amused by the remark that you have only to join the ends of a flat map to make east coincide with west, and more than once uses it for edification. The natural history of those days, whose animals seem to come partly out of folk-lore and partly from Æsop's Fables, offers delightful suggestions. One of his most singular passages relates to the well-known fact (used also in his Progress of the Soul) that the mouse is a deadly enemy of the elephant. It creeps up the elephant's trunk and 'gnaws the life-cords.' This is applied to the relations between man and the Being who made him out of nothing, 'which is infinitely less than a mathematical point.' Can man dare to be at enmity with his Creator, 'who is not only a multiplied elephant, millions of elephants multiplied into one, but a multiplied world, a multiplied all, all that can be conceived by us, infinite many times over?' Do modern preachers regret, I wonder, that they are not allowed such extravagances, which at least would be fatal to slumbers, or rejoice that such efforts are not expected of them? Anyway, with so wide a field, Donne had ample opportunities for startling his hearers and stimulating their attention. Whatever the eccentricities, each sermon plays round some definite central thought, and has a certain unity through the endless ramifications of exuberant illustration. Such performances might be amazing feats of intellectual juggling; but could they produce 'raptures' and 'tears'? I can manage to believe it, though I must confess that I have to take it rather on trust. It wants an effort to suppose that the sense of man's littleness in the Universe could be really driven home by comparing the Creator to a 'multiplied elephant.' If a man were not shocked by the incongruity, he might recognise a true sentiment, which, uttered in a different dialect, may still impress us all at times. But, then, if we strip off the subtleties, we are apt to come upon a commonplace, and at last must confess that a good many of Donne's refinements suggest rather a yawn than a rapture. If, however, we deliberately make the effort, get back as well as we can to the seventeenth century, and try to get up a rapture, we can perhaps understand, though it is difficult quite to sympathise. There are passages enough in which Donne reveals his heart, and the veil of subtlety becomes transparent. Using a comparison generally attributed to Newton, he speaks of the worthlessness of mere human wisdom, and says that men who have followed by this light 'all the ways both of wisdom and of craft, have got no further than to have walked by the side of a tempestuous sea, and to have gathered pebbles and speckled cockle-shells.' There, happily, his faculty for analogies stops, within legitimate bounds, and the phrase illustrates the vein in which we can really imagine Donne to have moved tears as well as wonder. Showing here and there throughout the subtlety and the learning and the controversy, we have glimpses of the ghastly figure which preached his own funeral sermon. Donne, indeed, represents that strangely materialist view of death, the dwelling upon corruption and the physically repulsive, characteristic of the time. Inevitably it leads him into queer speculations, as, for example, into the problem how the body is to be put together after it has been assimilated by a fish or a cannibal, and therefore become the common property of two souls. But beneath all this is the strong sentiment which might now be congenial to pessimism. Donne was a saint in the eyes of his hearers, and a saint of the ascetic type. His conscience is still haunted by remorse, tempted to self-torture and disillusionment with the world. The sensual appetites have been conquered, but at the price of constantly fixing his eyes upon the hideous side of things; he thinks of the treachery and the villainy which underlies the decorous outside of the world, and checks the worship of beauty by thoughts of what will happen to beauty in the grave. There, again, Hamlet in the churchyard gave pithy utterance to a theme which Donne extends into elaborate subtleties, and considers a 'little too curiously.' If he has in some sense found peace and consolation, he has to be always mortifying the flesh and scourging himself to keep down the old man. He meditates upon hell and the gloomy aspect of the world, which preoccupies him and leads to his most effective passages. To give specimens would be difficult, if only on account of the excessive luxuriance of his rhetoric. A singularly fine passage is the peroration to a sermon upon the text, 'He that believeth not shall be damned,' where the real torment of hell is described as the hopeless separation of the soul from God. That, perhaps, of which a slight indication can be most easily given is an appeal to the atheist. He challenges the 'poor, intricated, perplexed, labyrinthical soul' to stand by its creed. If I asked, he says, whether there be a God when you are at church or in the world or at a theatre, you might consider that religion was an invention of priests or poets or rulers. But, he proceeds, 'I respite thee not till the day of judgment, when thou wilt call upon the hills to cover thee; nor till the day of thine own death, when thou shalt have evidence enough of thy Maker by feeling hell. 'I respite thee but a few hours, but six hours, but till midnight. Wake then, and then, dark and alone, hear God ask thee then, and remember that I asked thee now, Is there a God? And if thou darest, say No!'
This passage must be enough to illustrate the vigour with which Donne can often throw aside his 'mouse and elephant,' and his elaborate refinements on grammatical and logical niceties, and glow with genuine fire, though frequently we have to exclude so much uncongenial matter that our appreciation ceases to be spontaneous. And there is perhaps the final interest of Donne. In one way he has partly become obsolete because he belonged so completely to the dying epoch. The scholasticism in which his mind was steeped was to become hateful and then contemptible to the rising philosophy; the literature which he had assimilated went to the dust-heaps; preachers condescended to drop their doctorial robes; downright common-sense came in with Tillotson and South in the next generation; and not only the learning but the congenial habit of thought became unintelligible. Donne's poetical creed went the same way, and if Pope and Parnell perceived that there was some genuine ore in his verses and tried to beat it into the coinage of their own day, they only spoilt it in trying to polish it. But on the other side, Donne's depth of feeling, whether tortured into short lyrics or expanding into voluble rhetoric, has a charm which perhaps gains a new charm from modern sentimentalists. His morbid or 'neurotic' constitution has a real affinity for latter-day pessimists. If they talk philosophy where he had to be content with scholastic theology, the substance is pretty much the same. He has the characteristic love for getting pungency at any price; for dwelling upon the horrible till we cannot say whether it attracts or repels him; and can love the 'intense' and super-sublimated as much as if he were skilled in all the latest æsthetic canons. People sometimes talk as if pessimism were a new invention. It is merely a new way of saying the old things. The good old hearty belief in the devil had certainly one advantage: it enabled a gloomy person to cover his misanthropical sentiments by an edifying mask. The conviction that man's nature is corrupt, and that the great majority will be damned, enabled you to discharge your melancholy and yet ostensibly to believe that everything was for the best. Now that the devil has gone out of fashion, the pessimist cannot find even a verbal excuse for his mismanagements of 'Nature,' and has to appear in his true character. It is, in fact, the affinity of Donne to such teaching which suggests a certain ambiguity in the eulogies bestowed upon his religion. His view may be right or wrong; but it implies something very unlike the amiable and optimistic view of the universe which seems to be generally taken as religious by modern preachers.
- Mr. Beeching contributed an article upon Walton's life of Donne to the Cornhill Magazine for February 1900. He pointed out some blunders in this article as it appeared in the National Review. I have endeavoured to correct the errors indicated, and have altered a passage or two in which I seem to have said something which I did not mean.
- The phrase, as Mr. fetching points out, comes from one of Donne's own poems ('To Mr. Tilman after he had taken orders'), where it is said of preachers that they do 'as angels out of clouds, from pulpits speak.' It surely implies that Donne was a very good representative of the angels.
- Morton was ninety-four when Walton published this story, but, as Mr. Beeching points out, it may have been told eighteen years earlier. The whole speech appears to me to be as obviously a bit of literary composition as one of the speeches in a classical historian. It represents a general impression.
- 'The Court of James I.,' says Hallam, 'was incomparably the most disgraceful scene of profligacy which this country has ever witnessed.'