Guardian of Inferno (The Lifestones Book 2)

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It was, one suspects from several circumstances, a little Donne's way in later years to disguise the footprints of his earlier indiscretions. According to this tradition the final habitat of the soul which 'inanimated' the apple. The tradition is interesting as marking how far Donne was in from his later orthodox Protestantism, for Calvin is never mentioned but with respect in the Sermons.

A few months later he wrote to Egerton disclaiming warmly all 'love of a corrupt religion'. But, though sceptical in tone, the poem is written from a Catholic standpoint; its theme is the progress of the soul of heresy.

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And, as the seventh stanza clearly indicates, the great heretic in whom the line closed was to be not Calvin but Queen Elizabeth:. Donne can hardly have thought of publishing such a poem, or circulating it in the Queen's lifetime.

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It was an expression of the mood which begot the 'black and envious slanders breath'd against Diana for her divine justice on Actaeon' to which Jonson refers in Cynthia's Revels the same year. That some copies were circulated in manuscript later is probably due to the reaction which brought into favour at James's [pg xix] Court the Earl of Southampton and the former adherents of Essex generally.

The tone, moreover, of the stanza quoted above suggests that it was no vulgar libel on Elizabeth which Donne contemplated. Elizabeth, the cruel persecutor of his Catholic kinsfolk, now stained with the blood of her favourite, appeared to him somewhat as she did to Pope Sixtus, a heretic but a great woman. It would have been interesting to read Donne's history of the great souls that troubled and yet quickened the world from Cain to Arius and from Mahomet to Elizabeth, but unfortunately Donne never got beyond the introduction, a couple of cantos which describe the progress of the soul while it is still passing through the vegetable and animal planes, the motive of which, so far as it can be disentangled, is to describe the pre-human education of a woman's soul:.

The fragment has some of the sombre power which De Quincey attributes to it, but on the whole one must confess it is a failure. The 'wit' of Donne did not apparently include invention, for many of the episodes seem pointless as well as disgusting, and indeed in no poem is the least attractive side of Donne's mind so clearly revealed, that aspect of his wit which to some readers is more repellent, more fatal to his claim to be a poet, than too subtle ingenuity or misplaced erudition—the vein of sheer ugliness which runs through his work, presenting details that seem merely and wantonly repulsive.

The same vein is apparent in the work of Chapman, of Jonson, and even in places of Spenser, and the imagery of Hamlet and the tragedies owes some of its dramatic vividness and power to the same quality. The ugly has its place in art, and it would not be difficult to find it in every phase of Renaissance art, marked like the beautiful in that art by the same evidence of power. Decadence brought with it not ugliness but prettiness. The reflective, philosophic, somewhat melancholy strain of the poems I have been touching on reappears in the letters addressed to noble ladies.

Here, however, it is softened, less sardonic in tone, while it blends with or gives place to another strain, that of absurd and extravagant but fanciful and subtle compliment.

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Donne cannot write to a lady without his heart and fancy taking wing in their own passionate and erudite fashion. Scholastic theology is made the instrument of courtly compliment and pious flirtation. He blends in the same disturbing fashion as in some of the songs and elegies that depreciation of woman in general, which he owes less to classical poetry than to his over-acquaintance with the Fathers, with an adoration of her charms in the individual which passes into the transcendental.

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He tells the Countess of Huntingdon that active goodness in a woman is a miracle; but it is clear that she and the Countess of Bedford and Mrs. Herbert and Lady Carey and the Countess of Salisbury are all examples of such miracle—ladies whose beauty itself is virtue, while their virtues are a mystery revealable only to the initiated. The highest place is held by Lady Bedford and Mrs. If lines like the following are not pure poetry, they haunt some quaint borderland of poetry to which the polished felicities of Pope's compliments are a stranger.

If not pure fancy, they are not mere ingenuity, being too intellectual and argumentative for the one, too winged and ardent for the other:. Indeed it is clear to any careful reader that in the poems addressed to both these ladies there is blended with the respectful flattery of the dependant not a little of the tone of warmer feeling permitted to the 'servant' by Troubadour [pg xxii] convention. And I suspect that some poems, the tone of which is still more frankly and ardently lover-like, were addressed to Lady Bedford and Mrs.

Herbert, though they have come to us without positive indication. There can, I think, be little doubt that it is to her, and neither to his wife nor the mistresses of his earlier, wandering fancy, that these lines, conventional in theme but given an amazing timbre by the impulse of Donne's subtle and passionate mind, were addressed. Lucies Day , for Lucy was the Countess's name, and the thought, feeling, and rhythm of the two poems are strikingly similar. But the Nocturnall is a sincerer and profounder poem than Twicknam Garden , and it is more difficult to imagine it the expression of a conventional sentiment.

Gosse, and there is no higher authority when it comes to the interpretation of Donne's character and mind, rightly, I think, suggests that the death of the lady addressed is assumed, not actual, but he connects the poem with Donne's earlier and troubled loves. It might have been written to Ann More. It is a highly metaphysical yet sombre and sincere description of the emptiness of life without love. The critics have, I think, failed somewhat to reckon with this stratum in Donne's songs, of poems Petrarchian in convention but with a Petrarchianism coloured by Donne's realistic temper and impatient wit.

Any interpretation of so [pg xxiii] enigmatical a poem must be conjectural, but before one denied too positively that its subject was Lady Bedford—perhaps her illness in —one would need to answer two questions, how far could a conventional passion inspire a strain so sincere, and what was Donne's feeling for Lady Bedford and hers for him? Poetry is the language of passion, but the passion which moves the poet most constantly is the delight of making poetry, and very little is sufficient to quicken the imagination to its congenial task.

Our soberer minds are apt to think that there must be an actual, particular experience behind every sincere poem. But history refutes the idea of such a simple relation between experience and art. No poet will sing of love convincingly who has never loved, but that experience will suffice him for many and diverse webs of song and drama. Without pursuing the theme, it is sufficient for the moment to recall that in the fashion of the day Spenser's sonnets were addressed to Lady Carey, not to his wife; that it was to Idea or to Anne Goodere that Drayton wrote so passionate a poem as.

Of Lady Bedford's feeling for Donne we know only what his letters reveal, and that is no more than that she was his warm friend and generous patroness. It is clear, however, from their enduring friendship and from the tone of that correspondence that she found in him a friend of a rarer and finer calibre than in the other poets whom she patronized in turn, Daniel and Drayton and Jonson—some one whose sensitive, complex, fascinating personality could hardly fail to touch a woman's imagination and heart.

Friendship between man and woman is love in some degree. There is no need to exaggerate the situation, or to reflect on either her loyalty or his to other claims, to recognize that their mutual feeling was of the kind for which the Petrarchian convention afforded a ready and recognized vehicle of expression. And so it was, one fancies, with Mrs. She too found in Donne a rare and comprehending spirit, and he in her a gracious and delicate friend. His relation to her, indeed, was probably simpler than to Lady Bedford, their friendship more equal.

The letter and the elegy referred to already are instinct with affection and tender reverence.

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To her Donne sent some of his earliest religious sonnets, with a sonnet on her beautiful name. And to her also it would seem that at some period in the history of their friendship, the beginning of which is very difficult to date, he wrote songs in the tone of hopeless, impatient passion, of Petrarch writing to Laura, and others which celebrate their mutual affection as a love that rose superior to earthly and physical passion.

The clue here is the title prefixed to that strange poem The Primrose, being at Montgomery Castle upon the hill on which it is situate. It is true that the title is found for the first time in the edition of and is in none of the manuscripts. But it is easier to explain the occasional suppression of a revealing title than to conceive a motive for inventing such a gloss. The poem is doubtless, as Mr. Gosse says, 'a mystical celebration of the beauty, dignity and intelligence of Magdalen Herbert'—a celebration, however, which takes the form as it might with Petrarch of a reproach, a reproach which Donne's passionate temper and caustic wit seem even to touch with scorn.

He appears to hint to Mrs. Herbert that to wish to be more than a woman, to claim worship in place of love, is to be a worse monster than a coquette:. In exactly the same mood as The Primrose is The Blossome , possibly written in the same place and on the same day, for the poet is preparing to return to London.

The Dampe is in an even more scornful tone, and one hesitates to connect it with Mrs. But all these poems recur so repeatedly together in the manuscripts as to suggest that they have a common origin.


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In the former the cruelty of the lady has killed her lover, but in the second the tone changes entirely, the relation between Donne and Mrs. Herbert note the lines. Such were the notes that a poet in the seventeenth century might still sing to a high-born lady his patroness and his friend. No one who knows the fashion of the day will read into them more than they were intended to convey. No one who knows human nature will read them as merely frigid and conventional compliments.

Any uncertainty one may feel about the subject arises not from their being love-poems, but from the difficulty which Donne has in adjusting himself to the Petrarchian convention, the tendency of his passionate heart and satiric wit to break through the prescribed tone of worship and complaint. Without some touch of passion, some vibration of the heart, Donne is only too apt to accumulate 'monstrous and disgusting hyperboles'. This is very obvious in the Epicedes —his complimentary laments for the young Lord Harington, Miss Boulstred, Lady Markham, Elizabeth Drury and the Marquis of Hamilton, poems in which it is difficult to find a line that moves.

Indeed, seventeenth-century elegies are not as a rule [pg xxvi] pathetic. A poem in the simple, piercing strain and the Wordsworthian plainness of style of the Dutch poet Vondel's lament for his little daughter is hardly to be found in English. An occasional epitaph like Browne's.

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In the pastoral elegy, such as Lycidas , the poet was able to escape from a too literal treatment of the first into a sequence of charming conventions. The second was alien to Milton's thought, and with his genius for turning everything to beauty Milton extracts from the reference to the circumstances of King's death the only touch of pathos in the poem:.

In the metaphysical elegy as cultivated by Donne, Beaumont, and others there was no escape from extravagant eulogy and sorrow by way of pastoral convention and mythological embroidery, and this class of poetry includes some of the worst verses ever written. In Donne all three of the strains referred to are present, but only in the third does he achieve what can be truly called poetry. In the elegies on Lord Harington and Miss Boulstred and Lady Markham it is difficult to say which is more repellent—the images in which the poet [pg xxvii] sets forth the vanity of human life and the humiliations of death or the frigid and blasphemous hyperboles in which the virtues of the dead are eulogized.

Even the Second Anniversary , the greatest of Donne's epicedes, is marred throughout by these faults. There is no stranger poem in the English language in its combination of excellences and faults, splendid audacities and execrable extravagances. Such are the passages in which the poet contemplates the joys of heaven. There is nothing more instinct with beautiful feeling in Lycidas than some of the lines of Apocalyptic imagery at the close:. But in spiritual sense, in passionate awareness of the transcendent, there are lines in Donne's poem that seem to me superior to anything in Milton if not in purity of Christian feeling, yet in the passionate, mystical sense of the infinite as something other than the finite, something which no suggestion of illimitable extent and superhuman power can ever in any degree communicate.


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  • In passages like these there is an earnest of the highest note of [pg xxviii] spiritual eloquence that Donne was to attain to in his sermons and last hymns. Another aspect of Donne's poetry in the Anniversaries , of his contemptus mundi and ecstatic vision, connects them more closely with Tennyson's In Memoriam than Milton's Lycidas.

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    Like Tennyson, Donne is much concerned with the progress of science, the revolution which was going on in men's knowledge of the universe, and its disintegrating effect on accepted beliefs. To him the new astronomy is as bewildering in its displacement of the earth and disturbance of a concentric universe as the new geology was to be to Tennyson with the vistas which it opened into the infinities of time, the origin and the destiny of man:.

    On Tennyson the effect of a similar dislocation of thought, the revelation of a Nature which seemed to bring to death and bring to life through endless ages, careless alike of individual and type, was religious doubt tending to despair:.

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