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The First Decadent Figure
A Melancholy and Morbid Poet
joyous air of a June morning; like a branch of yellow leaves amid the springtime blossoms, a hint of the coming autumn days. The sight of a lovely maiden sets the poet to thinking of the grave; a summer rose, instead of filling him with rapturous delight, sets him to moralizing:
Little think'st thou, poor flower,
Whom I have watched six or seven days,
Gave to thy growth, thee to this height to raise,
To-morrow find thee fallen, or not at all. In everything he was serious and sad, -sad even to melancholy and morbidness. He wrote a work in praise of suicide; he composed a book of funeral elegies; in his last hours he wrapped himself in his shroud to have his portrait painted with closed eyes and ghastly face.
It is easy to misrepresent Donne by dwelling on one phase of his many-sided character, but at whatever angle we view his poetry we find the melancholy and moralizing tendency predominant. The lyrists, like Greene, and Marlowe, and Lyly, were an unpractical set, who went into ecstasies over beauty and stopped not to think beyond the present moment, but Donne was meditative and speculative. Even Dowden admits that his songs deal with “ the metaphysics and casuistry of love." Think of Greene and Marlowe opening a love-song with
Stand still and I will read to thee
A lecture, Love, in love's philosophy. When poets begin to moralize and seek the scientific basis of their passion they cease to be poets; they have
An Autumn Note in Midsummer
Two Periods in Donne's Life
become mere psychologists. Every art," says Taine, "ends in a science." Donne, and to a less degree Daniel, was the first symptom of the decline of the great poetic period. Often at midsummer, and even in June, one may hear a single mournful cricket, the first note in the chorus of the coming autumn.
The life of Donne is divided sharply into two periods. When at the age of forty he entered the Church, to become six years later Dean of St. Paul's, he left behind him a wild and checkered youth, to enter upon a career conspicuous in English church history for its rapt spiritual exaltation and its wide-spread influence. Of Dr. Donne, the great preacher, we shall not speak; it is “ Jack” Donne whose life concerns us, since nearly all of his poems were written before he entered the ministry. When he entered upon his new life he is said to have wished that all his poems might be destroyed.
Donne's early life is admirably summed by Professor Dowden:
Papist and Protestant ; doubter and believer ; a seeker for faith and one who amused himself with skeptical paradoxes; a solitary thinker on obscurest problems and“ a great visitor of ladies," as Sir Richard Baker describes him, “a great frequenter of plays”; a passionate student longing for action; a reader of the law; a toiler among folios of theology ; a poet and a soldier; one who communed with lust and with death; a courtier and a satirist of the court; a wanderer over Europe and one who lay inactive in a sullen weedy lake without space for stroke of arms or legs-such was Donne up to his fortieth year.
His poetic product was small, ludicrously so when compared with the work of a poet like Drayton. He did not write for publication. His verses were “ intended for the delight and amusement of a small circle." It was
His Influence on Later Writers
The First of the Metaphysical Poets
not until after his death that his poems were collected and published.
The great influence of Donne upon later English poetry cannot be overlooked. His example, beyond a doubt, helped to turn the current of English poetry into the fantastic channels which it occupied during the middle of the century. Cowley and Waller, Suckling and Cleveland, and indeed the whole group of artificial rhymers who wrote from the intellect rather than from the heart, and who represent the autumn of the great creative era, were but copying the vagaries and blemishes of this early poet, neglecting utterly the inspired portions of his work, the frequent lines that glow with the true Elizabethan fire. REQUIRED READINGS. For a marked example of his metaphysical side, which traces resemblances that are fantastic or uncalled-for or unseemly,” read “ The Flea” or “ A Valediction of my Name.' Among his best songs are “ Sweetest Love, I do not go, · Love's Deity, “ The Message,
""Go Catch a Falling Star,'' The Dream." See Golden Treasury, Schelling, Elizabethan Lyrics, and Ward, English Poets.
THE TRANSITION TO FINISHED PROSE
THE RISE OF THE NOVEL
Authorities. Jusserand, The English Novel in the Time of Shakespeare; Dunlop, History of Prose Fiction; Raleigh, The English Novel ; Tuckerman, History of English Prose Fiction ; Lanier, The English Novel; Simonds, Introduction to English Prose Fiction ; Warren, History of the Novel Previous to the Seventeenth Century.
To understand fully the Elizabethan age one must realize that it was the breaking upon England of the Italian Renaissance a full century after it had reached its highest point in Southern Europe. The genuine enthusiasm, the marvelous genius, the honest religious devotion of the early days, had long passed from Italy. There were no more Dantes and Michel Angelos and Savonarolas. Italy had become corrupt in morals and decadent in art and literature, and it was this degenerate Italy that now took possession of England. The school of the new learning, which had endeavored to model itself on the purest and best of the Italian culture, had become but a tradition. The young men of the English nobility were flocking to the new Italy, to return, as Ascham declared,
worse transformed than were any of Circes court.' The gayety and lightness, the pomp and extravagance, the fantastic style of architecture and costume, the artificial life, the inflated conversation,-indeed all the strivings of the age to achieve “ nothing but what was
Translations from the Italian
Native Imitations of Italian Novels
brilliant, unexpected, extraordinary,”—all this came out of Italy.
Of the tide of translations from the Italian that poured into England during the first twenty years of Elizabeth's reign the greater part consisted of novels and amorous tales, which old Ascham, who stands as a solitary figure between the old and the new, declared to be full of abominations. Ten Morte d'Arthurs do not the tenth part so much harme as one of these bookes made in Italie and translated in England.” Works like Boccaccio's Amorous Fiametta, wherein is sette downe a catalogue of all and singular passions of love," like Castiglione's Courtier, which contains “ lengthy precepts concerning assignations and lovemaking,” like Painter's Pallace of Pleasure, Fenton's Tragicall Discourses, and Whetstone's Heptameron of Civill Discourses, became before the end of Elizabeth's reign the chief literary diet of the reading class. They were highly fashionable; no lady's table was complete without the latest issues. The moralists and the Puritans might thunder against them, it made little difference. “They were found,” says Jusserand,“ not only ' in every shop' but in every house; translations of them were the daily reading of Shakespeare, and they had an immense influence not only in emancipating the genius of the dramatists of the period, but, what was of equal importance, in preparing an audience for them."
That a school of native novelists should follow fast upon the heels of the Italian translators was inevitable. No sooner was it realized that the new literary form had taken a fast hold upon fashionable reading circles than English writers began in earnest to supply the demand