in verse # 25 : intended to be read in chambers

If we call blank verse the meter of performance, as it most certainly was on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, we may understand a little better the label “metaphysical poetry” that hangs like an albatross about John Donne’s neck, for committing such indiscretions as “The triple Foole”:

I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining Poëtry;
But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,
If she would not deny?
Then, as th’earths inward narrow crooked lanes
Do purge sea waters fretfull salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my paines,
Through Rimes vexation, I should them allay,
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

But when I have done so,
Some man, his art and voice to show,
Doth Set and sing my paine,
And, by delighting many, frees againe
Griefe, which verse did restraine.
To Love, and Griefe tribute of Verse belongs,
But not of such as pleases when’tis read,
Both are increased by such songs:
For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fooles, do so grow three;
Who are a little wise, the best fooles be.[i]

It seems to me absolutely necessary that we understand where lyric verse in English was headed while Shakespeare was launching dramatic verse to its apogee, before we can properly appreciate the epic verse John Milton succeeded in crafting in his magnificent masterpiece Paradise lost

Although the application of the term “metaphysical” to poetry appears to have originated with Drummond of Hawthornden (1585–1649) in a letter otherwise unidentified, in which he spoke of “metaphysical Ideas and Scholastical Quiddities” [ii] among poets also unidentified, the label was launched into infamy by Samuel Johnson in the opening essay of his Lives of the English poets, honoring Abraham Cowley.  He picks a fight at the beginning of these Lives with the metaphysical poets when he writes: “Wit, like all other things subject by their nature to the choice of man, has its changes and fashions, and at different times takes different forms.  About the beginning of the seventeenth century appeared a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets….”[iii]  If it weren’t made clear by that opening, Johnson goes on to disparage these poets as “men of learning, and, to show their learning was their whole endeavour,”[iv] a judgment which, coming from a notorious man of learning, seems a bit odd, but Dr. Johnson is not done yet.  He goes on to say:

but, unluckily resolving to shew it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry, they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect, that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.[v]

Now Johnson was not giving the finger to John Donne so much as intimating that he, along with the other metaphysical poets, had to count on their fingers to verify the meter of their poems.  You can judge of that by going back and reading “The triple Foole” again.  As I have mentioned before, I call this blogette “in verse” because I want to focus on the elements of verse, although not to the exclusion of poetry altogether.  But, in turning from the public stage to the private chamber, I think Dr Johnson might have allowed Donne a little leeway here, had he been less influential.  Johnson does not.[vi]  He brings in a more nearly contemporary assessment of Donne, followed by his judgment upon the metaphysical enterprise as a whole:

Those, however, who deny them to be poets, allow them to be wits.  Dryden confesses of himself and his contemporaries, that they fall below Donne in wit, but maintains that they surpass him in poetry….  [which Johnson implies is because] The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together; nature and art are ransacked for illustrations, comparisons, and allusions; their learning instructs, and their subtilty surprises; but the reader commonly thinks his improvement dearly bought, and, though he sometimes admires, is seldom pleased.[vii]

 Johnson goes on to defend wit at length, whilst denying even it to the metaphysical poets, and his argument is worth pursuing; but not here.  For my purposes, one further example must suffice, because here, in discussing Cowley’s poetry, Johnson clearly states his objection to metaphysical poets:

The fault of Cowley, and perhaps of all the writers of the metaphysical race, is that of pursuing his thoughts to their last ramifications, by which he loses the grandeur of generality; for of the greatest things the parts are little; what is little can be but pretty, and by claiming dignity becomes ridiculous.  Thus all the power of description is destroyed by a scrupulous enumeration; and the force of metaphors is lost, when the mind by the mention of particulars is turned more upon the original than the secondary sense, more upon that from which the illustration is drawn than that to which it is applied.[viii]

There.  Dr. Johnson has had his say, and his neo-classical penchant for balance and moderation in all matters is clearly displayed.  But it seems that he is little interested in the private poem, the one intended to be read in chambers, by or to a small group.  He seems to be promoting public poetry with his preference for the general.  Contemporary American poetry has little truck with “the grandeur of generality,” and seems more interested in “a scrupulous enumeration,” as if the metaphysical poets had carried the day.  Perhaps they have, although, as I said in my last post, I think the King James Bible has had more influence on it than the metaphysical poets.

But I fault Dr. Johnson more for indulging a false dichotomy between “verses” and “poetry” than for his prudent and principled rejection of verse he did not like.  This reflects poorly on his understanding of poetry, which is probably why he produced none of consequence.  But, in addition to that lazy dichotomy, he seems unwilling to acknowledge that Donne could traffic in “the grandeur of generality” as well.  Perhaps he didn’t know Donne’s poems as well as Cowley’s.  They may have been less widely published in 1777, and Donne may have been little more than a reputation without a body of work, known to Dryden but not to Johnson.  Here is one of Donne’s sonnets that should have earned Dr. Johnson’s approbation, unless he hated Shakespeare as well as Donne:

An epitaph upon Shakespeare

Renowned Chaucer lie a thought more nigh                                                                                   To rare Beaumond; and learned Beaumond lie                                                                              A little nearer Spencer, to make roome                                                                                           For Shakespeare in your threefold fourfold tombe.                                                                       To lie all foure in one bed make a shift,                                                                                          For, untill doomsday hardly will a fift                                                                                             Betwixt this day and that be slaine,                                                                                                For whom your curtaines need be drawne againe;                                                                          But, if precedency of death doth barre                                                                                              A fourth place in your sacred sepulchre,                                                                                          Under this curled marble of thine own                                                                                              Sleepe rare Tragedian Shakespeare, sleepe alone,                                                                       That, unto Us and others it may bee                                                                                              Honor, hereafter to be laid by thee.

And Johnson may have hated Shakespeare, for, like Donne, he is not found in Lives of the poets.  And it may be for good reason, for Shakespeare liked “metaphysical Ideas and Scholastical Quiddities,” [ix] if not quibbles, fully as much as the next man — who in this case could have been John Donne, whose epitaph upon Shakespeare is far better than the one which graces his tomb in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon.  Shakespeare may have written his own epitaph in the poems in which he asserted, by ridiculing the conventions of love poems, what Stephen Greenblatt calls “The Triumph of the Everyday.”[x]  I think there is no finer example than his sonnet 130:

My Mistres eyes are nothing like the Sunne,                                                                                  Currall is far more red, then her lips red,                                                                                        If snow be white, why then her brests are dun:                                                                              If haires be wiers, black wiers grow on her head:                                                                           I have seen Roses damaskt, red and white,                                                                                     But no such Roses see I in her cheekes,                                                                                            And in some perfumes is there more delight,                                                                                  Then in the breath that from my Mistres reekes.                                                                           I love to hear her speake, yet well I know,                                                                                       That Musicke hath a farre more pleasing sound:                                                                           I graunt I never saw a goddesse goe,                                                                                               My Mistres when shee walks treads on the ground.                                                                      And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,                                                                                     As any she beli’d with false compare.[xi]

This presents a wonderful dismissal of the conventional language used to praise one’s love.  I would imagine that some scholar somewhere has found examples of every one of the comparisons that Shakespeare mocks, if not the actual sources of these images.  For my purposes here it is sufficient to note that Shakespeare is doing exactly what Dr. Johnson above accuses the metaphysical poets of doing, “pursuing his thoughts to their last ramifications” — which are that his Mistres is as rare, in her down-to-earth way, as any beauty — or perhaps that his love for her is as rare as any such beauty.  In these poems “the grandeur of generality” is replaced by “the triumph of the everyday,” which is why they continue to be read far more than grander fare, like, say, Paradise lost.  That, and they are considerably shorter.

But hold on, I hear you say; aren’t we missing out great things by not moving on to Paradise lost?

Your turn.


[i] Poems / John Donne. — Menston, England : Scolar Press, 1969 [a facsimile of the 1633 ed., which I regret that I cannot reproduce exactly], pp.  204-205.  This text agrees with that in Poetical works / Donne. – [Oxford Standard Authors] edition / edited by Sir Herbert Grierson (London : Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 15-16.

[ii] Wikipedia,, accessed 24 January 2013, quoting Helen Gardner from her anthology Metaphysical Poets (London : Oxford University Press, 1957) — and wouldn’t you like to be known by such an appellation?  I’ve always wanted to be known as “Marden of Paragonah” instead of Dennis Clark, and I genially curse my parents and Dennis Day and Hank Ketcham to read nothing but Family Circle as they await the resurrection.

[iii] Lives of the English poets / by Samuel Johnson. – [World’s classics ed.] / with an introduction by Arthur Waugh. (London : Oxford University Press, 1952). — (The world’s classics ; 83), which is volume 1 of the Lives [volume II is no. 84 in the series].  The quotation is from pp. 12-13.

[iv] Ibid., p. 13.

[v] Ibid., p. 13.

[vi] According to the bibliographic note in the Scolar Press facsimile, “Only three of Donne’s poems appeared in print during his lifetime (1572-1631):  An Anatomy of the World (1611) [about age 39]; The Second Anniversarie [1612]; and his Elegie on Prince Henry, printed in Sylvester’s Lachrymae Lachrymarum, 1613.”  The Scolar Press facsimile thus reproduces “The first collected edition of his poetry” published two years after his death, without his approval.  He must have had a fairly strong impact on the next generation for Johnson to recognize it whilst slighting him by not including him in Lives of the poets.

[vii] Op. cit., pp. 13-14.

[viii] Ibid., p. 36.

[ix] Remember?  Drummond of Hawthornden, quoted in Wikipedia, — but the real reason for this footnote is to note that Arthur Waugh, in his introduction to Lives of the poets, notes that the selection of the poets Johnson was to write about was made by a group of booksellers who wanted him to provide prefaces to some volumes of poems by poets then fashionable, so that footnote vi above may be a bit harsh on the good gray doctor, then 68.

[x] The heading of his last chapter, no. 12, in Will in the world : how Shakespeare became Shakespeare / Stephen Greenblatt. – New York : Norton, c2004, pp. 356-390.

[xi] The Royal Shakespeare Theatre edition of The sonnets of William Shakespeare.  New York : Paddington Press, c1974.  The publisher’s note says that “The text used is that contained in Thomas Thorpe’s edition of 1609, now extremely rare and the earliest extant source”, with some few changes to orthography which might otherwise be confusing to you.  In both this transcription and that of Donne’s poems I prefer the original spelling, where it can be reproduced; but I agree that “the long ‘s’, which looks similar to the ‘f’ and tends to interrupt the flow when read by modern eyes”, should be replaced.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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2 Responses to in verse # 25 : intended to be read in chambers

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    It’s odd reading Johnson’s judgment, given that current poetic temper tends to the particular rather than the general. Even in cases like Paradise Lost, we tend to look at the particular and individual in how Satan et al. are described.

    Perhaps the most suggestive part from the perspective of versification is Johnson’s fretting over verse that half-conceals its scansion rather than parading it. How tastes have changed! We tend nowadays to find greater virtue in those poets whose poetic qualities must require search and discovery. I suppose it’s the neoclassicist in Johnson: a must be a and b must be b, and that which tests and violates boundaries is irritating rather than laudable. Which is probably why we read a lot more Donne than Dryden these days…

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Donne has undone Dryden and hung him out to dry in the preference arena. I wonder, though, when the next swing of the pendulum will occur?

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