While the wave of the dramatic was sinking, the wave of the lyric was growing in force and rising in height. Especially as regards religious poetry we are as yet only approaching the lyrical jubilee. Fact and faith, self-consciousness and metaphysics, all are needful to the lyric of love. Modesty and art find their grandest, simplest labour in rightly subordinating each of those to the others. How could we have a George Herbert without metaphysics? In those poems I have just given, the way of metaphysics was prepared for him. That which overcolours one age to the injury of its harmony, will, in the next or the next, fall into its own place in the seven-chorded rainbow of truth.
We now come to Dr. John Donne, a man of justly great respect and authority, who, born in the year 1573, the fifteenth of Queen Elizabeth, died Dean of St. Paul’s in the year 1636. But, although even Ben Jonson addresses him as “the delight of Phoebus and each Muse,” we are too far beyond the power of his social presence and the influence of his public utterances to feel that admiration of his poems which was so largely expressed during his lifetime. Of many of those that were written in his youth, Izaak Walton says Dr. Donne “wished that his own eyes had witnessed their funerals.” Faulty as they are, however, they are not the less the work of a great and earnest man.
Bred to the law, but never having practised it, he lost his secretaryship to the Lord Chancellor Ellesmere through the revenge of Sir George More, whose daughter Donne had married in secret because of her father’s opposition. Dependent thereafter for years on the generous kindness of unrelated friends, he yet for conscience’ sake refused to take orders when a good living was offered him; and it was only after prolonged thought that he yielded to the importunity of King James, who was so convinced of his surpassing fitness for the church that he would speed him towards no other goal. When at length he dared hope that God might have called him to the high office, never man gave himself to its duties with more of whole-heartedness and devotion, and none have proved themselves more clean of the sacrilege of serving at the altar for the sake of the things offered thereon.
He is represented by Dr. Johnson as one of the chief examples of that school of poets called by himself the metaphysical, an epithet which, as a definition, is almost false. True it is that Donne and his followers were always ready to deal with metaphysical subjects, but it was from their mode, and not their subjects, that Dr. Johnson classed them. What this mode was we shall see presently, for I shall be justified in setting forth its strangeness, even absurdity, by the fact that Dr. Donne was the dear friend of George Herbert, and had much to do with the formation of his poetic habits. Just twenty years older than Herbert, and the valued and intimate friend of his mother, Donne was in precisely that relation of age and circumstance to influence the other in the highest degree.