Halleck's New English Literature eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 629 pages of information about Halleck's New English Literature.

and the other is the dirge beginning:—­

  “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun.”

Ariel’s songs in The Tempest fascinate with the witchery of untrammeled existence.  Two lines of a song from Twelfth Night give an attractive presentation of the Renaissance philosophy of the present as opposed to an elusive future:—­

  “What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
  Present mirth hath present laughter.”

[Illustration:  JOHN DONNE. From the painting ascribed to Cornelius Jansen, South Kensington Museum.]

Two of the later Elizabethan poets, Ben Jonson and John Donne (1573-1631), specially impress us by their efforts to secure ingenious effects in verse.  Ben Jonson often shows this tendency, as in trying to give a poetic definition of a kiss as something—­

  “So sugar’d, so melting, so soft, so delicious,”

and in showing so much ingenuity of expression in the cramping limits of an epitaph:—­

  “Underneath this stone doth lie
  As much beauty as could die,
  Which in life did harbor give
  To more virtue than doth live.”

The poet most famous for a display of extreme ingenuity in verse is John Donne, a traveler, courtier, and finally dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who possessed, to quote his own phrase, an “hydroptic immoderate desire of human learning.”  He paid less attention to artistic form than the earlier Elizabethans, showed more cynicism, chose the abstract rather than the concrete, and preferred involved metaphysical thought to simple sensuous images.  He made few references to nature and few allusions to the characters of classical mythology, but searched for obscure likenesses between things, and for conceits or far-fetched comparisons.  In his poem, A Funeral Elegy, he shows these qualities in characterizing a fair young lady as:—­

  “One whose clear body was so pure and thin,
  Because it need disguise no thought within;
  ’Twas but a through-light scarf her mind to enroll,
  Or exhalation breathed out from her soul.”

The idea in Shakespeare’s simpler expression, “the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye,” was expanded by Donne into:—­

  “Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
  Our eyes upon one double string.”

Donne does not always show so much fine-spun ingenuity, but this was the quality most imitated by a group of his successors.  His claim to distinction rests on the originality and ingenuity of his verse, and perhaps still more on his influence over succeeding poets.[5]


[Illustration:  EDMUND SPENSER._From a painting in Duplin Castle_.]

Life and Minor Poems.—­For one hundred and fifty-two years after Chaucer’s death, in 1400, England had no great poet until Edmund Spenser was born in London in 1552.  Spenser, who became the greatest non-dramatic poet of the Elizabethan age, was twelve years older than Shakespeare.

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Halleck's New English Literature from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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