My next example should be styled the Ballad of Extravagant Grief, and will be found at its highest in the Poetical Works of John Donne. I can find nothing greater than his—
Death can find nothing after her, to kill
Except the world itself, so great as she,
in “A funerall elegie upon the death of George Sonds Esquire who was killed by his brother Mr. Freeman Sonds the 7 of August 1658.” Freeman Sonds, a younger son, hit his brother George on the head with a cleaver as he lay in his bed, and thereafter dispatched him with a three-sided dagger. He then went in to his father and confessed his fault. “Then you had best kill me too,” said the father; to whom the son, “Sir, I have done enough.” He was hanged at Maidstone, full of penitence and edifying discourse. The elegy begins in Donne’s circumstantial manner:
Reach me a handkerchief, another yet,
And yet another, for the last is wet.
Nothing could be better; but he must needs outdo his usual outdoings, call for a bottle to hold his tears, finally require that—
The Muses should be summoned in by force
And spend their all upon the wounded corse—
which presents a rather comic picture to the imaginative reader.
The elegist, reserving blasphemy for his conclusion, now becomes foolish:
In thy expyring it was made appear
In bloody wounds the Trinity was here.
Where was the Trinity, you ask? In the wounds, naturally, which, made with a three-edged dagger, showed red triangles. But there were twelve wounds: therefore—
The gates thro’ which thy fertil
soul did mount
To blessed Aboad came to the full account
Of Twelve, or four times three; and three
Hath ever in it some great Mysterie.
Obviously. Here is his peroration:
Great God, what can, what shall, man’s
When thy great goodness at this act did winke?
But thou art just, perhaps thou thoughtest it fit;
And Lord, unto thy judgment I submit.
Any comment must fail upon the sublimity of that great “perhaps.”
Elkanah Settle might have written that, as he did undoubtedly another, “On the untimely death of Mrs. Annie Gray, who dyed of small pox”:
Scarce have I dry’d my cheeks but
Again my eyes to weep, my hand to write,
Which still return with greater force, being more
In weight and number than they were before.
A touch of Crabbe there—but enough of innocent death, which was not in Catnach’s line of business. He dealt in murder, from the convicted murderer’s standpoint. For us the locus classicus is the Thavies Inn Affair; but from the Kentish Garland I gather “The Dying Soldier in Maidstone Gaol,” a later flower, written and published no longer ago than 1857.