Yeats considered Donne a great poet. Yet Donne was Yeats' master, and his greatness is dependent on no one's claims. Not even mine. To read Donne's verse is to be alive, so fully does he embrace and render existence. Scholar, pastor, lover—his many personae frequently surface, and frequently render the reader speechless with their profundity and beauty.
This isn't merely some Shakespearean feat, either. Shakespeare, ever the actor, assumed and conveyed his characters. What is striking about Donne is that his poems are so visceral, so accurate, so intensely personal, so divorced from artifice. When he says to his mistress "O, my America, my Newfoundland!" we almost squirm at the intimacy of it; and when he says to the Creator "Batter my heart, three person'd God"we yearn with him for spiritual renewal and realization.
Donne manages to capture man's true state, both our physicality and spirituality. Even his language is adapted to this purpose—in the depths of lust his lines become earthy, vigorous; when reflecting on his own sinfulness they are anguished; and the poems about God are fearful, worshipful, mysterious. As one of the famous English metaphysical poets, he was concerned not just with the beauty of poetry, but with its capacity as a reflection and commentary on existence. That he never becomes tawdry or baldly didactic is testament to his brilliance.
Some people read Donne in place of devotions, but you could just as easily read him for the opposite effect. Before he was a devout Protestant minister, he was a womanizing profligate, and both identities emerge in the poems. Hymns to the flesh and hymns to the Divine stand together, each end of the human experience brought to adroit synthesis by a man preoccupied with death, love, sex and God. Ironically it wasn't until the 20th century that Donne's genius became fully appreciated—since then he has generally been heralded as one of, if not the greatest English poet of all time.
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Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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