Page images

for whatever reason, became the more solicitous for his company. This brought on a
generous conflict between Donne and his wife.
He urged that he could not refuse a
man to whom he was so much indebted, and she complied, although with some reluc-
tance, from a congenial sense of obligation. It was on this occasion, probably, that he
addressed to his wife the verses, " By our first strange and fatal interview, &e." She had
formed, if this conjecture be allowed, the romantic design of accompanying him in the
disguise of a page, from which it was the purpose of these verses to dissuade her.

Mr. Donne accordingly went abroad with the embassy; and two days after their arrival at Paris, had that extraordinary vision which has been minutely detailed by all his biographers. He saw, or fancied he saw, his wife pass through the room in which he was sitting alone, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms. This story he often repeated, and with so much confidence and anxiety, that sir Robert sent a messenger to Drury House, who brought back intelligence, that he found Mrs. Donne very sad and sick in bed, and that, after a long and dangerous labour, she had been delivered of a dead child, which event happened on the day and hour that Mr. Donne saw the vision. Walton has recorded the story on the authority of an anonymous informant ; and has endeavoured to render it credible, not only by the corresponding instances of Samuel and Saul, of Bildad, and of St. Peter, but those of Julius Cæsar and Brutus, St. Austin and Monica. The whole may be safely left to the judgment of the reader.

From the dates of some of Donne's letters, it appears that he was at Paris with sir Robert Drury in 16122; and one is dated from the Spa, in the same year; but at what time he returned is not certain. After his return, however, his friends became more seriously anxious to fix him in some honourable and lucrative employment at court. Before this period he had become known to king James, and was one of those learned persons with whom that sovereign delighted to converse at his table. On one of those occasions, about the year 1610, the conversation turned on a question respecting the obligation on Roman Catholics to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy; and Donne appeared to so much advantage in the dispute, that his majesty requested he would commit his sentiments in writing, and bring them to him. Donne readily complied, and presented the king with the treatise published in that year, under the title of Pseudo-Martyr. This obtained him much reputation, and the university of Oxford conferred on him the degree of master of arts, which he had previously received from Cambridge.

The Pseudo-Martyr contains very strong arguments against the pope's supremacy, and has been highly praised by his biographers. Warburton, however, speaks of it in less favourable terms. It must be confessed that the author has not availed himself of the writings of the judicious Hooker, and that in this, as well as in all his prose-writings, are many of those far-fetched conceits which, however agreeable to the taste of the age, have placed him at the head of a class of very indifferent poets.

At this period of our history, it was deemed expedient to select such men for high offices in the church as promised, by their abilities and zeal, to vindicate the reformed religion. King James, who was no incompetent judge of such merit, though perhaps too apt to measure the talents of others by his own standard, conceived, from a perusal of

2 It may be necessary to mention, that the dates of some of his letters do not correspond with Walton's narrative, and it is now too late to attempt to reconcile them. C..


the Pseudo-Martyr, that Donne would prove an ornament and bulwark to the church, and, therefore, not only endeavoured to persuade him to take orders, but resisted every application to exert the royal favour towards him in any other direction. When the favourite earl of Somerset requested that Mr. Donne might have the place of one of the clerks of the council, then vacant, the king replied, "I know Mr. Donne is a learned man, has the abilities of a learned divine, and will prove a powerful preacher; and my desire is to prefer him that way, and in that way I will deny you nothing for him."

Such an intimation must have made a powerful impression; yet there is no reason to conclude, from any part of Mr. Donne's character, that he would have been induced to enter the church merely by the persuasion of his sovereign, however flattering. To him, however, at this time, the transition was not difficult. He had relinquished the follies of youth, and had nearly outlived the remembrance of them by others. His studies had long inclined to theology, and his frame of mind was adapted to support the character expected from him. His old friend, Dr. Morton, probably embraced this opportunity to second the king's wishes, and remove Mr. Donne's personal scruples; and Dr. King, bishop of London, who had been chaplain to the chancellor when Donne was his secretary, and consequently knew his character, heard of his intention with much satisfaction. By this prelate he was ordained deacon, and afterwards priest; and the king, although not uniformly punctual in his promises of patronage, immediately made him his chaplain in ordinary, and gave him hopes of higher preferment.

Those who had been the occasion of Mr. Donne's entering into orders, were anxious to see him exhibit in a new character, with the abilities which had been so much admired in the scholar and the man of the world. But at first, we are told, he confined his public services to the churches in the vicinity of London; and it was not until his majesty required his attendance at Whitehall on an appointed day, that he appeared before an auditory capable of appreciating his talents. Their report is stated to have been highly favourable. His biographer, indeed, seems to be at a loss for words to express the pathos, dignity, and effect of his preaching; but in what he has advanced, he no doubt spoke the sentiments of Donne's learned contemporaries. Still the excellence of the pulpit oratory of that age will not bear the test of modern criticism; and those who now consult Mr. Donne's sermons, if they expect gratification, must be more attentive to the matter than the manner. That he was a popular and useful preacher is universally acknowledged; and he performed the more private duties of his function with humility, kindness, zeal, and assiduity.

The same month, which appears to have been March 1614, in which he entered into orders, and preached at Whitehall, the king happened to be entertained, during one of his progresses, at Cambridge, and recommended Mr. Donne to be made doctor in divinity Walton informs us, that the university gave their assent as soon as Dr. Harsnet, the vice. chancellor, made the proposal. According, however, to two letters from Mr. Chamberlain to sir Dudley Carlton, it appears that there was some opposition to the degree, in consequence of a report that Mr. Donne had obtained the reversion of the deanery of Canterbury. Even the vice-chancellor is mentioned among those who opposed him. It is not very easy to reconcile these accounts, unless by a conjecture that the opposition was withdrawn when the report respecting the deanery of Canterbury was proved to be untrue. And there is some probability this was the case, for that deanery became vacant in the following year, and was given to Dr. Fotherby, a man of much less fame and interest.

But whatever was the cause of this temporary opposition at Cambridge, it is certain that Dr. Donne became so highly esteemed as a preacher, that within the first year of his ministry, he had the offer of fourteen different livings, all of which he declined, and for the same reason, namely, that they were situated at a distance from London, to which, in common with all men of intellectual curiosity, he appears to have been warmly attached.

In 1617 his wife died, leaving him seven children. This affliction sunk so deep into his heart that he retired from the world and from his friends, to indulge a sorrow which could not be restrained, and which for some time interrupted his public services. From this he was at length diverted by the gentlemen of Lincoln's Inn, who requested him to accept their lecture, and prevailed. Their high regard for him contributed to render this situation agreeable, and adequate to the maintenance of his family. The connection subsisted about two years, greatly to the satisfaction of both parties, and of the people at large, who had now frequent opportunities of hearing their favourite preacher. But on lord Hay being appointed on an embassy to Germany, Dr. Donne was requested to attend him. He was at this time in a state of health which required relaxation and change of air, and after an absence of fourteen months he returned to his duty in Lincoln's Inn, much improved in health and spirits, and about a year after, in 1620, the king conferred upon him the deanery of St. Paul's.

This promotion, like all the leading events of his life, tended to the advancement of his character. While it amply supplied his wants, it enabled him at the same time to exhibit the heroism of a liberal and generous mind, in the case of his father-in-law, sir George Moor. This man had never acted the part of a kind and forgiving parent, although he continued to pay the annual sum agreed upon by bond, in lieu of his daughter's portion. The time was now come when Dr. Donne could repay his harshness by convincing him how unworthily it had been exerted. The quarter after his appointment to the deanery, when sir George came to pay him the stipulated sum, Dr. Donne refused it, and after acknowledging more kindness than he had received, added, "I know your present condition is such as not to abound, and I hope mine is such as not to need it. I will therefore receive no more from you upon that contract,” which he immediately gave up.

To his deanery was now added the vicarage of St. Dunstan in the West, and another ecclesiastical endowment not specified by Walton. These, according to his letters, (p. 318) he owed to the friendship of Richard Sackville, earl of Dorset, and of the earl of Kent. From all this he derived the pleasing prospect of making a decent provision for his children, as well as of indulging to a greater extent his liberal and humane disposition. In 1624, he was chosen prolocutor to the convocation, on which occasion he delivered a Latin oration, which is printed in the London edition of his poems, 1719.

While in this full tide of popularity, he had the misfortune to fall under the displeasure of the king, who had been informed that in his public discourses he had meddled with some of those points respecting popery which were more usually handled by the puritans. Such an accusation might have had very serious consequences, if the king had implicitly confided in those who brought it forward. But Dr. Donne was too great a favourite to be condemned unheard, and accordingly his majesty sent for him and represented what he had heard, and Dr. Donne so completely satisfied him as to his principles in church and state, that the king, in the hearing of his council, bestowed high praise on him, and declared that he rejoiced in the recollection that it was by his persuasion Dr. Donne had become a divine,

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

About four years after he received the deanery of St. Paul's, and when he had arrived at his fifty-fourth year, his constitution, naturally feeble, was attacked by a disorder which had every appearance of being fatal. In this extremity he gave another proof of that tenderness of conscience, so transcendently superior to all modern notions of honour, which had always marked his character. When there was little hope of his life, he was required to renew some prebendal leases, the fines for which were very considerable, and might have enriched his family. But this he peremptorily refused, considering such a measure, in his situation, as a species of sacrilege. "I dare not,” he added, "now upon my sick bed, when Almighty God hath made me useless to the service of the church, make any advantages out of it."

This illness, however, he survived about five years, when his tendency to a consumption again returned, and terminated his life on the 31st day of March 1631. He was buried in St. Paul's, where a monument was erected to his memory. His figure may yet be seen in the vaults of St. Faith's under St. Paul's. It stands erect in a window, without its niche, and deprived of the urn in which the feet were placed. His picture was drawn sometime before liis death, when he dressed himself in his winding sheet, and the figure in St. Faith's was carved from this painting by Nicholas Stone. The fragments of his tomb are on the other side of the church. Walton mentions many other paintings of him executed at different periods of his life, which are not now known.

Of his character some judgment may be formed from the preceding sketch, taken principally from Zouch's much improved edition of Walton's Lives. His early years, there is reason to think, although disgraced by no flagrant turpitude, were not exempt from folly and dissipation. In some of his poems we meet with the language and sentiments of men whose morals are not very strict. After his marriage, however, he appears to have become of a serious and thoughtful disposition, his mind alternately exhausted by study, or softened by affliction. His reading was very extensive, and we find allusions to almost every science in his poems, although unfortunately they only contribute to produce distorted images and wild conceits.

His prose works are numerous, but, except the Pseudo-Martyr and a small volume of devotions, none of them were published during his life. A list of the whole may be seen in Wood's Athenæ and in Zouch's edition of Walton. His sermons have not a little of the character of his poems. They are not, indeed, so rugged in style, but they abound with quaint allusions, which now appear ludicrous, although they probably produced no such effect in his days. With this exception, they contain much good sense, much acquaintance with human nature, many striking thoughts, and some very just biblical' criticism.


One of his prose writings requires more particular notice. Every admirer of his character will wish it expunged from the collection. It is entitled Biathanatos, a Declaration of that Paradox, or Thesis, that Self-homicide is not so naturally Sin, that it may never be otherwise. If it be asked what could induce a man of Dr. Donne's piety to write such a treatise, we may answer in his own words, that “ it is a book written by Jack Donne and not by Dr. Donne." It was written in his youth, as a trial of skill on a singular topic, in which he thought proper to exercise his talent against the generally received opinion. But if it be asked why, instead of sending one or two copies to friends with an injunction not to print it, he did not put this out of their power by destroying the manuscript, the answer is not so easy. He is even so inconsistent as to desire one of his correspondents neither to burn it, nor publish it. It was at length

published by his son in 1644, who certainly did not consult the reputation of his fa.her; and if the reports of his character be just, was not a man likely to give himself much uneasiness about that or any other consequence.

Dr. Donne's reputation as a poet was higher in his own time than it has been since. Dryden fixed his character with his usual judgment; as "the greatest wit, though not the best poet, of our nation." He says afterwards', that "he affects the metaphysics, not only in his Satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign, and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love." Dryden has also pronounced that if his Satires were to be translated into numbers, they would yet be wanting in diguity of expression. The reader has now an opportunity of comparing the originals and translations in Pope's works, and will probably think that Pope has made them so much his own as to throw very little light on Donne's powers. He every where elevates the expression, and in very few instances retains a whole line.

Pope, in his classification of poets, places Donne at the head of a school, that school from which Dr. Johnson has given so many remarkable specimens of absurdity, in his life of Cowley, and which, following Dryden, he terms the metaphysical school. Gray, in the sketch he sent to Mr. Warton, considers it as a third Italian school, full of conceit, begun in queen Elizabeth's reign, continued under James and Charles I. by Donne, Crashaw, Cleveland, carried to its height by Cowley, and ending perhaps in Sprat.

Donne's numbers, if they may be so called, are certainly the most rugged and uncouth of any of our poets. He appears either to have had no ear, or to have been utterly regardless of harmony. Yet Spenser preceded him, and Drummond, the first polished versifier, was his contemporary; but it must be allowed that before Drummond appeared, Donne had relinquished his pursuit of the Muses, nor would it be just to include the whole of his poetry under the general censure which has been usually passed. Dr. Warton seems to think that if he had taken pains he might not have proved so inferior to his contemporaries; but what inducement could he have to take pains, as he published nothing, and seems not desirous of public fame? He was certainly not ignorant or unskilled in the higher attributes of style, for he wrote elegantly in Latin, and displays considerable taste in some of his smaller pieces and epigrams.

At what time he wrote his poems has not been ascertained; but of a few the dates may be recovered by the corresponding events of his life. Ben Jonson affirmed that he wrote all his best pieces before he was twenty-five years of age. His Satires, in which there are some strokes levelled at the Reformation, must have been written very early, as he was but a young man when he renounced the errors of popery. His poems were first published in 4to. 1633, and 12mo. 1635, 1651, 1669, and 1719. His son was the editor of the early editions.

3 On the Origin and Progress of Satire. C.

« PreviousContinue »