Two greatest artists – John Donne and Ben Jonson, whose artistic manner contrasted with that one of the Elizabethan artists, are considered to be the founders of English lyrics of the XVIIth century.  His poems cannot be analyzed within already existing frames and concepts. On the contrary, a reader is always amazed by their ambiguity, unexpected contrasts and twists of mind, constant dissatisfaction and combination of dry analytical judgments with emotional splashes. Although John Donne is usually associated with easy for understanding lyrics, his versatile talent makes him a difficult and mysterious artist (Andreasen 78).

Despite the fact that Donne was only 8 years younger than Shakespeare, he already belonged to another generation. For John as well as for Shakespearian Hamlet, the harmony of the universe had been substituted for unexplainable chaos that accompanied the change of historical epochs. As the artist painfully felt the imperfection of the “fallen to the atoms” world, all his life was dedicated to looking for a supporting point. That is why there is no wonder that the main topic of his poetry is a sense of inner frustration; this is the principal reason for its difficulty, its agonizing conflicts, combination of frivolous hedonism with sorrow of apostasy, impressive prose with a lack of self-confidence (Bald 112). 

Book of Donne’s satires

As many poets of the given era, Donne did not mean his poems to be published. For a long time, they were known only by manuscripts, which sometimes greatly differed from one another. Only in 1663, two years after the poet’s death, Donne’s poetry was first published. This explains the fact why it is so hard to decide when this or that poem was written. Nevertheless, textual critics, having compared preserved manuscripts and studied numerous allusions to events of the epoch, proved that Donne began to write at the beginning of the 90s of the XVIth century. His first satire appeared in 1593, after which four more satires were composed. In the manuscript, these five works were called a “book of Donne’s satires.” Apart from it, the 90s welcomed many other poems of various genres: songs, epigrams, epistles, elegies, epithalamiums, etc. Donne wrote them as if purposefully competing with Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare and other Elizabethan poets, which made his innovation especially obvious (Lewalski 43).

As far as Donne’s satires are concerned, they are based not on the national tradition, but on that one of Ancient Rome (preferred by Horace, Juvenalis, Persius) that the artist transforms according to his own perception of the world. Even his first satire was written in the form of a dramatic monologue, which was unusual for the Elizabethan style. Unlike Spenser, who uses mainly pastiches of allegories or pastorals, John portrays the real life of Elizabethan England. He is primarily interested in distinct social phenomena and types of people; in comparison with the poets of elder generation, who glorify the 90s as “the Golden Age”, Donne’s eyesight is more acute. The writer names his époque “the era of rusted-through iron”, i.e., not simply the Iron Age, but the age in which even iron has rusted through. Such skepticism was principally new not only to English poetry, but to all English literature in general (Andreasen 84).

The epistles of John Donne

John Donne has radically reconsidered the epistle genre, too. The epistles of his elder contemporaries usually looked like elevated compliments to influential people and co-writers. Donne intentionally lowered the style of the genre having imparted a colloquially easy slant to it. Doing so, the poet relied on Horace who called his epistles “talks”. Horace’s epistolary topics    had also a profound impact on John’s writings. In one of his epistles to Henry Wotton, comparing rural, city, and royal life, the artist recommends to his friend not to pay attention to external circumstances and choose the way of moral self-improvement (Bald 132).

John Donne’s elegies were also principally new to English poetry of the 90s of the XVIth century. The elegies are primarily dedicated to love and are of a polemic character: the poet has harshly opposed himself to fresh general ardor for sonnets in Petrarchan style. Numerous imitators of the Italian poet quickly changed his artistic innovations into clichés, and Donne chose his own path in heated debate with English admirers of Petrarch. As in the case with satires, John referred to the antique tradition following Ovid’s “Love Elegies.” The poet was attracted by Ovid’s slight irony, his interpretation of love as a funny game, frivolous activity or an art that adorns our life. Thus, he uses a range of Ovid’s characters and some situations to create quite specific poems. Donne’s elegies typically take place in modern London; Ovid’s honed and fluent verse, a slow thought flow, circumstantiality of narration is substituted for John’s nervous dramatic monologue (Lewalski 51).

Love lyric of Donne

However, the poet reconsiders Ovid’s perception of a love feeling. Having accepted the concept of love as a funny game, he has deprived it of esthetic idealization. Donne’s lyrical character put on a cynical mask and worshiped vulgar materialism that was often associated then with a partially understood Machiavelli’s doctrine. For the followers of the given doctrine, sensuality was the most precious moral value, whereas the essence of every person imposed distinct behavior patterns upon him or her, his or her own morality. In contrast to English followers of Petrarch, Donne deliberately pejorates the image of a beloved woman emphasizing a carnal side of love. The poet shocked the audience intentionally: some Donne’s lines were too revealing, and censors scratched out five elegies from the first edition of the poems (Andreasen 91). 

Nonetheless, critics, who took these poems literally and revealed freedom of sensations in them, had definitely simplified their sense. Donne’s lyrics, as a rule, cannot be interpreted unambiguously. The young poet, as well as the majority of his readers, to a large extent understood the negative sense of Machiavellianism. An ironic distance constantly estranges the hero of elegies from the author. Like Ovid, Donne also laughs at his character.

In the 90s, John Donne used other genres of love lyrics, too. The artist continued to write poems about love during two first decades of the XVIIth century. In a posthumous edition (1633), these poems were published together with other ones, but in the next collection of poetry compilers made a whole course of them having named it by analogy with a popular in the XVIth century collection “Songs and sonnets”. It should be born in mind that the word “sonnet”, in this case, apart from its generally accepted meaning, often meant a “poem about love”. The compilers of Donne’s book had used exactly the second meaning of the word (Bald 213).

“Songs and sonnets” have nothing in common with Elizabethan series of love lyrics, such as that one of Spenser, Sidney, or even Shakespeare. Donne’s poems completely lack any common plot and character in typical of that time meaning of the word. It looked like the poet himself did not perceive his poems as a whole poetic series. However, all the poems are characterized by ambiguity of the author’s position. The primary issue of “Songs and sonnets” is a place of love in the world where changes and death rule in the universe, where “shattered” time dominates. This Donne’s collection represents a series of various sketches, instant snaps that capture a wide range of feelings that are deprived of a common center. The hero of the series, experiencing different aspects of love, is at the same time looking for an inner balance. He is constantly changing the masks in changing situations, so that it is rather difficult to see his true face. Nevertheless, it is clear that the hero is not identical to the author who does not intend to reveal himself. Lyrical confession and sincere expression of emotions are typical of later epochs, first of all, Romanticism, and in no case can be applied to “Songs and sonnets.” (Andreasen 100)   

In this collection of poetry, Donne follows three major literary traditions. The first of them is already mentioned Ovid’s one; the second group of poems represents John’s own variant of Petrarch’s tradition, whereas the third one is tightly interwoven with a very popular in the era of Renaissance tradition of Neo-Platonism. This doctrine, which weirdly combined Christianity with paganism, was developed by Italian humanists whose works Donne knew very well. Neop-Platonists proved a rather complicated doctrine about love as a union of lovers who in a mystical way cognize God in the image of a beloved person. English poets of the XVIth century have already relied on these ideas, but John Donne reinterprets them in his own way. For him, the Neo-Platonists’ doctrine became an initial point of development that helped him to create a range of scenes-sketches directly or implicitly connected with Neo-Platonism (Lewalski 67).

What makes the artist so special is that even here he provides a wide range of lovers’ relationship. In some poems, the poet depicts elevated and ideal love that does not know corporal desires. Still, Neo-Platonists did not diminish the role of a corporal side of any love union, and Donne supported their point of view. Other poems reflect love as an inscrutable wonder which cannot be rationally defined; according to Donne, love can only be described with the help of negative categories. Despite the fact that the artist glorifies a harmonious lovers’ union, in “Songs and sonnets”, the very essence of such union is put under question. A Neo-Platonic idea of love is being unveiled, and Donne proves that all its mysteries are fake. Consequently, even in the collection of poetry under question, the artist did not betray himself and played on different situations and caused a clash between the contrasts (Bald 200).    

Due to these poems, John Donne had a significant impact on English lyrics and prose. No one great poet of England, neither before or after him, had left such a bright depiction of mutual and overwhelming love that gives joy and happiness to characters. In a broad perspective, John Donne is a truly extraordinary person: being a lawyer and a priest, he worked with various literary genres, and in his every work, he managed to reflect personal perception of existing cultural traditions imbuing them with a strikingly fresh urgent meaning.