Now late in his life hedons the mantle of a poet and \"I am the Sky\" ishis first collection of poems. He calls himself a\"poet by passion and an astrologer byprofession\" and he works under his own credo ofpoetry. \"Poetry is your protest, your cry of sorrowor exultation, your way of getting back at life,\" hesays.
\"I am the Sky\"contains about 70 odd poems on almost all topics underthe sun and it has the inherent weakness of all firstcollections — it contains the very first effort ofwriting poetry. \"Come\" is one such poem whichis addressed to a friend.
THE Poetry which we call Elizabethan survived at least to the Restoration. Indeed, the dramatic influence of Beaumont and Fletcher lasted for some time after it in romantic plays such as Dryden's All for Love. But the decline of that poetry had begun so soon as a change fell upon the conditions which produced it ; and signs of that decline and of the poetic reaction which took the form of what is known as the Fantastic Poetry appeared even before the death of Elizabeth. The first and most powerful of the Fantastic Poets was John Donne, who was born about 1573 ; and, according to Ben Jonson, he wrote all his best pieces before he was twenty-five years old. This is not quite true ; but it is true that before the end of the sixteenth century Donne wrote many poems possessing all the characteristics of the new poetry of the seventeenth. He was the chief agent in a poetic revolution, which, though it was far from universal, and though some of its effects were transitory and some injurious, yet deserves to be studied as a part of the history both of society and of literature. The literary changes which it effected were an expression of moral and political changes. The Fantastic Poets were not mere triflers with words and images. Indeed, there have seldom been writers who have tried with more seriousness and honesty to express the truth as they saw it. Much of Donne's poetry may seem preposterously unreal to us ; yet he was praised by his contemporaries mainly for his novel realism. Herbert wrote of his religion with a profusion of homely detail which proves that it was the most real and familiar part of his life to him ; and even a minor poet like Habington could be moved by the spectacle of a starry night to ideas which seem to us both more modern and more profound than any to be found in any Elizabethan poetry except Shakespeare's. The faults of the Fantastic Poets are many and glaring, but they have a peculiar interest of their own. Their extravagances and incongruities, both of style and of thought, reflect the extravagances and incongruities of an age of transition and revolution, an age violent and uncompromising both in action and in ideas.
Donne's object was realism, and he proved this in the Satires which were his first works. But it was his love poems that first displayed his real powers ; and the contrast between them and any Elizabethan love-poetry is very sharp. Donne was a realist not so much of facts as of the imagination. His object when he wrote love poems was not to produce beautiful verses, but to show exactly how his own individual imagination was worked upon by his own individual passion ; and this he tried to do, so that he might explain himself to himself. This is the chief respect in which he and most of the other Fantastic Poets differ from the Elizabethans. The Elizabethans, in their lyrics and their sonnets no less than in their plays, seem to write for an audience-the Fantastic Poets seem to write for themselves alone. And this difference only reflects the difference between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The age of Elizabeth was one of national unity. Poets then, like everyone else, were Englishmen first and themselves afterwards, and their poetry expressed that national unity. Like the Venetian painters of the great age, they were all, in spite of individual differences and disputes, members of one great school, confident in their common aim and in the public understanding and applause. The drama was the chief form of their art, and a living drama is always written for an audience, and lives in the approval of that audience. The drama naturally dominated all other forms of poetry, and imbued them with its characteristics ; and, like the drama, these other forms of poetry were written for an audience. Elizabethan lyrics were, as hymns are now, written to be sung by all the world ; and even Shakespeare's Sonnets, the most individual and passionate love poems of the age, often read like lyrical and rhymed speeches out of his earlier plays. Naturally, therefore, this poetry was apt to express universal rather than individual emotions, since its object was to express what all felt and could enjoy.
In his reaction from Elizabethan fluency and ease he was often wilfully harsh and obscure. Ben Jonson said that he deserved hanging \" for not keeping of accent \" ; and he said this because he knew that the violence which Donne often did to his rhythm was wilful. He was so determined not to smooth his verse away to suit his rhythm, that he would often purposely avoid some rhythmical beauty because it was usual in Elizabethan poetry. This dislike of the obvious is a common disease in writers who come at the end of a great age of literature. It often implies an exhaustion of subject-matter. Poets are careful to say nothing as it has been said before, when they have little to say. But Donne and his chief followers do not lack subject-matter. Far from it. Their defect usually is that they have too much to say, and that much of their subject-matter is not proper to poetry. What poetry ought to express is the result rather than the process of reasoning. But Donne is for ever arguing in his verse. He was the earliest poet of a new age which argued about everything with a passion that has died out of modern controversy; and it is passion which often turns his versified arguments into great poetry. In his case it is not the passion of political or theological controversy, but that of love or devotion, or of an intense contemplation of the mysteries of life and death. Yet that passion nearly always expresses itself in an argumentative form. He is always labouring to prove that his love is not like the love of other men. When he leaves his wife he argues that their bodily separation is not a real separation. In the strange and beautiful poem called Air and Angels he argues with extraordinary subtlety about the incorporeal nature of love and the fallacy that it can only be excited by a corporeal beauty. In another poem, Love's Growth, he discusses the paradox that love is infinite, yet capable of continual increase. And this passion for argument is the real cause of his celebrated \" wit \" and of his frequent misuse of it.
Apart from Donne, most of the best verse of the Fantastic Poets is religious. Both in their subject-matter and in their way of treating it they express the character of their age. Religion is taken for granted by most Elizabethans. In the seventeenth century it becomes self-conscious, as love becomes self-conscious in Donne. It takes stock of itself and of the world. It reasons and analyses. The religious verse of the Fantastic Poets does not express pure devotion, any more than Donne's love poems express pure passion. These poets did not write hymns any more than Donne wrote songs. They mused in verse, as he did, to satisfy themselves about the truth of the things which most deeply concerned them, and to express that truth when they haddiscovered it. Their poetry is the work of men living in an age of religious controversy, and painfully anxious to be certain of their beliefs. It is also the work of men to whom their religion, being so much questioned and controverted, is the most real part of their lives. None of the great Fantastic Poets were Puritans ; yet the same new seriousness which produced the Puritans made them write religious poetry filled with a new reality and intensity. One of the chief objects of their poetry was to justify the instinct which made them poets, to show that their love of beautiful things was not inconsistent with a concern for righteousness as deep as that of the Puritans, though more kindly. In all their work there is an implied protest against the Puritan idea of the vileness of man and the perpetual anger of God. Herbert and Vaughan in particular are devout humanists who would prove that man is not too base to be friends with God ; that the world is not a prison of condemned criminals, but a home of beauty and peace for the righteous, and full of hints and promises of the celestial delights in store for them. They show a pathetic eagerness to justify the ways of God to man ; and with an imagination more truly religious than Milton's they cannot be content with a mere dogmatic statement that whatever God may do is good. They must be for ever analysing the relations between God and man, and proving the beneficence of God through that analysis. The critical, questioning spirit of their age does not lead them into scepticism, but into an anxious examination of life and of their own minds as they appear in the light of the Christian faith. Poetry, they are eager to prove, comes not from Parnassus but from heaven ; and they try to make it a kind of link between heaven and earth. They are always tracing connexions between celestial and earthly things. They exhibit the homeliness, and what often seems to us the incongruity, of an imagination so possessed by religion that even the most trivial things have a religious significance for it ; and so they are only too quick to imitate the wit of Donne. It is almost a point of duty with them to unite the homely with the sublime in their images; and no literary tradition, no rules of good taste deter them from doing so. Like Donne, they were contemptuous of Elizabethan conventions, though for a different reason. It is common form for the religious Fantastic Poet