A Preface to Donne!
Our book today is another slim little thing, James Winny’s 1970 entrant in Scribners’ old “Preface” series, A Preface to Donne, which at the time joined John Purkis’s A Preface to Wordsworth and Lois Potter’s excellent A Preface to Milton – and which was needed more thoroughly than either volume, as any even casual student of Donne will likely agree. This is a brain-twisting poet whose verses are only magnified in their complexity by their unlikelihood. Ben Jonson famously quipped that Donne wrote all his best poetry before he was twenty-five years old, but the Elizabethan roaring-boy contrasts so sharply with the ascetic holy man of Donne’s later years that Winny feels obliged to make some gesture of explanation before he proceeds:
There is no need to censure Donne for taking the kind of wild pleasures that often form a complement to intense intellectual activity. In his case there might have been special reasons for seeking an outlet for the impetuous energies which his poetry reveals; for according to Walton, at this period Donne had not yet decided whether to continue a Catholic or not. The frustration and uncertainty of his position, which beside its effects on his future had the power to disturb his emotional being whichever decision he took, was a direct encouragement to Donne to lose himself temporarily in amusement and distraction. He seems not to have done things by halves.
However convincing anybody might find that (I myself think the holy man sired many a brat and cared not a whit for any of them), there it sits, intended to help students new to Donne understand the weird twistings and intense appetites of his poems. This Preface to Donne follows the helpful standard schematic of the other entrants in the series; we get broad-stroke historical background, we get a very good compressed biography of the poet, and we get extremely intelligent and detailed analyses of all the major works, from The Flea, to The Relic, to The Apparition to the Holy Sonnets.
Winny is quite good at all of this – A Preface to Donne is still very much the book to give to any young person wanting a comprehensive introduction to the poet. And Winny also very skillfully includes great swatches of earlier critical reactions to Donne, including the famous one by Dryden:
We cannot read a verse of Cleveland’s without making a face at it, as if every work were a pill to swallow: he gives us many times a hard nut to break with our teeth, without a kernel for our pains. So that there is this difference betwixt his satires and Dr Donne’s; that the one gives us deep thoughts in common language, though rough cadence; the other gives us common thoughts in abstruse words.
Deep thoughts in rough cadence – yes indeed, perfectly put as always. I’m guessing Scribners never got around to a Preface to Dryden. Harrumph.