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Poetry is never divorced from the contexts within which the poet himself is necessarily part of. This is to say that poetry is a product of the poets’ political, economic, historical, cultural and intellectual contexts. Such being the case, one may say that it is through the aforementioned contexts that poetry captures the spirit of the times. The first half of the 17th Century witnessed both the flourishing of the English poetic tradition and science. Such flourishing however, did not come easily for the tension existing between different frameworks; metaphysical and scientific.
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This essay seeks to explicate Ben Jonson and John Donne’s similarities and differences and how they shaped the English poetic tradition as manifested in the works of their successors. Ben Jonson is considered as the earliest theoretician and practitioner of neoclassicism. Such an undertaking is made possible by Jonson’s attempt to fuse together classical themes like civility and public morality within the realm of critical realism which heavily characterized post-Medieval thought.
This is to say that the value of Jonson’s work lies in its capacity to incorporate the traditions of the past with the rapidly changing world and the differing worldviews that emerged in the success of the scientific enterprise. Jonson’s neoclassicism makes itself manifest in his pursuance of the classical principle of the ethical and didactic function of poetry. In Jonson’s epigram called To My Mere English Censurer, he writes: “To thee my way in epigrams seems new/ When both it is the old way and the new…/Prithee believe still, and not judge so fast;/Thy faith is all the knowledge that thou hast”.
The foregoing passage strengthens the claim that Jonson pursues the classical principle of the ethical and didactic function of poetry. Jonson’s emphasis on civility and public morality may be seen as an attempt on his part to save that which is good and valuable in itself in the past which, as he reckons, should be assimilated into the present. On the other hand, John Donne seems to be more interested in the individual rather than the public. Metaphysical poetry, as it figures in Donne’s works are more ‘personal, more private.
As one may have observed in the development of Donne’s poetry, he is more concerned with the individual and the philosophical questions which preoccupy the individual as he finds himself shattered, torn between the seemingly collapsing grasp of Medieval thought and the seemingly promising future of scientific thinking. Such philosophical questions may vary among individuals but in the case of Donne, his concern seems to be the internal conflicts within an individual in his attempt to understand his relation to other human beings and more importantly, his relation to the Divine.
That Donne is torn between Medieval thought and scientific thinking makes itself manifest when he writes in the Holy Sonnets (1-4): “Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you/As yet but knocke, breathe, shine and seek to mend;/That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’ and bend/Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new. ” Although Jonson and Donne differs significantly on the focus of their poetry, which are, the public or the individual, cavalry or metaphysical, both poets’ style and underlying theoretical commitments influenced the Cavalier of poets; their successors.
Naturally enough, much of the influences of the Cavalier poets are derived from the master himself, that is, Jonson rather than Donne. In a real sense, the cavalier poets’ lyricist orientation in terms of their profundity is simpler than that of the Metaphysicals like Donne. Consider Robert Herrick’s To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time (1648). He writes: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, /Old time is still a-flying; /And this same flower that smiles today, /Tomorrow will be dying. There is, however, a certain fusion of both traditions (that is, the Cavalier and the Metaphysical) in the poems of other Cavalier poets; exhibiting the characteristics of both.
In To Althea, From Prison, Richard Lovelace, a prominent cavalier poet writes: “Stone walls do not a prison make, /Nor iron bars a cage;…/If I have freedom in my love, and in my soul am free, /Angels alone that soar above/Enjoy such liberty. Although Lovelace’s opening lines talk about the usual object of affection of the cavalier poets, the quoted passage near the end of the poem (that is, ‘stone walls do not a prison make’) presents a kind of profundity which, for the most part, characterizes metaphysical poetry. In the final analysis, although there are certain differences in the poetry of Ben Jonson and John Donne as they represent two different poetic traditions, it is plausible to maintain that both poets, in their own right, opened new pathways for the flourishing of the English poetic tradition.