Is that a floppy hat you’re wearing Mr.Donne or are you just pleased to see me?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets.

John Donne

I bought a Penguin edition of the collected poems of John Donne when I was nineteen. I read the poems with all the emotional depth and maturity that a nineteen year old boy can bring to complex wordplay, classical allusions and meditations on love and death. From the two or three poems I can remember reading (being three times a fool, man being or not being an island and lovers compared to compasses – this was the age of discovery after all – are the fragments of memory that have survived), I was able to construct my mental image of seventeenth century England as a land of men in floppy hats with a penchant for being painted in their coffins. Sometime later the floppy hatted men were replaced by the Levellers, who very probably rarely bathed but knew their way around a cow, who in turn were replaced by men wearing round helmets and carrying guns. Such is the way of the world.

The floppy hatted men revival can be dated to the publication of Dr. Herbert Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century in 1921. Of Donne he wrote:

Donne’s metaphysical eulogies and elegies and epistles are a hard nut to crack for his most sympathetic admirers. And yet they have undeniable qualities

The cause of the floppy hatted men was taken up and promoted by T.S.Eliot in a review of the anthology he wrote for the Times Literary Supplement. The book, he wrote, was:

 …in itself a piece of criticism, and a provocation of criticism; and we think that he was right in including so many poems of Donne…as documents in the case for ‘metaphysical poetry’.

Although he doubted whether a school of poetry existed that could be described as metaphysical he argued that what Donne and poets such as Andrew Marvell and Abraham Cowley had in common was simple and pure language. But more than this, he placed Donne and his compatriots firmly in the mainstream of English poetry.

Dr.Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, all 66 volumes, was a critical and financial success. The eighteenth century had an itch that just had to be scratched when it came to the lives of famous and dead poets. Just like our own century but possibly with more of an eye for Beckham, Posh Spice and Prince Harry.  John Wilkes, radical, politician, journalist and serial womaniser, chanced his arm by saying in the presence of the great man at a dinner in the May of 1781 that, being only a poor patriot who could not afford the whole set, Dr. Johnson should make him a gift of it. Dr. Johnson appeared not to hear this but a complete set was sent to his lodgings. Dr. Johnson himself noted that he had written nothing else as highly commended as the Lives of the Poets.

Edmund Waller

In his chapter on the poet Edmund Waller (1606 – 1687), Johnson points out that at the death of his father he inherited a yearly income of £3,500, worth £566,000 in 2012. After attending Eton and King’s college, Cambridge, he was elected to parliament at either the age of 16 or 18. He was close to the seat of power. This is not a metaphor, he was often standing close enough to King James’ throne to overhear his private conversations. According to Johnson he had already developed his system of “metrical harmony” in his poetry and from which he never deviated. Critical of King Charles and his attempts to run roughshod over parliament, he nevertheless avoided being identified with the growing parliamentary opposition. Depending on whether you were a) King Charles or b) John Pym, puritan, parliamentarian and opponent of the king, Waller either made a last ditch attempt to to avoid civil war by appealing to moderates in the city of London, or was plotting to open the city gates to the king’s forces, who would then murder every MP they could lay their hands on. Either way, he avoided being executed, others were not so lucky (it helped that Waller confessed everything, blamed his compatriots, was a great persuader and had huge amounts of money with which to bribe officials), and settled into a comfortable exile in France. Given permission to return by Cromwell he wrote a poem praising his greatness and when Charles II returned to claim the throne, he wrote him a poem too praising him. He married twice, was returned as an MP on two more occasions, was regarded as a great speaker, famous for keeping a good table and all round great guy. He died in his bed on the 21st of October, 1687. Quite a life and not a floppy hat in sight. In my defence I can only say that it is not the first time that a nineteen year old boy has been let down by his emotional intelligence.

Apart from being a useful antidote to the floppy hatted men school of English history, has Johnson’s Live of the Poets added to my literary taste? Sadly, no. Unlike Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which still elicits admiring raisings of eyebrows, to admit to reading Johnson’s Lives of the Poets is only ever accompanied by a piece of tumbleweed rolling silently behind you. It is not a social act. So, a sombre (2,4) and we are back over the line.

And finally…

My novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts is now available as an ebook.

It can be purchased at:

Support independent publishing: Buy this e-book on Lulu.

Or at: Barnes and Noble  and the iBookstore

If you’d like to get in touch with any questions about the novel or comments drop me a line at

acityofghosts AT gmail dot com

It would be great to hear from you.

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2 Comments

  1. the thing about Donne, is that if you’ve read anything involving Lord Peter Wimsey, Donne is yer man to go for romantic gestures and expensive wedding present manuscripts. So I have a hard time taking him seriously as a real poet (and I’m supposed to teach him, dammit). I shall try again, and perhaps avoid the metaphysical stuff this time.

    Reply
  1. A picture paints a thousand metaphors «

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