Loose as the wind, as large as store


Herbert as much as Donne voices the waywardness of the passions, the anger that can send a child charging like an escaping balloon. But Herbert looks for a solution where Donne insists there is only a puzzle. For Donne, knowledge lies in dilemma, in paradox; for Herbert, this is only a stage. Their poetic language is also entirely different. In his famous ‘Song: Go, and catch a falling star’, for example, in telling his listener to ‘Ride … Till age snow white hairs on thee’, Donne uses a metaphor from Horace, which an ancient book on rhetoric, Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria, explicitly disapproved of as ‘far-fetched’. He even goes a step or three further. Snow is a metaphor for the visible effects of old age (white hair) and indeed age itself, but it is hard or even silly to visualise ‘white hairs’ literally snowing down onto someone’s head. We have to go beyond that idea, by degrees, to the one Donne intends. There is no such bad behaviour in Herbert. Because of this and other differences, the two poets have their camps of rival supporters; Drury avowedly belongs to Herbert’s. In life, Donne and Herbert took mutual benefit from their diverse casts of mind. Although Donne was twenty years senior, he didn’t treat Herbert as the younger man. They spent the summer of plague in 1625 together at the home of Herbert’s stepfather in Chelsea and became respectful friends.

more from John Stubbs at Literary Review here.