Commentary on Elegie

The elegy falls into three sections:

  • Donne the preacher (ll.1-24)
  • Donne the poet: his achievement in English poetry (ll.25-59)
  • What will happen now to English poetry (ll.60-94)

plus a four-line epitaph at the end.

Donne the preacher

Donne will be memorialised by some preacher at his funeral in a half-baked prose sermon – Carew is not complimentary at any point to Donne's fellow poets or preachers. Donne was not just the best, he was the only one who knew what he was doing. No doubt sermons will continue to be preached (‘The Pulpit may her plaine/And sober Christian precepts still retaine'), but the fire of Donne's rhetoric and his ability to convey deep truths will be lost.

Donne the poet

If this is true of preaching, it is even more true of verse. Donne took the English poetic tradition by the scruff of its neck, as it were, and threw out all the old classical conventions to produce a new form of expression. He lists eight achievements:

  • He stopped the playing around with expressions and emotions that were poor imitations of classical models (ll.25-33)
  • He stopped using grammatical constructions and word play based on Greek and Latin (ll.33-36)
  • He opened up the true originality of the English language (ll.37-38)
  • He brought new strength and vitality to English poetry (ll.38-39)
  • He broke with a run-down poetic tradition (ll.40-44)
  • He has made his name pre-eminent (ll.45-48)
  • His wit has made English poetry do new things in its expression of difficult concepts (ll.49-53)
  • He has managed to say more in the exhausted condition of English poetry than all the previous poets who had a new language at their disposal (ll.49-60).

What happens next?

‘But thou art gone' is a traditional opening to the final section of an elegy. What will happen now to English poetry? Basically, it is back to the bad old days of imitation and lack of originality. Especially he fears poets will go back to classical models and topics, though Donne's momentum may continue for a little longer.

Final epitaph

Carew finishes by saying he cannot possibly express all his sense of loss. The final epitaph is a noble sentiment: Donne was a king, both of poetry and of preaching.

Investigating Elegie
  • Read through Carew's Elegie
    • Can you think of other achievements of Donne that Carew omitted?
    • What indication is there of Carew's sincerity?
    • What are successful marks of a poem written at someone's death, do you think?
      • Has Carew fulfilled them?
    • Was Carew right to be so pessimistic about the future?
      • Or is it just a natural feeling which occurs when someone you admire has died?
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