Language and tone in Elegie

A strange mixture

Just as with the imagery, the language is a strange mix of conventional, the very thing he deplores, and the original. There is plenty of conventional literary diction: ‘panting numbers' (metre); ‘short winded Accents' (stresses); ‘The Muses garden'. On the other hand, a phrase like ‘the blinde fate of language' is quite arresting. No-one can control in which direction a language will go in, let alone fashions of taste in literature.

Elegaic diction

The other conventional diction that Carew uses is to do with the elegy form itself: ‘The crowne of Bayes', meaning the reward for poetic skill, taken from classical culture; the term ‘crown' is used at the beginning, too ‘To crowne thy Hearse'. ‘Unkneaded dowe-bak't prose' is, however, somewhat unusual: you don't usually insult the preachers at a funeral! ‘Unkneaded' is a pun, of course: it is both not needed, and not kneaded (as one kneads dough), since the sermon has been done at the last moment and not given proper preparation.

Two significant terms

The two terms which are repeated significantly through the poem are ‘phansie' (ll.20, 38, 52) and ‘wit' (ll.49, 96). ‘Phansie' is best seen as the imagination, and its shaping power; ‘wit' is more an intellectual activity, pulling disparate ideas together and exploring them. Donne had both, just as Shakespeare had both in poetic drama. The test of both is a true originality (‘invention').

Investigating Elegie
  • Look through the comments on the language and tone of Carew's An Elegie
    • Can you find other significant words and phrases used to describe Donne's poetry and his achievement?
    • What would ‘the windy Page' be (l.67)?
    • What sort of poetry is ‘ballad rime' (l.69)?
      • How would you describe the tone of the poem?
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