Bibliographical Description of Donne’s Autograph Verse Letter “To the Honorable lady the lady Carew”

Shelfmark: Bodleian Library MS Eng. Poet. d. 197 r-v; DV siglum: O15                                     1612

Format: single leaf (approx. 21.2 x 15.6 cm; 8.35 x 6.14 in.); edges gilt

Contents: r-v text

Notes: This manuscript contains the only holograph copy of an English poem written by Donne that has yet come to light. It was first introduced to the general public in the January 7, 1972, issue of the TLS by A. J. Smith, who noted that it had been discovered by P. J. Croft of Sotheby’s among the family papers of the Duke of Manchester when these were being catalogued for sale in 1970. Having brought £23,000 at auction, the manuscript eventually landed in the Bodleian Library when the original, off-shore purchaser was refused an export license.The discovery was an event of such significance that later in 1972 the Bodleian Library joined with the publisher Scolar Mansel to issue a handsome facsimile of the artifact, packaged with an introductory essay by Helen Gardner.

Addressed to the original recipient in a panel on the verso of the sheet, “To the Honorable lady the lady Carew” appeared in the 1633 collectedPoems (A) as “A Letter to the Lady Carey, and Mrs Essex Riche, From Amyens.” In his initial description Smith supposed that the holograph was the source of all subsequent copies of the poem, suggested that the editor of A had independently added the circumstantial details in the heading, and pointed to discrepancies between the holograph and the edition’s renditions of the poem to question the validity of the “structure of supposition” about the relationships among the manuscripts and their relationships to the early editions that scholars “from Grierson on” had propounded.  Having developed her editions of the The Divine Poems (1952) and The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets (1965) on Griersonian principles, Gardner responded in the TLS two weeks later (January 21st), defending at length the received understanding of the relationships among the early manuscripts and prints and proposing that the holograph was Donne’s original draft of the verse letter, which he had then copied into his “letter book” under the expanded title, and that this copy, differing slightly from that sent to the noble ladies, was the ultimate source of the first printing of the poem in A. After a quick capitulation by Smith (TLS, February 4th), the TLS exchange was completed in the March 24th issue, when P. L. Heyworth declared that “[e]ven Dame Helen” could not persuade him that the holograph is Donne’s original. Citing the messiness of the authorial manuscripts of ComusHyperion, and The Waste Land, Heyworth points to the neatness of the Lady Carew letter: “[i]f the manuscript reproduced with Professor Smith’s article is not a fair copy I expect never to see one.” Later in 1972, in the pamphlet accompanying the facsimile, Gardner restates the arguments of her TLS piece, but concedes in a footnote that the validity of her proposal that A’s text of the poem derives from a now-missing copy of the poem in Donne’s hand does “not depend” on agreement about whether the extant holograph is itself the original or a “fair copy” of it (3).

Although we lack comparable material in Donne’s hand that might allow us to speak of his “normal” compositional practice, most would concur in Heyworth’s opinion that the holograph is a fair copy of an earlier draft, and it is not clear what prompted Gardner to think otherwise. Her argument in favor of viewing the holograph as the original draft is based primarily on the two “corrections” in the artifact—that of “but litle” to “scarse” in line 41 and the cancelled “I see” at the end of line 53. Of the first she notes that the version of the line reading “but litle” is “obviously unmetrical” and “can hardly have stood in a draft the poet was copying” (2). Even allowing for the elision of “Thay ′ are” that Donne marked in line 15, however, 10 lines of 11 syllables and 2 of 12 (lines 27 and 45) remain in the holograph, showing that Donne’s sense of rhythm could accommodate the occasional extra syllable and suggesting that a way of tightening line 41 to 10 syllables occurred only as he copied the line into the holograph. The second error is more curious—and more difficult to explain. At first glance, the extraneous “I see” at the end of line 53 seems to bespeak an eye-skip to the end of the following line in the text being copied, and Gardner concedes that it “could have arisen from a mistake in copying” (2). It should be noted, however, that this mistake does not take the form of the usual eye-skip error in which a copyist initially mistranscribes a word from the line below in place of the correct word, notices the error and cancels it, and follows the cancellation by entering the proper word next in place. In the present instance, Donne had correctly inscribed the entirety of line 53 before inserting the extraneous “I see” at the end. Either theory—that the holograph is a fair copy of the original or that it is itself the original—is consistent with this fact.

The pictures here presented were scanned from the Scolar Mansel facsimile by Stephanie Elmquist in Cushing Memorial Library in November of 2010 and are reproduced by permission of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.


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