Review of Volume 6

AEBcover2Note: This review originally appeared in Analytical & Enumerative Bibliography (New Series Vol. 10:1 [1999], 37-42). It is here reprinted by permission.

Stringer, Gary A., General Editor, The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne. Volume 6. The Anniversaries and the Epicedes and Obsequies. Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995. vii + 689 pp.

This is the first volume to appear of a projected eight-volume edition of Donne’s poetry. Each volume will contain “texts and commentary for a set of generically or thematically related poems”, the series as a whole being numbered “in a rough approximation of the order in which the poems were composed” (p. xl). Both decisions should ensure a final arrangement (for those lucky enough to live that long) which will be rational, unlike the haphazard sequence of many editions. The edition was first mooted in 1981, and has been carried through by a group of scholars who acknowledge generous support from seven universities and a host of grant-funding bodies. The general editor is Gary A. Stringer (U. Southern Mississippi), who also serves as a text editor, along with Ted-Larry Pebworth (U. Michigan-Dearborn), John T. Shawcross (U. Kentucky), and Ernest W. Sullivan, II (Texas Tech. U.). The volume commentary editor is Paul A. Parrish [37/38] (Texas A & M U.), assisted by Donald R. Dickson (Texas A & M U.) and Dennis Flynn (Bentley College).

A brief analysis of the volume’s contents will reveal the project’s priorities. This volume contains the two Anniversaries and the “Funeral Elegie” that Donne wrote on the death of Elizabeth Drury. (These are accompanied by the two dedicatory poems, probably written by Joseph Hall, which are given neither annotation nor commentary.) It also includes the “Epicedes and Obsequies”, seven occasional poems first grouped as a unit in the Poems by J.D. (1633), the editio princeps for most of Donne’s poetry. So the total of poems in this volume is 10, amounting to 45 pages. These give rise to 169 pages of textual notes (including historical collations, schemes of textual relationships, verbal variants in selected modern editions, and analyses of early printed copies). Then follow 519 pages of critical commentary, running from such contemporaries as Ben Jonson and Sir John Davies down to the cut-off date of 1989, including material written in 9 foreign languages. If you add in the introduction, bibliography and index, the proportion is 45 pages of Donne’s poetry to 673 pages of commentary.

Conceived on a generous scale, this edition offers more than most readers will ever have expected. As my analysis reveals, an enormous amount of space is given, quite properly, to fundamental manuscript and bibliographical collations, with a degree of detail that I have never before encountered in a modern edition of a Renaissance text. The truly remarkable feature is that it is the first edition of Donne’s poetry to take proper notice of the manuscript tradition. Acknowledging the pioneering work of Peter Beal, whose Index of English Literary Manuscripts (1980) “identified important manuscript material that none of Donne’s editors had ever incorporated” (p. xxxix), this edition now draws not only on the seven collected printings issued between 1633 and 1639, but also on “239 manuscript sources (nearly 100 of which have been unknown by any of Donne’s previous editors); 3 inscriptions on monuments; over 200 seventeenth-century books that collectively contain over 800 copies of individual Donne poems or excerpts (approximately 700 of which have been unknown to Donne’s previous editors); and over 20 historically significant editions . . . .” (p. xliv). Fresh collation of corrected and uncorrected states has identified many previously unrecorded press variants, this whole mass of material needing the creation (by William R. Vilberg) of a special Textual Collation Program. [38/39]

The range of manuscript material drawn on is quite extraordinary. Fifty libraries are acknowledged, the larger ones (the Bodleian, the British Library, Folger Shakespeare Library, Cambridge and Harvard Universities) containing many items. Among the smaller libraries, which have still provided valuable material, we find the United States Air Force Academy, Colorado; Bradford District Archives; the Records Offices of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire; the South African Public Library, Capetown; and Meisei University, Tokyo. Among these manuscripts pride of place must be given to DT1 (Trinity College, Dublin), a collection of 143 Donne poems in a single hand dating from 1623-25. Some of the texts in this collection ultimately derive from copies possessed by the Essex family that successively formed the basis for a British Library MS (Lansdowne 740) and for the first of two Dalhousie manuscripts–which were specially acquired for the editors by Texas Tech University Library, an exemplary instance of creative symbiosis between scholars and librarians.

In their scouring of manuscript and printed book sources the editors have approached as near to completeness as anyone will get. The textual principles they then worked on are refreshingly straightforward: “Ideally stated, the goal of our work on the text is to recover and present exactly what Donne wrote” (p. xliii). But since only one poem is known to exist in Donne’s hand, the more than 5,000 separate transcriptions of individual poems which survive, exist “at indeterminate degrees of remove from holograph and therefore of indeterminate authority” (ibid.). With the honourable exception of Alexander Grosart, who based his edition of 1872-73 on manuscripts, most modern editors of Donne have taken the earliest printed text as their authority, sometimes emending it towards manuscript readings. The Variorum editors have chosen differently, taking “manuscript copy-texts for many of the poems simply because they seem in fact and in theory more likely to represent the lost originals accurately than do the early printings” (p. xlv)–since most of them antedate the printed editions and are thus chronologically closer to the poet’s hand. Of course, they recognize that scribes not only imposed their own conventions of formatting, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization, but also consciously made verbal “improvements” (ibid.–indeed, one of the fascinations of the copious documentation provided is that one will be able to trace scribes having a go at writing better poetry than Donne did. They are also well aware that poems were vulnerable to change in successive copyings, due to “carelessness, [39/40] ignorance, and the general entropy of the transmissional system” (ibid.). But still, the manuscript tradition has been awarded priority.

This whole sequence of argumentation is convincing, although it brings with it the pragmatic problem of analyzing a vast amount of material and putting it into some coherent frame. The editors “have attempted to identify–by combining bibliographical analysis with such logical criteria as completeness and general semantic coherence–the earliest, least corrupted state of each poem from among the surviving seventeenth-century artifacts . . .” (p. xlvii). Having entered all variants into the computerized Collation Program the editors then constructed for each poem a schema of textual relationships that accounts for all permutation of the texts in the early artifacts, each of which was independently assessed for evidentiary value. Having identified “the earliest, least-corrupted state of the text as preserved in the best witness”, they have corrected obvious errors in the copy text, but “have not conflated readings from multiple sources” (p. xlviii). So what we have here is not a pick ‘n mix of what an editor fancies as the best readings, but an integral version of the poem as recorded by an early and reputable witness. Where early artifacts preserve a poem “so extensively revised or changed as to constitute a new version, we present the successive versions in full, with a separate historical collation for each” (ibid.–an ideal, if expensive solution. (But who is counting the cost when a great poet is involved?)

I have chosen to report in such detail the principles on which this edition is based since they seem to me of great importance. Here we have no modish nihilism about “the unknowability of authorial intentions”, no a priori ideology about “the disappearance of the subject into some suprahuman discourse”, and no complacent pseudo-levelling idea that “all texts are equal, none privileged or authoritative”. Instead, an astonishingly sustained collective effort by a team of scholars to bring together the largest body of evidence ever assembled for a major Renaissance poet (more, even, than William Ringler’s superb 1962 Oxford edition of Sidney’s poems), and to establish a single coherent version of each poem, as near as we can now get to the poet’s finished product. It is hard to know which to admire most, the infinitely painstaking collection and collation of evidence, or the good sense controlling the whole enterprise. Everyone interested in Renaissance poetry should at least study the schemes of textual relationships, in which well-selected individual lines (admirably displayed, typographically) reveal poetry in the course of being [40/41]redescribed/rewritten as copyists tried to make better sense of Donne’s condensed, elliptical style, which evidently gave its contemporary readers great difficulty.

The second part of this edition, the historical record of critical commentary stretching across four centuries, has been digested with the same degree of meticulous attention to detail as characterizes the textual commentary. The Anniversaries, those wide-ranging but curiously unfocussed poems have been, and always will be, difficult to read and enjoy, no doubt (in part) because Donne had never met Elizabeth Drury (who died in December 1610, aged 14), but had only “received” (as he put it) “so very good testimony of her worthinesse”. In two letters from 1612, reprinted here, he defended himself from the charge of having “said too much”–that is, as I would gloss the phrase, broached many more philosophical issues than was justified by the death of this relatively obscure private person–with the defence that “my purpose was to say as well as I could: for since I never saw the Gentle- woman . . . I [could not] praise her, or any other in rhyme, except I took such a person, as might be capable of all that I could say” (p. 239). According to Ben Jonson, Donne’s self-defence in conversation was that he had “described the Idea of a Woman and not as she was” (p. 240), an approach to womanhood, or the subject of a poem, which has disconcerted many readers, as can now be seen in full, if (inevitably) repetitive detail. The extensive introduction to the Anniversaries fills 126 pages, subdivided into “General commentary”; “Dating and early printings”; “Donne, the Drurys, and patronage”; “She”–the mythical image of the dead girl; “The Poet and his audience”; “Genres and traditions”; “Structure”; “Language and style”; “The Anniversaries and other works”. Then follows a section of Notes and Glosses (170 pages), in which a line-by-line commentary is assembled from those critics who have made detailed observations. A similar arrangement is followed for the Epicedes and Obsequies, but on a smaller scale, since they have attracted less attention.

It is marvelously convenient, of course, to have the work of two to three hundred critics, the great majority from the last fifty years, neatly summarized and digested in exact confrontation with the texts concerned. It is also rather unnerving, for as I discovered when editing six volumes on Shakespeare in the Critical Heritage series (with some 3,000 pages of text I managed to get from 1600 only to 1800), a large amount of criticism is historically representative, but does not address the text in ways that seem illuminating to us. But precisely the value [41/42] of such collections is that they enable us to reconstruct the intellectual base from which each critic worked. As the general editor puts it here, “like those of contemporary critics . . . the judgments of previous commentators are inevitably conditioned by cultural and personal assumptions about what poetry is (or should be), about how it functions in the world, and about the nature of criticism itself; and the validity of such assumptions tends to appear self- evident to those who hold them, with the frequent result that they are never explicitly stated” (p. xli). Well, some are, and some aren’t; but from their specific judgments we can reconstruct the assumptions of the individual, and when we have enough individuals, we can reconstruct the assumptions of the age, and can then begin to distinguish the representative verdict from the truly innovative, the genuinely original from the merely quirky. A collection of criticism such as this helps us to understand not only literary history, but also intellectual history.

A proper account of that tradition as it has affected Donne would be the material for several books, but one general impression produced by these pages is that over the last century we have moved from a general incomprehension of what Donne was doing, and how he did it, to a variety of more enlightened positions, and a few eccentric ones. It took ages until critics realized that these poems of praise and celebration were constructed according to the principles of epideictic rhetoric, and almost as long for them to realize that, among the conventions of the funeral elegy, one was that it should provide a consolation to the readers, especially the immediate family survivors. Some of the critics represented here interpret Donne by invoking the appropriate contexts of genre, mode, and style, historically defined, but many others apply non-historical methods, ranging from a biographical expectation, inevitably disappointed by these poems, that Donne should have expressed some deep personal identification with the person(s) deceased, to reductive socio-historical approaches which describe Donne as a coterie poet, or one merely flattering his patrons. (Isn’t it strange how patronage studies often ascribe to artists the worst possible motives?)

The great merit of this volume is to provide near-ideal treatment both of the textual and the critical traditions around Donne’s poetry. The seven volumes to come, eagerly awaited, promise to be a landmark in the study of English Renaissance poetry.


Centre for Renaissance Studies/ETH Zürich

Brian Vickers