Review of Volume 8

Note: This review originally appeared in Analytical & Enumerative Bibliography (New Series Vol. 10.2 [1999], 107-11). It is reprinted here by permission.

Gary A. Stringer, General Editor, assisted by Ted-Larry Pebworth, Ernest W. Sullivan, II, William A. McClung, and Jeffrey Johnson,The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne. Volume 8. The Epigrams, Epithalamions, Inscriptions, and Miscellaneous Poems. Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995. Pp. lxiv + 509.

This is the second volume to appear of a projected eight-volume edition of Donne’s poetry. In a previous issue of this journal (vol.10, pp.32-37.) I welcomed it as a major scholarly enterprise, not only a completely ex-[107/108]haustive analytical record of the literary-critical response to Donne’s work from Ben Jonson to the present day, but a fresh re-thinking of the whole canon in the light of recent awareness of the important manuscript tradition of Renaissance poetry. For the first time editors have taken their copy-texts not from the first printed edition (or the last corrected edition published during the poet’s lifetime), but from the poet’s holographs, where extant, or from the voluminous manuscript copies of Donne’s poetry identified in the wake of Peter Beal’s epoch-making Index of English Literary Manuscripts (1980). The Variorum editorial team have been able to draw on 239 manuscript sources, 100 of which were unknown to previous editors, and over 700 copies of Donne’s poems in seventeenth century books, 500 of which are used for the first time. All readings from all sources have been integrated by a specially designed computer program, have been grouped into families, and used as the basis for editorial decisions.

This huge amount of information is presented clearly, with all the detail that anyone could want. Once again, the volume of textual and other commentary dwarfs the poems: I compute roughly 36 pages of poetry definitely by Donne, and 17 pages of doubtfully ascribed verse, totaling 53 pages of primary texts out of 571. The editors will no doubt defend this disproportion on the grounds of completeness, and the invidiousness of having to select, but I did feel at times that too much space has been given to some rather mediocre material. Donne’s early Epigrams, for instance, take up 9 pages of text–being printed three times over, in a putative sequence of authorial revision–but then attract 81 pages of textual apparatus and 50 pages of literary commentary. Agreed, the fact that nearly 300 separate copies of these 21 poems existed in the seventeenth century, one of them (“Beggar”) existing in 53 versions, is a surprising tribute to their popularity among manuscript copies and collectors, but it hardly justifies such exhaustive documentation of a rather undistinguished body of verse.

The editors’ textual treatment of the Epigrams does, however, illustrate one of their great virtues, a readiness to grasp the nettle concerning the author’s intentions towards his own work. Having made extensive analyses, they conclude that “Donne conceived of the epigrams as a distinct (though malleable) poetic work and began to circulate the collection independently” (p. lx), gradually revising and adapting it: this is a welcome recognition of the realities of how a poet tries to attract and control an audience. No external evidence exists for Donne having so acted, but their argument is cogent, based on the placing of these poems within the more important manuscript collections. One of these collections, the [108/109] Dalhousie Manuscript, has been published in facsimile and transcript by Ernest W. Sullivan II (University of Missouri Press, 1988)–oddly enough it is not listed in the bibliography–and from the material presented here comparable importance must be attached to what is called “NY3” in their collations, an anthology (now in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library) of 79 poems by Donne, written in the hand of his friend Rowland Woodward, secretary to the Earl of Westmoreland, which is hailed for “its completeness, superiority of readings at points of textual crux, and intelligent punctuation” (p. 91). Also important are “H6” (Harvard University Library, ms Eng. 966.5), with 169 Donne poems the largest extant collection, which may have been prepared for an edition; and “C9” (Cambridge University Library, Add. Ms 8468), in the hand of Narcissus Luttrell. The significance of such collections is two-fold: they provide invaluable historical evidence of the role of collectors and patrons in forming a canon, so displaying the aesthetic and other criteria on which popularity is based; and they witness to editorial changes which may involve the poet himself. Thus, having analyzed the textual progress of Donne’s three Epithalamions in these collections, the editors can reject Wesley Milgate’s claim (in his 1978 Clarendon Press edition) that since these poems were “composed for patrons, it would have been discourteous for Donne to have reissued them in a revised form” (just the kind of a priori argument that patronage studies can encourage), showing convincingly (pp. 111, 140) that the poems went through two successive revisions. All the evidential material needed to evaluate this or other judgment is attached, and once scholars have had the time to analyze it, future discussions of editing Renaissance poetry will be incomparably better-informed, and may take dramatically new directions.

To attempt this kind of discussion would far exceed the space available here, but I would like to give one small example of how a scholarly debate might develop, taking up the difficult problem of punctuation. In the General Introduction the editors write: “Because Donne’s syntax is often knotty, punctuation itself is frequently interpretive…. Since printers of the earlier seventeenth century tended to punctuate heavily grammatically, while many scribes of that period punctuated lightly and rhetorically”–a statement that I would wish to have seen properly documented, since it is not by any means universally true–they have chosen to reproduce the punctuation of their copy-texts, manuscript or printed book, at the cost of inconsistencies, rather than risking imposing “editorial interpretation” (p. liii-liv). But the kind of interpretation made by punctuation is often much more fundamentally a function of grammar, [109/110] grouping together phrases or clauses forming part of a coherent sense-unit. For instance, in Donne’s 1613 Epithalamion for the ill-starred marriage of Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, to Frances Howard, one of the speakers in the preliminary Eclog asks the other

Hast thou a History which does present                           75
A Court, where all Affections doe assent
Vnto the Kings, and that the Kings are just?
And where it is no leuity to trust
Where there is no Ambition but to obay
Where men neede whisper Nothing, and yet may    80
Where the Kings favours are so plac’d, that all
Find that the King therein is liberal
To them in him, because his favours bend
To Vertue unto which they all pretend?

As a reader of Renaissance poetry it seems to me that the pointing here is too light, that one needs a comma after “trust” (line 78), after “to obey” (79), and that the sense absolutely demands a stronger point, such as a semi-colon, after “and yet may” (80). The copy-text here is H6, but consulting the collations one finds that other seventeenth-century scribes disagreed: after “trust” ten scribes added a question-mark, three added a full stop, two added a semi-colon, and one added a comma. After “to obey” (spelt variously), eleven scribes added a comma, while after “and yet may,” one scribe added both a comma and a full stop; six decided on full stop, four on a comma, and three on a semi-colon. This variety of scribal response must render doubtful any statement that scribes in general punctuated lightly: rather, they seem attentive both to sense-divisions and verse movement. However, the fact that I can call up seventeenth century scribes here to challenge the Variorum editors’ judgment is only possible given the remarkable body of scholarship that this edition contains.

In general there is little to complain about, and much to commend. The printer spells “homogenous” in the text (pp. 111, 146), but “heterogeneous” on the dust jacket; and in the Introductions some word-spacings have dropped out. In the contents pages the publisher has forgotten to include a list of the illustrations given in the text (funeral tombs appear on pp. 174, 179, 180, 192; Donne in his shroud graces p. 205; and a holograph book-dedication is printed on p.206). Given the generous number of these illustrations it is disappointing that the epigram on Richard Hooker, inscribed in the flyleaf of a book now in Harvard University Library, and which is “one of a handful of poetical writings surviving in Donne’s hand” (p. 31), could not have been given in facsimile. But another opportunity may yet occur. [110/111]

In sum, this edition bids fair to revolutionize the editing of Renaissance and early modern poetry. Anyone interested in this field must confront it; every decent library should purchase it. The next volume is eagerly awaited.

ETH Zürich, Centre for Renaissance Studies

Brian Vickers