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date: 16 May 2021

General Introduction

Abstract and Keywords

The General Introduction to the book outlines the purpose in compiling this book. The book is not intended as a mere summary of existing knowledge but instead reveals critical patterns of literary and history work on John Donne’s writings and the new directions that these patterns have enabled or obstructed. It aims to break new ground by providing conceptual tools to orient and unfold Donne scholarship. The General Introduction describes the content of the book in detail.

Keywords: John Donne, writings, conceptual tools, Donne scholarship, new directions

Intended as a source of directions, a guard against misdirections, and an indicator of new directions, this Handbook is not intended as a mere summary of existing knowledge but rather reveals critical patterns of literary and historical work on John Donne's writings and the new directions that these patterns have enabled or obstructed. In several respects it breaks new ground even while it introduces scholars to the history of Donne studies, providing conceptual tools to orient and unfold Donne scholarship.

In the first of the fifty-six essays contributed, Gary A. Stringer estimates that Donne made public, in print or in the pulpit, ‘close to 75 per cent’ of his extant writings, despite the facts (paraphrasing the words of Annabel Patterson) that ‘the state in which Donne lived not only practised official government censorship, but also routinely intercepted citizens’ personal mail and spied on their private conversations’, and that ‘the possibility of running afoul of the authorities was an inescapable condition of nearly every verbal utterance’. In the last of these essays, Lynne Magnusson adds that ‘Elizabethan practices of print censorship can by no means account adequately for the acute apprehension, to be found in so many of Donne's writings, that linguistic interaction and practical communication are fraught with risks deriving from state or religious authority’. In these two statements we recognize a main concern of Donne studies to date, and a pointer towards work to be carried forward by Donne scholars.

Donne began to publish his writings early in the reign of James I. This departure was not prompted by any easing of censorship, nor by any whim of Donne's own. (p. 2) Donne's publications seem to express instead his daring and his resolution to extend, to carry forward, some of the impulses that had prompted and continued to prompt those of his writings issued in manuscript, but to do so as well in a public and officially sanctioned format that was not only more widely accessible but also more dangerous. In all four Parts of this volume, Donne's daring and resolution are prominent features of various discussions.

Donne's writings are seen here first in relation to textual bibliography, archival research, and other academic scholarship, actively and often collaboratively exploring the history and culture of early modern England. Study of Donne's writings at the forefront of disciplines is today assuming the indicative function for English literary scholarship that a century earlier was taken on by study of Shakespeare's writings. A congeries of traditionally insoluble scholarly problems about Donne and his writings has gradually come, during the past few generations, into more distinct focus and discernible order through application of new expertise and technology. As a result, the tools set forth and explained in Part 1 of the Handbook have shown and still promise clear progress and intensity for the field, especially through recent organization of collaborations by teams of scholars, such as the Indiana Donne Variorum, the Oxford Sermons and Letters editions (and this Handbook), grounded in the annual conferences of the John Donne Society and the John Donne Journal. These undertakings have been called forth especially by the continuing success of the Variorum, growing our comprehension of the shape of Donne's career as a writer, including the ways and circumstances in which his writings were disseminated in manuscript and in print.

The daring of Donne's Epigrams, Satires, Elegies, and Verse Letters of the 1590s tended to rule out their publication before his death. As the chosen genres for his earliest poetry, these illustrate his interest not only in the history of poetic genres but in the cunning way classical poets had penetrated them with the often dangerous history of their own times. Donne outdid them, according to a connoisseur of daring, Ben Jonson, who (referring to one of the Verse Letters) told William Drummond that Donne was ‘the first poet in the World in some things’. From this beginning in what Thomas Carew called ‘fresh invention’ grew the full array of Donne's genres, unequalled in excellence and variety by the work of any other English writer and discussed in succession by the Part 2 essays of this Handbook. His initial, richly satirical efforts issued next, at the start of the seventeenth century, in the mock-epic Metem, treated first among Donne's ‘Menippean’ writings by Anne Lake Prescott, who lists also various examples of this generic capacity, all of which Donne at various points invested with his energies: ‘dream visions, trips to the underworld or the moon, degrading metamorphoses, lists (with their curious tendency, even when seriously meant, to edge into risibility), formal paradoxes, mock encomia, parodic speeches, collections of grotesqueries, imaginary societies, Lucianic dialogues, and in the Renaissance imaginary libraries’. These are all component parts of Donne's authorship, not to be dismissed or neglected synecdochically (J. R. Roberts 1982b: 62–3).

(p. 3) Donne's foison in subgenres such as these, not only in his early years, as Prescott observes, can suggest an ‘all-male atmosphere’ that is ‘quite unlike many of the lyrics for which Donne is now better loved’, although in some ways these love lyrics or ‘Songs and Sonets’, many of them addressed to or uttered by various fictional or actual women, also stretch and confuse generic classification, as do the Menippean writings. Dayton Haskin's Part 2 essay notes about the ‘Songs and Sonets’ that, although Donne must have begun writing them at about the same time as his other poems of the 1590s, ‘It is not clear that Donne himself thought of these poems as a group’. Haskin bases this thinking on the evidence compiled by the Variorum editors, that ‘these poems entered manuscript circulation one by one at different times, perhaps over a period of more than two decades’. Whether they were designed as a group or not, these poems differ from other poetic kinds that Donne circulated by genre, sometimes arranged in sequences. Moreover, they do not have the clear classical precedent so characteristic of Donne's other early genres, although they do seem at least partly to derive thematically from classical Latin love poetry and formally from medieval and later rhyming verse about love relationships.

Another genre Donne adopted from late medieval and Renaissance practice was the sonnet, used both for Verse Letters and, in both individual poems and sequences of poems, for his Holy Sonnets. R. V. Young's essay on the religious sonnet sequences is exemplary work on these poems, informed by the Variorum. As Young remarks:

The lucubrations of the textual editors, while providing a satisfying explanation of the textual problems associated with the Holy Sonnets, challenge the ingenuity of interpreters by complicating the hermeneutic problem. They endorse [Helen] Gardner's sense that the poems are sequential, and that Donne conceived of them as an interrelated set; but, instead of one sequence of twelve and another of four, the Variorum offers two sets of twelve with four different poems in each and with different arrangements. If the poems are designed to be read and comprehended in sequence—in the manner of Sir Philip Sidney's Astrophil & Stella or Samuel Daniel's Delia—as the textual evidence suggests, then it is incumbent upon critics to explain what is meant by Donne's substantial revision.

Young's essay is the first fruit of such scholarly commitment and stands as a model for the student of Donne inclined to use such conceptual tools as the Variorum makes available.

Even more complex generic problems are posed by Donne's first major publications in prose and poetry, Pseudo-Martyr and the Anniversary poems. As Graham Roebuck points out, these are both works of mixed genre. Pseudo-Martyr is a controversial treatise, but it incorporates in its historical and journalistic enterprise such ‘ambiguous’ literary forms as the anatomy and the disputed question. Likewise, the Anniversaries are an ‘elaborate confection’, a ‘rich assembly and mixture of genres, and echoes of genres’. As such, these works illustrate the truth that genres are human attempts to codify, civilize, and resolve difficult and complex social situations as well as lenses through which we understand writing.

(p. 4) This truth is nowhere more applicable than in the study of Donne's Sermons, of which he deliberately made public more examples, in print or from the pulpit, than of any other genre. As Jeanne Shami states, Donne's Sermons were ‘the culmination of his intellectual life, the repository of his moral and political thought, and, at their best, his finest literary creations’. In them Donne found a way to deal proportionately with the dangers that had led him to feel fear and shame about his earliest writings. The Sermons show Donne engaging fully in the public sphere all the impulses characteristic of his earlier work disseminated to friends in manuscript.

Applicable generally to work on Donne's genres, Dayton Haskin's essay on the love lyrics dwells also on the extent to which these poems have been or should be read in relation to Donne's biography. To help solve this problem he lays out tentatively a ‘hermeneutic’ that may ‘release’ readers of the Handbook from the sense ‘that we are ultimately reading under the sort of biographical imperative that is built into devoting a handbook to a single author’; and in particular Haskin cautions that in reading Part 2 essays on genres we should not ‘ultimately give way to questions that are shot through with implications for understanding “Donne” himself’. Haskin's hermeneutic encompasses interpreting the formal variety of the love lyrics, including (1) their ‘peculiar’ stanza forms (of which he counts more than forty different varieties); (2) their use of conceits and striking effects of closure; (3) their possibly having been addressed to known or implied readers, as if serving one function of Verse Letters; (4) a related consideration, their evidently having been designed to provoke some response from an undisclosed addressee, their presenting what Margaret Maurer (discussing the Verse Letters and using Donne's own phrase) identifies as ‘emergent occasions’; and (5) the question Haskin broached earlier in his essay, the collection and arrangement of the love lyrics, the question ‘whether Donne regarded these poems as constituting a group’. Readers of the Handbook may find parts of this hermeneutic also of use for the study of particular genres other than Donne's love lyrics.

As Haskin here and elsewhere implies, the use of biographical and historical evidence in Donne studies is a contested site, a consideration reflected in the editors’ design of Part 3 of the Handbook: eleven pairs of chronologically but otherwise loosely linked essays, matching segments of Donne's biography with brief, serial characterizations of the history of his time. This pairing of biographical essays with essays by historians is intended to augment recognition by Donne scholars of the important work carried on by early modern English historians since the 1970s, work that has put all studies of the period on a new footing. For example, Part 3 begins with Patrick Collinson's guide to new conceptual tools for Donne's biographers, reviewing the work of such historians as Eamon Duffy and Michael C. Questier, both enriching and complicating our sense of the background in religion and politics of Donne's family history and earliest years. Later, Paul E. J. Hammer presents new perspectives on Donne's participation in the Cadiz raid and Azores voyage, conventionally conceived (by Walton and later biographers) as an expression of Donne's allegiance to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Johann Sommerville reviews issues surrounding the (p. 5) Gunpowder Plot and the Oath of Allegiance, suggesting some of the complexity of Donne's attitude and response. Alastair Bellany deals with the volatile politics that followed the death of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, when the royal court was badly split by rival factions, the Spanish-leaning Howards and the Protestant ‘patriots’ who had clustered around Prince Henry until his death six months after Salisbury's; in this unstable context, Bellany conjectures, Donne may have approached King James's favourite, Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester, as ‘the best available point of access to the King’. Malcolm Smuts focuses on the aftermath of Donne's participation in the embassy of James Hay, Viscount Doncaster, arguing that, despite distress at the seemingly Spanish direction of King James's policies in 1620, Donne's diplomatic experience led him to see that ‘growing division among British Protestants and shrill attacks on the King's behaviour would only play into the hands of Spain’ as well as of ‘British Catholics, church papists, and anti-Calvinists who hoped to exploit the foreign-policy debacle to dilute the evangelical character of the English church’. Arnold Hunt discerns brief and heavily coded political statements in Donne's preaching during the final years of his life, concluding that ‘Donne seems to have been slow to adapt’ to the new, Laudian, and anti-Calvinist religious agenda, remaining aligned until the end with a moderate Calvinism ‘acceptable to Laud while still remaining within the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy’, a middle ground that was difficult to find by the early 1630s, as contrast with other preachers demonstrates.

In the study of Donne's biography, it has been clear at least since Augustus Jessopp that Donne's formative period coincided with the most dramatic and dangerous period for English Catholics, when their persecution was most virulent. Donne himself wrote about how deeply he and his family were involved in the persecution. Yet our sense of this important formative influence, despite what we know (and can learn) about the lasting psychological effects of such experience, remains sketchy and still haunted by questions like fixing the date of Donne's ‘conversion’ to the Church of England, or deciding about ‘apostasy’ in his writings. Such terms have derived from, and been captives of, a historical tradition that defined religious history along lines of confessional controversy. Moreover, students of Donne still tend to deal with these questions as traditional students of literature, parsing the theology, philology, and decorum of Donne's poetry and prose. To some extent we may feel that what actually happened to Donne either cannot be learned or is already known, through Walton or others, adequately enough for literary analysis—our prime interest in Donne—to carry on without further irritable searching after fact. As long as this attitude prevails, we are not able to give a truly coherent account of Donne's formative years and their effects on his later life and writings.

The sequence of biographical essays, although in general they describe the outline of Donne's life, are not intended to supply a biography but instead to highlight important biographical issues calling for further work. Many of these issues have been problems unrecognized or misconceived at various times since Izaak Walton published his Life of Donne in the seventeenth century. Many deficiencies of Walton's (p. 6) work were exposed by David Novarr's The Making of Walton's Lives (1958); consequently, with a few exceptions, Walton is generally used in Part 3 essays advisedly, with discretion and some hazard, unless his testimony can be supported by independent evidence. For example, Dennis Flynn departs markedly from the presentation by Walton and subsequent biographers of Donne's problematic education and university years, discussing evidence until now mainly ignored by students of Donne. Steven W. May details much new evidence about Donne's years in the employ of Master of the Rolls and Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton, another traditionally obscure biographical topic. Flynn again devotes attention to biographical cruxes in his essays on Donne's wedding and on Donne's response to the Gunpowder Plot and Oath of Allegiance. Jeanne Shami focuses on Donne's decision to take orders and primarily on the ambivalent quality of the main evidence for understanding it, Walton's Life and Donne's extant correspondence; exploring widely divergent accounts of Donne's situation, as well as of his inner life and motivations at the time of this decision, Shami traces ‘a more nuanced path’ through the various considerations that complicated his resolution to pursue ‘divinity’ by highlighting his central dilemma to realize both ‘ambition (to serve, to be recognized publicly and remembered for one's talents, to advance in the world) and honour (to serve with integrity, to be held accountable for one's principles, to contribute to the public good)’. Clayton D. Lein studies Donne's career at the transition between the reigns of James I and Charles I, describing Donne as public spokesperson for the English Church, as defined by its king and head; as the Church's most imaginative architect from the pulpit; and as a practising pastoral administrator in legal, educational, and charitable work in his parish assignments as well as at St Paul's. Emphasizing the significance of the parish for Donne throughout his life, Alison Shell concludes Part 3 with a biographical essay that reviews Donne's death through his many anticipative writings and actions expressing ‘the era's basic moral obligation to keep death constantly in mind’; recalling Donne's ‘most famous’ piece of prose, ‘No Man is an Iland…’, Shell remarks that church bells ‘defined a parish unit’; she notes the ‘startlingly paradoxical’ effect of Donne's proverbial injunction, ‘never send to know for whom the bell tolls’, in which ‘one's interests are so closely identified with one's neighbour's’ that ‘not to try to find out who is dying’ becomes ‘the acme of neighbourliness’.

Part 4 of the Handbook deals in reception history, focusing on seven key problems—literary, biographical, and cultural—that have traditionally vexed studies of Donne's writings and life: Achsah Guibbory on Donne's so-called apostasy; Theresa M. DiPasquale on his misogyny; Debora Shuger on his political absolutism; Albert C. Labriola on the qualities of his versification; Hugh Adlington on his ambition; Judith Scherer Herz on Donne's own critical trope—Jack Donne and the Dean of St Pauls—as well as on many of its critical metamorphoses; and Lynne Magnusson on Donne and danger. Each chapter sums up the controversy and offers new ways to disentangle old habits of thought.