Verse > John Donne > The Poems of John Donne
John Donne (1572–1631).  The Poems of John Donne.  1896.
Bibliographical Note
THERE is no doubt that, during his lifetime, John Donne enjoyed an extraordinary reputation as a poet. Nevertheless it does not appear that, with the exception of the Anatomy of the World, the Elegy on Prince Henry, and two or three sets of commendatory and other verses, any of his poetry was printed before the posthumous quarto of 1633. I am aware that Dr. Grosart has a mare’s-nest theory of one or perhaps two, earlier “now-missing privately-printed” collections, but this theory is built on the flimsiest of evidence. Dr. Grosart quotes in support of it—  1
  (a)  The entry of “Jhone Done’s Lyriques” among the books read by Drummond of Hawthornden in 1613 (Archaeologia Scotica, vol. iv.).  2
  (b)  An epigram of Freeman’s published in 1614, of which he says, “Freeman in 1614, in his Rubbe and a Great Cast, has an epigram to Donne, in which he celebrates his Storme and Calme, and two ‘short’ satires.” As a matter of fact, the epigram is in Runne and a Great Cast, which is the second part, as Rubbe and a Great Cast is the first, of Freeman’s book, and it does not speak of two short Satires, but of Satires which are too short, a very different thing.

Ep. 84.
“The Storm described hath set thy name afloat;
Thy Calm a gale of famous wind hath got;
Thy Satires short, too soon we them o’erlook;
I prithee, Persius, write a bigger book.”
  (c)  The well-known lines from Ben Jonson’s Epigrams (1616), entitled To Lucy, Countess of Bedford, with Mr. Donne’s Satires, and beginning—
        “Lucy, you brightness of our Sphere, who are
Life of the Muses’ day, their morning Star.”
  (d)  A letter by Donne to his friend George Garrard, dated April 14, 1612, in which, speaking of the Anniversaries, he says: “Of my Anniversaries, the fault that I acknowledge in myself is to have descended to print anything in verse, which, though it have excuse even in our times, by men who profess and practise much gravity; yet I confess I wonder how I declined to it, and do not pardon myself” (Alford, vol. vi. p. 353). Almost precisely similar expressions occur in two other letters written about the same date. One of these has no heading (Alford, vol. vi. p. 338); the other is headed “To Sir G. F.” (Alford, vol. vi. p. 333).  5
  To my mind the dear implication of these letters is, not that there were “other things printed” of Donne’s besides the Anniversaries, but that the Anniversaries were in 1612 the only things he had printed. With regard to Dr. Grosart’s three other pieces of evidence, there is nothing to show that they refer to anything but verses circulated in manuscript. It is quite clear that manuscript “books” or collections of Donne’s pieces, as distinguished from scattered poems, were in existence. And amongst Donne’s letters is one to Sir Robert Karr, written in 1619 (Alford, vol. vi. p. 373), in which he sends him a copy of his poems, together with “another book,” the Biathanatos, which he definitely states had not been and was not to be published. A short MS., probably resembling that which Freeman saw, is to be found in Queen’s College, Oxford (MS. 216, f. 198). It contains only the first five Satires, the Storm and Calm, and one lyrical poem, The Curse, there called Dirae.  6
  I come now to a point which Dr. Grosart has altogether overlooked. In a letter to Sir Henry Goodyere, written just before Donne took orders, and dated Vigilia St. Thomas, December 20, 1614 (Alford, vol. vi. p. 367), occurs the following passage—  7
  “One thing more I must tell you; but so softly, that I am loth to hear myself: and so softly, that if that good lady were in the room, with you and this letter, she might not hear. It is, that I am brought to a necessity of printing my poems, and addressing them to my Lord Chamberlain. This I mean to do forthwith; not for much public view, but at mine own cost, a few copies. I apprehend some incongruities in the resolution; and I know what I shall suffer from many interpretations; but I am at an end, of much considering that; and, if I were as startling in that kind, as I ever was, yet in this particular, I am under an unescapable necessity, as I shall let you perceive when I see you. By this occasion I am made a rhapsodist of mine own rags, and that cost me more diligence, to seek them, than it did to make them. This made me ask to borrow that old book of you, which it will be too late to see, for that use, when I see you: for I must do this as a valediction to the world, before I take orders. But this is it, I am to ask you: whether you ever made any such use of the letter in verse, à nostre comtesse chez vous, as that I may not put it in, amongst the rest to persons of that rank; for I desire it very much, that something should bear her name in the book, and I would be just to my written words to my Lord Harrington to write nothing after that. I pray tell me as soon as you can, if I be at liberty to insert that: for if you have by any occasion applied any pieces to it, I see not, that it will be discerned, when it appears in the whole piece. Though this be a little matter, I would be sorry not to have an account of it, within as little after New Year’s-tide, as you could.”  8
  This letter is, I think, sufficient proof that Donne had not printed his poems before the end of 1614; in the absence of any extant copy it is probable that his intention to print them then was never realized. Just such another intention, indeed, he must already have had in 1601, when he wrote the Epistle to his Progress of the Soul. That is evidently intended to follow the portrait-frontispiece of a printed book. It begins, “Others at the porches and entries of their buildings set their arms; I, my picture.” But it is still more unlikely that he printed them after he had taken orders. As to this we have the evidence both of Ben Jonson and of Walton. Ben Jonson said to Drummond in 1618–19 (Conversations, ed. Laing, Shakespeare Society, p. 9), that Donne, “since he was made Doctor, repenteth highly and seeketh to destroy all his poems.” Walton perhaps in his Life (ed. 1640) represents Donne’s state of mind more accurately. He writes—  9
  “The recreations of his youth were poetry, in which he was so happy as if Nature and all her varieties had been made only to exercise his sharp wit and high fancy; and in those pieces which were facetiously composed and carelessly scattered—most of them being written before the twentieth year of his age—it may appear by his choice metaphors that both Nature and all the arts joined to assist him with their utmost skill. It is a truth that in his penitential years, viewing some of those pieces that had been loosely—God knows, too loosely—scattered in his youth, he wished they had been abortive, or so short-lived that his own eyes had witnessed their funerals; but, though he was no friend to them, he was not so fallen out with heavenly poetry as to forsake that; no, not in his declining age, witnessed then by many divine sonnets, and other high, holy and harmonious composures.”  10
  But if Donne’s poems were not printed, they had at any rate a wide circulation in MSS. among the wits and literary men of the age. This is evident, firstly, from his letters, many of which accompanied a copy of verses to some friend or patron; secondly, from the frequent and admiring mention of his contemporaries; and, thirdly, from the commonplace-books of the period, in which he figures very prominently. One result of this popularity appears to have been the ascription to him of a number of poems really by other men. If the author of a particular poem was unknown, it came very naturally to the compiler of a commonplace-book to append to it the initials J. D. (See the Appendices to this edition, passim.) There is an apparent allusion to this esoteric reputation, which Donne enjoyed, in Drayton’s Epistle to Henry Reynolds, Of Poets and Poesy (published in 1627, but perhaps written earlier). After giving a catalogue, which includes nearly all the writers of the day except Donne, Drayton continues—
        “For such whose poems, be they ne’er so rare,
In private chambers that encloister’d are,
And by transcription daintily must go,
As though the world unworthy were to know
Their rich composures, let those men that keep
These wondrous relics in their judgment deep,
And cry them up so, let such pieces be
Spoke of by those that shall come after me,
I pass not for them.”
I am afraid that Drayton was not allowed to have a copy.
  The passage from Walton’s Life which I have quoted above is of service also in helping to determine the date of Donne’s work in the field of poetry. As here too Dr. Grosart has gone wrong, it is worth while to put together some additional testimony of Walton and others on the matter. It all points to the fact that on the whole, although they overlap considerably, the secular are earlier in date than the sacred poems.  12
  (a)  There are the lines by Walton, printed beneath the portrait frontispiece by Marshall to the Poems of 1635. The portrait is dated “Anno Dni 1591, aetatis suae 18.”
        “This was, for youth, strength, mirth, and wit, that time
Most count their golden age; but ’twas not thine.
Thine was thy later years, so much refined
From youth’s dross, mirth, and wit, as thy pure mind
Thought (like the angels) nothing but the praise
Of thy Creator in those last best days.
Witness this book, thy Emblem, which begins
With Love; but ends with sighs and tears for sins.”
  (b)  There is the following passage in Walton’s Elegy, written April 7, 1631, first printed together with the Life in the LXXX Sermons of 1640.
          “Did his youth scatter poetry, wherein
Lay Love’s philosophy? was every sin
Pictured in his sharp satires, made so foul,
That some have fear’d sin’s shapes, and kept their soul
Safer by reading verse; did he give days,
Past marble monuments, to those whose praise
He would perpetuate? Did he—I fear
Envy will doubt—these at his twentieth year?

But, more matured, did his rich soul conceive
And in harmonious holy numbers weave
A crown of sacred sonnets, fit to adorn
A dying martyr’s brow, or to be worn
On that blest head of Mary Magdalen,
After she wiped Christ’s feet, but not till then;
Did he—fit for such penitents as she
And he to use—leave us a Litany,
Which all devout men love, and doubtless shall,
As times grow better, grow more classical?
Did he write hymns, for piety and wit,
Equal to those great grave Prudentius writ?”
  (c)  Drummond of Hawthornden made the following note of a remark of Ben Jonson’s to him, in 1618–19 (Conversations, ed. Laing, p. 8)—  15
  “He esteemeth John Done the first poet in the world in some things: his verses of the Lost Chain he hath by heart; and that passage of the Calm, That dust and feathers doe not stirr, all was so quiet. Affirmeth Done to have written all his best pieces ere he was 25 years old.”  16
  (d)  The evidence of Walton and Jonson is supported by John Chudleigh in his Elegy, printed with the Poems of 1650.
          “Long since this task of tears from you was due,
Long since, O Poets, he did die to you,
Or left you dead, when wit and he took flight
On divine wings, and soar’d out of your sight.
Preachers, ’tis you must weep; the wit he taught
You do enjoy; the Rebels which he brought
From ancient discord, Giant faculties,
And now no more religious enemies;
Honest to knowing, unto virtuous sweet,
Witty to good, and learned to discreet,
He reconciled, and bid the usurper go;
Dullness to vice, religion ought to flow;
He kept his loves, but not his objects; wit
He did not banish, but transplanted it,
Taught it his place and use, and brought it home
To Piety, which it doth best become;
He shew’d us how for sins we ought to sigh,
And how to sing Christ’s Epithalamy:”
  Donne was born in 1573, so that if we take Walton’s “twentieth year” and Jonson’s “twenty-five years” literally, we get 1593 or 1598 as the date before which most of his secular poetry was written. It will be seen, however, from the few poems which I have been able to give a date to in the notes, that no inconsiderable portion even of this division of his work belongs to periods later than 1600. I have not, however, been able to find that any of it, with the exception of one or two Funeral Elegies which can barely be called secular, is subsequent to his ordination in 1615. On the other hand, the ascertained dates of the sacred poetry entirely confirm the statement that this was written during the latter part of his life, for these range from 1607 to 1631. Considering the whole matter, I have come to the following probable conclusion. The Satires and the Love-Poems (Songs and Sonnets and Elegies) belong to the beginning of his life. But even here, I think, it is possible to detect an earlier stratum of cynicism and ethical laxity, and a later stratum marked by intenser and more constant emotions, and by a growing spirituality of thought. I see no reason why we should not date the change from the years which separated his first acquaintance with Anne More (1596?) from his marriage with her in 1601. The Divine Poems, as has been said, come last. The Verse Letters, Funeral Elegies and Epithalamia, both in date and in subject-matter, bridge the gulf between the two. Some of the Verse Letters, such as the Storm and the Calm, belong to the earlier period, but a good many of them belong to 1610 or thereabouts, and in many ways they show Donne’s poetic powers at their ripest.  18
  The first edition of the Poems was entered thus upon the Stationers’ Registers (Arber, vol. iv.)—
John Marriott.
  13o Septembris, 1632.
  Entered for his copy under the hands of Sir Henry Herbert and both the Wardens, a book of verse and Poems (the five Satires, the first, second, tenth, eleventh and thirteenth Elegies being excepted), and these before excepted to be his, when he brings lawful authority,
written by Doctor John Dunn.
  Upon a subsequent date, October 31 of the same year, the allowance of the Satires was noted, but no further mention is made of the excepted Elegies. The book was issued in 1633. It is a small quarto, and has the following title-page—
        POEMS | By J. D. | WITH | ELEGIES | ON THE AUTHOR’S DEATH. | LONDON: | Printed by M. F. for John Marriot, | and are to be sold at his shop in St. Dunstan’s | Churchyard in Fleet-Street, 1633.
  This is followed by the Printer to the Understanders and the Hexastichon Bibliopolae. The poems are printed without much attempt at arrangement. Eight Elegies, numbered, come together on pages 44, sqq. Four other Elegies appear in other parts of the volume, but I suspect that the five mentioned in the Stationers’ Registers entry were five of those added in 1635, and that Marriott did not get authority for them in time for publication in 1633. The Elegies on the author’s death at the close of the volume are by H[enry] K[ing], Thos. Browne, Edw. Hyde, Doctor C[orbet] B[ishop] of O[xford], Hen. Valentine, Iz. W[alton], M. Tho. Carie [Carew], Sir Lucius Carie, M. Mayne, Arth. Wilson, M. R. B. [Anon; Epitaph], Endy. Porter.  21
  The second edition, which, like the subsequent ones, is an octavo, appeared in 1635. There is a portrait engraved by Marshall; the Hexastichon ad Bibliopolam is added to the prefatory matter, and the poems are arranged in sections beginning with the Songs and Sonnets and ending with the Divine Poems. These changes are retained in the later editions. The title-page is the same as that of 1633. The third edition of 1639 is almost identical with that of 1635.  22
  In the meantime, it appears by a document in the Record Office, dated Dec. 16, 1637, and printed by Dr. Grosart, that legal steps had been taken by the younger Donne to recover certain rights over the Poems which he alleged John Marriott had disregarded. The dispute does not seem to have interfered with the publication of the edition of 1639; indeed it would appear that the conflicting parties came to terms, for the fourth edition, that of 1650, was clearly published under the superintendence of the younger Donne himself. It has the following title-page—
        POEMS | BY J. D. | WITH | ELEGIES | ON THE AUTHOR’S DEATH. | TO WHICH | Is added divers copies under his own hand | never before in print. | LONDON. | Printed for John Marriot, and are | to be sold by Richard Marriot at his shop | by Chancery Lane end over against the Inner | Temple gate, 1650.
  The Printer to the Understanders is replaced by the dedication to Lord Craven; and this is followed by the Hexastichon Bibliopolae, the Hexastichon ad Bibliopolam, and Ben Jonson’s lines beginning “Donne, the delight of Phoebus and each Muse.” At the end of the Divine Poems is inserted a kind of appendix, containing, besides some additional poems, two other sets of verses on Donne from Ben Jonson’s Epigrams of 1616, a prose sketch entitled News from the very Country, already printed in the sixth edition of Sir Thomas Overbury’s Characters (1615), a burlesque Latin Catalogus Librorum (see Appendix D), and what appears to be a Latin address to Convocation. Mr. Hazlitt, in the first series of his Collections, catalogues a copy of this edition, with the date 1649, and the same date is given by Anthony Wood in his Athenae (s. v. DONNE).  24
  In this and the two following editions the Elegy by Tho. Browne was omitted, and three were added, signed respectively by Daniel Darnelly, Sidney Godolphin, and J. Chudleigh. The fifth edition of 1654 resembles that of 1650, except that it is “Printed by J. Flesher, and are to be sold, by John Sweeting at the Angel in Popeshead Alley, 1654.”  25
  The sixth and last of the seventeenth-century editions is that of 1669. This again has a new title-page, on which the author’s name appears for the first time in full—
        POEMS, etc. | By | JOHN DONNE, | late Dean of St. Pauls | WITH | ELEGIES | ON THE | AUTHOR’S DEATH. | To which is added | Divers Copies under his own hand, | Never before printed. | In the SAVOY, | Printed by T. N. for Henry Herringman, at the Sign of | the Anchor, in the lower-walk of the | New Exchange, 1669.
  Mr. Hazlitt (Handbook) states that pages 95 to 98 of this edition, containing Elegies XIX. and XX., were suppressed. All the editions contain, as well as the poems, thirteen prose letters, of which eight are to Sir Henry Goodyere, one to La[dy] G[oodyere?], one to the Countess of Bedford, and three to Mr. G[eorge] G[arrard].  27
  The book evidently underwent considerable revision in 1635, 1650, and again in 1669. Not only were additional poems printed from time to time, but also there exists great divergence of reading between the various copies. Even the editions of 1639 and 1654, though they differ very slightly from those of 1635 and 1650 respectively, cannot be said to be altogether identical with them. These variations, which are especially noticeable in the Songs and Sonnets and in the Satires, are not merely due to the printers. In all probability most of Donne’s poems existed in several more or less revised forms, and it was something a matter of chance which form was used for printing a particular edition. Nor can it be said that any one edition always gives the best text; even for a single poem, sometimes one, sometimes another is to be preferred, though, as a rule, the edition of 1633 is the most reliable, and the readings of 1669 are in many cases a return to it.  28
  Certain unpublished poems of Donne’s, together with others which are not really his, were collected by Waldron in his Collection of Miscellaneous Poetry (1802), and by Sir John Simeon in one of the Philobiblon Society’s tracts (1856). A few others may be gathered from various printed and manuscript sources. These will be found in the appendices to this edition. The eighteenth-century and modern editions are mostly of little value. That by Dr. Grosart, privately printed in the Fuller Worthies Library, 1873, is a work of much zeal, industry and learning. I have derived benefit from it in many ways. But in contains many inaccuracies, and the text is spoilt throughout by being taken from bad MSS. instead of from the printed copies.
E. K. C.    
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