Monday, 5 February 2018

New Donne Manuscript Discovery: The Hand of WA2

By Daniel Starza Smith (King's College London) and Matthew Payne (Westminster Abbey Library)

This blog post offers further information about the discovery at Westminster Abbey of a manuscript of Donne’s satirical library catalogue, known in English as The Courtier’s Library – see "Rediscovering John Donne’s Catalogus librorum satiricus," Review of English Studies ( As well as publishing full images of the manuscript, we note here some of its most distinctive palaeographical features. We welcome any suggestions about the scribe’s identity.

The hand is fluent and may show evidence of professional training. The text has been left- and right-aligned, and hyphens are used in both margins to signal word-breaks. The scribe often employs tittles over double-s, and his ampersand looks as if it is tilted slightly to the left.


B and D are formed in a similar fashion, beginning with a stroke down and to the left, then a sharp movement to the right; the rest of the letter is formed with a separate application of the pen, starting with a flourish to the left. I/J is formed with four strokes, including quite a heavy central cross. After a simple initial downward movement, the second and third strokes of N are more elaborate. M is notably dissimilar to N, consisting of three simple minims; the final one finishes with a short spur to the right. Majuscule P rests on a long horizontal foot, which begins with an upward flourish on the left; a vertical spur is also usually visible at the top of the letter, above the bowl. A spur can often be found to the upper-right of majuscule S, while V and W both feature a distinctive ‘kink’ in their initial down-stroke (also visible on the minuscule forms).


The scribe uses a mixture of Greek and secretary minuscule e. The ascender of d often bends far to the left before curling back under and to the right, sometimes but not always crossing through itself. The descender of g is rather distinctive: from the lower centre of the bowl, it travels briefly down and to the left, before bending sharply to the right and circling down and left, then passing upwards through itself to join to the next letter. (Descenders on minuscule y do not take this form.) The letter p is notable for starting with a sharp diagonal upwards flourish; the descender rises above the bowl, resulting in a short vertical line.


The word "sesqui=barbarus" (l. 140) has been altered.

A deleted first letter was a majuscule, or had an ascender, or both, although we cannot see another letter in the manuscript starting with a similar motion. The first s may not have been the scribe’s original intention. The double-hyphen has been written over a now-illegible letter which seems to have two minims, and might therefore be n or u. The i may have been altered from r, and although it is clearly dotted, there is also what looks like a grave accent above the letter, perhaps indicating some indecision or confusion on the scribe’s behalf. We can say, then, that "squ" and "barbarus," have both been written confidently, but that the scribe was uncertain about some other letters. The word "sesqui-barbarus," despite valiant attempts to English it, is not good Latin.1 It is notable that the other known surviving contemporary copy, CT2 (Trinity College, Cambridge, MS B. 14. 22 (James 307), or DnJ 4065 in CELM) features "St. quintarbarbarus," at this point. This nonsensical reading can now be explained as deriving from a defect in a common source.

1 Brown renders it as ‘The More-than-Half Uncivilized’; Simpson gives ‘A Foreigner-and-a-Half’.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

John Donne Jeopardy

John Donne made an appearance on Jeopardy! on Tuesday, January 31, 2017 (Show #7457). Here are the questions. The contestants were Doug Baker (a sustainability specialist from Tecumseh, Michigan), Ben Smolen (a writer from Los Angeles, California), and Lisa Schlitt (a microbiologist from Berwyn, Pennsylvania). How much would you have earned?

1) A Donne sonnet says this, "Be not proud" for "one short sleep past, we wake eternally, and" this "shall be no more" ($400)
Ben got this one. 

2) On this day, 1613, while traveling to Wales, Donne wrote a poem imagining the crucified Christ on the cross ($800)
Doug got this one.

3) In 1610 Donne criticized his former Catholic faith in "Pseudo-Martyr", which was dedicated to this king (DD: $600)
Doug missed this one. It was a daily double. Not sure what that means. Arguably, this was as much a monarchy question as a Donne question.

4) The first biography of Donne was by this "Compleat Angler" author & appeared as a preface to Donne's "LXXX Sermons" ($1,600)
Apparently, this was a “triple stumper,” meaning none of them got it.

5) The "No man is an island" passage continues, "Never send to know" this, later a book title ($2,000)
Another triple stumper

Interestingly, three of the five were about Donne's prose works, and none of them was answered correctly. Sigh. The answers are available at J!Archive.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Not a Poem

Readers of Donne have probably noticed more than once a reference to Donne's poem "No man is an Island." It happens a lot. Problem is, it is not a poem. It is not even a work of literature entire of itself. It belongs to a main: his prose work, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. It is a poetical piece of prose to be sure. And perhaps this is one positive reason to remark on this cultural phenomenon: it presents a ready opportunity in the classroom for a discussion about form and mode. Why don't we consider this poetry? So, for next time such a teachable moment is desired, here is a good starting point: this is the passage from Devotions, identified as "Poem #1" in a worksheet by Mensa for kids:

So, beyond posing a possible teachable moment, why else might we even remark on this regrettable instance of misinformation? Well, some of these Mensa kids might grow up to be literary editors and journalists. In a "Poetry Round Table" feature in the New York Times Sunday Book Review section published online on 22 December 2015, the question was posed to a collection of literary and media luminaries, "What's Your Favourite Poem?" One respondent (a television producer and president of HBO films) offered that her "favorite poem is John Donne, 'Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions: No Man Is an Island'." Perhaps this respondent was trying to make a point by naming this work of prose a "poem" (and giving it a new subtitle). Probably not. She refers to it a second time as a "poem," and without comment. And, perhaps more significantly (and alarmingly), the editor of the Sunday Book Review seemed not to notice. Lest we blame the Internet for degrading public literacy, it should be noted this feature was also published in print on 27 December 2015. So, to save this romp from becoming a rant, how about a proposal? A game sorts (worthy of Sisyphus perhaps) to clean up the Internet. Let's unmask these masquerading poems as not-poems with #notapoem. Follow us on Twitter @DonneProse to participate.

Monday, 20 June 2016

CFP: Space, Place and Image in Early Modern English Literature

The project on "Space, Place and Image in the Poetry and Prose of John Donne" at Université de Lausanne is hosting a conference, 11-13 May 2017, expanding their scope to include Early Modern English Literature (c. 1500-1700) more broadly. Confirmed keynote speakers are Dr. Mary Morrissey (University of Reading) and Professor Andrew McRae (University of Exeter). The conference will take place on the beautiful campus of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. For full details, see the full call for papers here.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Call for Papes: Donne and Certainty

Another all for papers! This one from Kate Narveson:

As out-going president of the John Donne Society, I'm in charge of putting together a panel for the MLA convention next January in Philadelphia. I invite you to submit brief abstracts for papers on any aspect of Donne’s poetry or prose that relates to the question of how Donne approached the problem of certainty or assurance. Papers might address the discourses Donne drew on (religious, philosophical, scientific, legal, etc.), the distinctive nature of the problem in particular contexts or commonalities among contexts, the resources available to him in particular genres, or patterns in the way he figured certainty. Please send title and abstract by Friday, March 11 to Kate Narveson (

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Looking ahead to 2017: the JDS call for papers

We are already looking forward to our next annual meeting of the John Donne Society. The 32nd Annual Conference of the Society will be held from Thursday, 16 February, to
Saturday, 18 February 2017 at The Lod and Carol Cook Conference Center at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. See the full call for papers below:

Monday, 22 February 2016

Notes from the John Donne Society Conference 2016

As I did last year, I am providing my notes on papers recently presented at the annual conference of the John Donne Society that focused on the prose works of Donne. We were again treated to an excellent slate of papers (see program here), but this year there were fewer papers treating Donne's prose: the songs and sonnets seemed to be favoured this time around. So, there was less work for me!

"The Johannine Spirit-Paraclete in Donne’s Sermons and Holy Sonnets"
Paul Cefalu, Lafayette College

In his two Pentecost sermons of 1627 and 1628 on John 14:26 (and context), Donne emphasizes the missionary role of the Holy Spirit as a teacher and comforter who works by imparting the memory of Christ. Donne evinces a particular preoccupation with the Spirit as comforter.

These aspects carry over into the holy sonnets. In "Father, part of His double interest," Donne extends the notion of Christ’s love conveyed from God through the Spirit. This sonnet answers poetically Donne’s own sermonic call to find comfort in the work of the spirit as a conduit God’s love through Christ to all.

"Wilt thou love God…" also echoes the language of the Johannine passage, blending a Pauline notion of adoption with a Johannine emphasis on begottenness, where Christ is already glorified once he has arrived, and similarly, Christians have already begun to enjoy the indwelling Spirit, a realized eschatology in the present. Donne’s emphasis on a two-way love in the opening line reflects the sort of reciprocity outlined by John.

"Donne’s Defense of Preaching: Two Sermons under Pressure"
John Walters, Indiana University

In his sermon on Acts 7:60, Donne speaks of men that move "in middle spheres" negotiating between those above and below in the social hierarchy and between the ideal and the practical. Donne’s commitment to a counsel-based political society came increasingly under pressure from the centralization of political power and imposition of conformity with a corollary of the preacher’s diminishing ability to deliver counsel, to work within this middle sphere. Answering claims that Donne’s was a supporter of absolutism, Walters suggests Donne’s metaphor of the middle sphere suggests a more complex picture: discretion does not necessitate compliance or complacency, the middle sphere was the site of intense debate and contest (building on Lori Anne Ferrell). How does Donne, from this base, aim to shape political structures in his sermons?

In his Paul’s Cross before King James on 15 September 1622 on the "Directions for Preachers," Donne is not a servile sycophant. His emphasis is on the benefit of the preacher-counsellor for the flock (Judges 5:20). He begins with the premise of King James as head of the Church. At same time, he insists that the preacher has a responsibility to preach gospel. He argues that the Directions help preachers to serve God better: effectiveness requires proper use; the Directions ensure proper use and therefore enhance effectiveness. Orderliness is more effective than disorderliness, an army more than mob.

In his sermon preached on Mark 4:24 before King Charles at Whitehall on 1 April 1627, at end of his career, Donne remains constant in his conviction of the importance of preaching in the Church of England in the face of political change and pressure. In this sermon, Donne’s does not parse out his verse, "Take heed what you hear," as is his usual practice, but repeats the whole verse over and over through the sermon as a kind of imperative to obey the command as expressed. This is a strong defense of the importance of preaching in the face of Laudian emphases. Donne’s statement that this was "first time … I wished the king away," speaking directly to his citizen audience, is a recognition of the potential offence in this emphasis. He was right to worry, but Charles was offended not by Donne's supposed slighting of Queen Anne (as is often claimed), but rather, by Donne's assertion, drawing on Jeremiah 8:17 and Isaiah 3:1, that the loss or suppression of counsel is the first punishment God will afflict on a sinful nation: the worst fate of a nation is loss of preachers as counsellors. This verse thus emphasizes the important for congregations to hear preachers' counsel. Charles and Laud might have been offended by Donne’s too-strident defense of the importance of preaching.

"'Nourishing jealousies in princes and contempt in subjects': John Donne and Militant English Catholicism"
Marla Lunderber, Hope College

Builds on Anthony Milton’s assertion that in seventeenth-century England, anti-popery was principally political rather than religious. In his treatment of Ignatius and the Jesuits, Donne focuses on their misuse of power, and his central concern is the threat of national upheaval, specifically, regicide. In Ignatius His Conclave, for example, Machiavelli’s compliment to Ignatius about his ability in waging "Spiritual War" modulates into a more focused compliment about his facility at regicide. In the sermons, Donne makes extensive use of Jesuit commentary (with important qualifications), but he is frequently cautionary about the Jesuits' political threat. In his Lenten sermon preached at Whitehall on 12 February 1616, he characterizes a Jesuit as a fox who might deceive a simple soul in a matter of religion, and, much more seriously and menacingly, as a wolf who might prove a regicide. Donne tends toward openness and inclusiveness in theological thought, so far as it rests on fundamentals, but is not tolerant regarding political threat.