Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Biathanatos (Canterbury MS U210/2/2)

We are pleased to announce the release of a facsimile production of an important manuscript copy of Donne's infamous work Biathanatos (see here), with much thanks to the Library and Archives of the Canterbury Cathedral for the images and permission to publish them. If you would like to participate in the John Donne Society's Prose project by transcribing this document, please contact Brent Nelson.

To provide some context for this manuscript, we have asked Daniel Starza Smith to provide a brief introduction.

Canterbury MS U210/2/2


Canterbury Cathedral’s manuscript copy of Biathanatos (MS U210/2/2, henceforth Canterbury), John Donne’s lengthy prose treaty on suicide, is a curious artifact. Donne himself implied that very few copies of this unusual work were transcribed in his own lifetime, perhaps even just one. Donne famously desired that this work should not be printed, entrusting it to his friend Robert Ker with the injunction: "I forbid it only the Presse, and the Fire; publish it not, but yet burn it not; and between those, do what you will with it" (Donne, 22). The evidence about its circulation in manuscript points similarly to a restricted readership, since Donne himself implied that very few copies of this unusual work were transcribed in his own lifetime. Yet we know the text was eventually printed (posthumously) in quarto, by Humphrey Moseley in 1647, and that at least one other manuscript survives apart from Canterbury (Bodleian Library, MS √® Musaeo 131, known as Herbert; see Smith, 227–40). Before the discovery of Canterbury by Peter Beal, it was assumed that Donne had kept the circulation of this controversial work particularly private. This manuscript allows us to amend that view slightly, since the author seems not to have been involved in its production, or at least not closely.

A small quarto volume (gathered 120, 2–716, 812, with quires of irregular size), Canterbury is a formal scribal product, written in a single unknown hand on pre-ruled pages in dark brown ink, in a single hand, with marginal references to Donne’s sources added afterwards in red ink; section headings are copied in the margins, probably to save space. Peter Beal dates the script of the Canterbury manuscript broadly to c.1600–40, adding that it has the appearance of "a purely professional copy, made for someone by a hired scribe … as a purely routine job without any specially careful attempt to check the accuracy of his transcript" (Beal, 40). At 245 pages, the last 35 of which are left blank, it is rather shorter than the "not … much lesse then 300 pages" he described to Sir Henry Goodere when picking up the first scribal copy in 1610 (Donne, 34; Smith, 227–8). Since it contains numerous uncorrected scribal errors, Donne was probably not involved in its production. In contrast, the other surviving manuscript of this work, the 285-page Herbert, contains corrections in Donne’s own hand.

The Canterbury MS has an unclear relation to other surviving witnesses of Biathanatos. Canterbury, Herbert and the 1647 quarto are all textually independent – none was copied from either of the others. However, despite Donne’s apparent supervision of Herbert, it is Canterbury and the quarto which contain the more complete text, including revisions and sidenotes not recorded in Herbert. Nevertheless, Canterbury and the quarto are by no means similar: Beal noted "several hundred substantive variants" (44) between them, concluding that either "three copyists or compositors are using Donne’s holograph, two of them misreading [portions of] his cursive script, while one of them reads it correctly; or, alternatively, Canterbury is using a different exemplar from that used by the other two" (46).

The manuscript was owned in the late eighteenth century by Rev. John Morris (d.1798) and in the early nineteenth century by Sir Robert Harry Inglis (d.1855). Before these owners, it appears to have been owned by William Capel, rector of Milton Bryan in Bedfordshire, right next to Woburn Abbey – the seventeenth-century seat of the Russells, Earls of Bedford. Beal speculates that the manuscript may have come into Capel’s possession from the library at Woburn, having been collected by a member of the Russell family. Lucy Harington Russell (d.1627), Countess of Bedford, was of course Donne’s pre-eminent patron for a number of years and would be the Woburn inhabitant most likely to have sought it out. Henry Goodere is known to have transmitted Donne’s texts to her in the first decade of the seventeenth century, and although the manuscript is not in his hand, he may therefore have played some part in its circulation.

Works Cited
Beal, Peter. In Praise of Scribes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Donne, John. Letters to Severall Persons of Honour. London: Richard Marriot, 1651.
Smith, Daniel Starza. John Donne and the Conway Papers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.


Daniel Starza Smith, Lincoln College, Oxford

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Call for Papers for the Annual Conference of the John Donne Society 2016

The John Donne Society's 31st Annual Conference will be held 18–20 February 2016 at the Lod and Carole Cook Conference Center on the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, LA. The conference features a single-stream format, which guarantees fulsome discussion, involving Donne scholars at all stages of career. Each year the conference gives two awards, the John R. Roberts Award for Best Essay by a Graduate Student and the Kate Gartner Frost Award for Best Essay by an Early Career Scholar. Individual papers and panels on any aspect of Donne’s life and work are welcome. Full papers and substantial abstracts must be received by Professor Sean H. McDowell (mcdowell@seattleu.edu) by 15 September 2015. See the full call for papers here: http://johndonnesociety.tamu.edu/files/2016CFP.pdf.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Donne and the Bible

The John Donne Journal will be publishing a special issue on John Donne and the Bible, to be edited by Chanita Goodblatt. Anyone who has read Donne knows how central the Bible is to both his poetry and prose. The topic has been touched on many times before in the scholarly literature, but this will be the first organized collection to focus specifically on Donne's engagement with the Biblical text, translations, and commentary. While the topic has been of enduring importance to scholars, the Internet tells us the topic has much broader interest. BibleStudyTools.com offers a selection of Donne's sermons in modern spelling in its "Classics" section, and BibleHum.com offers a selection of excerpts related to particular Bible passages. The topic is both perennial and timely. See the full call for papers here.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Notes on papers concerning Donne's prose presented at the 2015 conference of the John Donne Society

The John Donne Society once again enjoyed a rich program of papers in its 30th annual conference recently. Below are some notes on some of the papers that focused especially on Donne's prose. See also our tweets in the channel on our home page touching on other proceedings of the conference. Any faults in what follows belongs to the note-taker, not the presenter.

Seeing Double in Donne’s Devotions: Two Serpents, Two Adams and Two Interpretations of Station 10
Robert Reeder, Providence College


In the expostulation of station ten, Donne associates the threat of the subtle serpent of Genesis with the redemptive snake of the exodus (Numbers 21): one serpent wounds while the other heals, contraries meeting in one. In this emblem Donne finds consolation for the problem of sins that remain undetected owing to the serpent becoming ever more crafty and stealthy: how can we confess the sins of which we are not aware? In the prayer to this devotion, Donne’s answer is that Christ pardons him for all the sins that Christ died for, not only the ones he has committed. He confesses in effect every possible sin. This is a preventing grace. But even then there is a subtle pitfall: in taking all sins upon himself, is he guilty of presumptuous self-display, itself a hidden sin? Without acknowledging this problem, is Donne perhaps performing a hidden sin? Or, does he see this sort of confession as an appropriate expression of the phenomenon of original sin? After all, the serpent has become ever more stealthy over time since Eden.

Contributing "to the verdure, and freshnesse thereof": Donne's use of parenthesis
Hugh Adlington, University of Birmingham


Adlington's study of Donne's use of parentheses arises from one of the editorial principles of the Oxford Sermons project, a desire to get as close as possible to the sermon as originally delivered. Parentheses are some of the most helpful indicators of the immediacy of Donne's preaching moment. An example in Potter and Simpson IV.13.621-6 is typical of Donne's use of parenthesis: self-reflexive, evaluative, literary, and critical. Some of the questions that need to be asked about Donne's use of parenthesis are:
• What information do they impart about the context of the sermonic moment?
• How were these parentheses received?
• Were they typical of early modern preaching?
• How do parentheses in the sermon document relate to what was actually preached?
• How did they function?
In answer to the last point, they had various uses:
• to elaborate, clarify, and qualify
• to allow audiences to catch up in their thought
• to create a sense of immediacy and imitate the act of thought
• to convey of tone and emotion, tending toward the melancholic

Fertile Waters: "Gods Conversation with Man" in the Preaching of Donne
Sonia Pernet, Université de Lausanne


In Donne’s sermons, water serves as a metaphor for understanding the difficult concept of the receiving of the Holy Spirit. In two Whitsunday sermons—one on Acts 10:44 preached at Lincoln's Inn (P&S 5:1), and another on Genesis 1:2 at St. Paul's (P&S 9:3)—, water in its three states serves as an emblem of the Trinity, where the Holy Spirit is associated with the liquid state. Donne also explores the water metaphor in the christening sermons. In this context, water resonates with generative significance (womb-like) in the creation, a feminized event (9:99). Notions of fertility and generation are also present in the Lincoln's Inn sermon (5:51-52), where water is seen as a conduit of the Holy Spirit entering into the believer through the hearing of the word preached.

"Dangerous Vomit" or "Fulnesse": Incarnation, Ecumenism, & Political Critique in the 1629 Christmas Sermon
Bryan A. Hampton, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga


Hampton finds in this sermon on John 10:10 (P&S 9:5) evidence that Donne was growing tired of the relentless ecclesiastical-factionalism of the time, which he characterizes as a dangerous vomit, in contrast to the fullness and hospitality of God's communication in the incarnation. Donne's representation of the incarnation falls between apaphatic theology (silence in the face of God's transcendent and radically otherness) and cataphatic theology (congress made possible through anthropocentric immanence): the incarnation is a moment of divine abundance accessible to all, pleroma in the corporate preaching of the word. It is God's fleshly communication of himself in abundance (John 10:10) which contrast with the vomiting of sin. The sermon concludes on the importance of contrition and humility in all who approach this Christmas service, so that they might be able to receive the pleroma of the church. This sermon on the communicableness of God is Donne's (very) implicit critique of Charles I's nascent absolutism and failure to communicate with his people.

"all parts are play'd, and all play parts": Donne’s Dramatic Apology for Past and Present Kingship
Maria Salenius, University of Helskini


In his 1617 sermon at St. Paul's Cross on anniversary of the King's ascension, Donne preaches on the relation of subjects to kings. Donne's language for characterizing good and bad rulers resonates with the language of Shakespeare's depictions of Richard III and Queen Elizabeth and Cornwallis's Encomium on Richard III. Donne takes up the role of Archbishop Cranmer in the closing scene of Shakespeare's Henry VIII as an admirer and promoter of the regime that spanned from Queen Elizabeth and into the realm of King James. Richard III, in contrast, serves as an emblem of treason and tyranny. Cornwallis's treatment in his Encomium (dedicated to Donne) is more charitable to this "defamed prince," characterizing him as a dutiful king. Donne similarly emphasizes the king's love consonant with Cornwallis's characterization. Donne's characterization of the opposite kind of ruler (subtle, false, and treacherous) is also consonant with Shakespeare's Richard III. Conversely, Donne associates Queen Elizabeth and King James with the gracious version of ruler, similar to Cranmer's characterization of Queen Elizabeth in Henry VIII. Donne is seeking in a monarch a balance between religion and prudent fulfillment of calling, but he also emphasizes the importance of charity in the subject's interpretation of the monarch. The sermon bears many elements of dramatic presentation and employs the dramatic metaphor of playing a part socially.

The 2015 Presidential Address: "John Donne: How and Why to Love the Ordinary."
Kate Narveson, Luther College


A couple of questions arise from Donne’s representation of the “ordinary” laity in his Easter sermon 1622: What was an ordinary layman? How should we take Donne's subordination of the private to the public? Donne’s depiction of the laity is based on his sense of the "ordinary" means of God's work.
1) The ordinary laity. In the love poetry, the laity are clueless and unaware of high matter of the speaker's love. In contrast, the laity receive much more respect in the sermons. In 4.371, Donne asserts there is a leveling of clergy and laity with respect to the redemption. Donne expresses respect for the private piety and leadership of the laity in their households and respect for the capacity and learnedness of the laity in doctrinal and biblical matters (5.42-3). Lay practices of piety were indeed expected by Donne.
2) The ordinary means. Donne has a rich and complex sense of the "ordinary" as it applies to God means, participation in formal, corporate worship. The ordinary means are God's accommodation of his ways to the human condition, the ordinary. The ordinary is the best way to take care of the everyday, regular course of things. The ordinary is nonetheless imbued with private inwardness. In part, Donne was responding to a pendulum swing toward the new emphasis on private piety to the point that, for some, it sometimes replaced corporate worship. He espoused conformance in balancing of bible-based with publicly authorized forms of practice. Despite this valuing of private spirituality, the "public ordinance" is the ordinary way, and the lay piety needs to be understood in relation to the public. In his second sermon preached at St. Dunstan's, Donne emphasizes the need to respect for the pastor, as children respect their parents, but at the same time the laity must come to the ministry of the pastor with considerable personal, private preparation (6.100). Donne recognizes the tendency for laity to put too much stock in their independent initiatives in piety and to presume too much. The “ordinary” lay person is high-functioning but humble. Donne collapses the binary of the "benighted" former piety and the new reformed piety with respect to matters of piety: papistry becomes the turning of habitual sins into idols.



Sunday, 8 February 2015

Program of the 2015 meeting of the John Donne Society

The annual conference of the John Donne society is fast approaching. In addition to another program full of fascinating papers, this conference features
  • a keynote by Brendan Kane (University of Connecticut) on "An imperial Donne-aire? Poems of possessing and dispossessing in early modern England and Ireland";
  • a reading of a new novel, Love's Alchemy: A John Donne Mystery, by Bryan Crockett (Loyola University, Maryland);
  • a presidential address by Kate Narveson (Luther College);
  • and a workshop on letterlocking with Jana Dambrogio (M.I.T) and Daniel Starza Smith (Lincoln College, Oxford).
The full program is available at the Society website.