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The Oxford Handbook of John Donne

Edited by Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester
Oxford University Press, 2011

Morris Zapp, the manic academic star of David Lodge’s “Nice Work,” confesses that he was once the Jane Austen man. He set out to write the single greatest, most all-inclusive and definitive volume on Austen ever written, ever capable of being written. His work would include everything – every mention of Austen in any genre, every note, every scrap – with the goal of reaching a zen-like totality in which there was absolutely nothing more to say on the subject. Zapp admits, “Of course, I never finished it.” The hint of the satire is that such a book could never be written, and that anybody who thought he could write it must be more than a little quixotic.

And yet, variorum editions. They trundle into existence with the regularity of icebergs calving, and there they sit, expanding by the glacial increments of textual verification and interdisciplinary scrimmage, for years, often decades. Their mien is humble (especially in these days of less than robust funding), but their aim is almost always Darwinian: to out-compete and out-adapt and out-reproduce the competition not just into senescence but into an unmarked grave six feet deep in the cold, cold ground. They come not to praise their illustrious academic forebears but to bury them, kill the mourners, and salt the earth of the grave.

There’s a variorum edition in progress on the writings of the prolific and problematic John Donne, of course. In its Zappian zeal, the project at Indiana University Press headed by G. A. Stringer has been industriously cataloging any possible scraps of pertinent paper, collating the steadily-growing number of Donne manuscripts that come to light, and X-raying the lot of them in order to map every blur and blot. The project has been inching forward since 1995, and the end, happily, is nowhere in sight. The editors of such an edition know the Sisyphean nature of their task better than anybody: if one key new document appears, it can unravel a decade of work like Penelope sneaking to her loom to stall proceedings for one more day. And even when the evidence is obedient enough to remain in stasis, fads of interpretation change; massive variorum editions are assembled for decades and are already outmoded before the ink on the last page is dry.

But they’re unmatched at assembling like-minded scholars, these towers of Babel, and when you assemble a large enough group of like-minded scholars, if you’re lucky, you get a fantastic by-product of their textual endeavors: you get a volume like the new Oxford Handbook of John Donne. A great many of the Handbook‘s contributors are involved in the ongoing Variorum Donne, and a great deal of the Handbook‘s scholarship is based on the Variorum Donne editions produced thus far, and if this volume is meant as a token of earnest for the worth of that whole ongoing project, Indiana University can have my subscription check from now until Doomsday.

It’s a handsome thing, this Handbook – quite the best thing of its kind that’s ever been lavished on Donne. There are some fifty newly-commissioned essays totaling some 850 pages and covering every aspect of Donne’s life and times and every one of the many genres at which he excelled, from satire to sonnet to essay to love lyric to sermon to elegy to plain old written correspondence. Great swaths of Elizabethan and Jacobean history and biography and anecdote are folded into fifty vigorous ongoing discussions about the nature of everything Donne did, said, and wrote, and the result is exhilarating for exactly the reason its editors claim it shouldn’t be:

Intended as a source of directions, a guard against misdirections, and in 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.

Scholars can be such silly creatures, as Donne himself would have been the first to point out! Of course this Handbook is intended as a summary of existing knowledge. That’s obvious by the thing’s very nature; else what are we supposed to make of chapters titled “Donne’s Military Career” or “Donne’s Education” or “Donne’s Travels”? That they’re guesses based on outmoded information? That they aren’t intended by their authors as summaries of existing knowledge on those topics? No, the problem isn’t the summarizing, it’s that obnoxious ‘mere’ – as if there were something pedestrian about creating a panorama. It’s been forty-one years since R. C. Bald’s benchmark biography of Donne; twenty-six since the landmark “Essential Articles” volume on Donne’s poetry; nineteen since the great second edition of the Norton Critical edition of Donne; five since the Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Research and scholarship don’t stand still; a lot of water’s gone under old John Donne since then. The Handbook before us is not a ‘mere’ summary but a magnificent one, sprawling with generous detail, jeweled all over with new details, new insights, new surmises, a treasure-trove for experts and students alike.

Provided they behave themselves, our editors hasten to add:

Together, these essays set the tone, prepare the textual and contextual ground, and highlight the tools available for advancing Donne studies into the twenty-first century. No readers hoping to approach the subjects of subsequent chapters should do so without first making themselves familiar with the scholarly landscape sketched here in Part 1.

Naturally, the instant I read that I tested it, flipping straight past Part 1, titled “Research Resources in Donne Studies and Why They Matter” and settling, at random, in the midst not of Part II (“Donne’s Genres” – mercifully free of the condescending “and Why They Matter”) but of Part III, “Biographical and Historical Contexts.” It turns out the Handbook‘s editors need not have worried: they wrought better than they knew. The essays in Part III stand quite well on their own, and many of them – including Johan Sommerville on the court shock-waves sent out by the death of all-powerful Jacobean poo-bah Robert Cecil, Alison Shell on Donne’s death, and the particularly adroit Dennis Flynn on half a dozen different topics – make fast, fascinating reading. Patrick Collinson, writing on the personal politics of the English Reformation, rightly reminds us, “Simply to attend the parish church ought not to be taken as conversion.” The ubiquitous Dennis Flynn examines the Catholicism of Donne’s family and its tragic consequences, pointing out that Donne’s influential first biographer Izaak Walton ignores this dimension and we should not. “We should connect Donne’s birth and early years,” he writes, “as well as his subsequent life and writings, to his family’s religious persecution, imprisonment, exile, and death, as we connect the writings of Solzhenitsyn or Wiesel to theirs.” The broadness of Arnold Hunt’s stated subject, “The English Nation in 1631” allows him a wide latitude, although he never strays far from an acute understanding of his subject’s shifting fame:

… Donne did not negotiate the transition to the reign of Charles I entirely smoothly or seamlessly, and the Sermons preached in the final years of his life often betray a mood of ambivalence, looking back to the reign of James as well as forward to the political and religious changes of the 1630s. It may be significant that the Newcastle manuscript of Donne’s poems, probably copied in the early 1630s – its existence testifying to the fact that Donne’s writings continued to be widely read and circulated – should have described the Holy Sonnets as ‘written. 20. yeares since’ … It suggests that Donne’s style of poetry, and perhaps his style of piety as well, now seemed to belong to an earlier generation.

And it’s in this section that readers will find one of the strongest essays in the entire volume, Alastair Bellany’s analysis of “The Rise of the Howards at Court,” with its refreshingly clear view of cutthroat maneuvering of the “courts within the court” James I deplored and encouraged:

Men competed for office – for seats on the Privy Council, for great offices of state, for ceremonial and household positions like Master of the Horse or Lord Chamberlain – and for access to the King or his intimates. Court offices carrying seemingly menial responsibilities – like cup-bearer or sewer in the privy chamber, or groom and gentleman of the bedchamber – were in fact immensely important, offering constant, informal, and immediate access to the King at his palaces in and around London or at the hunting lodges to which he so often fled.

Still, my obduracy notwithstanding, most students of Donne come to him for the poetry – that tangled, contradictory, intellectually anguished poetry that has no precise equal anywhere in the Western canon, not even George Herbert, who had good reason to hope otherwise. Most of the books written about Donne ever since his modern reputation began reviving (after an initial dimming by the likes of Johnson and Dryden) have been about his poetry, so the Handbook‘s Part II, dissecting all the various poetic voices the man used, carries an obvious importance. Here we get Kirsten Sterling illuminating Donne’s liturgical poetry, the late Michael Price on Donne’s paradoxes (with a fitting nod to Erasmus) and problems, and R. V. Young on the elegies and the religious sonnets, and all these chapters are superb. Gregory Kneidel examines the history and reception of Donne’s verse satires (thankfully giving Dryden at least some credit for introducing Donne, however sternly, to a new generations of readers), and the overview he gives us is at once knowing and pleasingly relaxed:

The other late Elizabethan satirists strut and preen like competing shock-radio personalities, promising new heights of wit and grotesquery, parroting each other’s gags, and picking fights whose stakes now seem quite trivial (if they ever really mattered at all). Their chief aim was to be known as the nastiest satirist in print – though at times it is difficult to distinguish between nastiness and silliness.

The fourth part of the Handbook, titled “Problems of Literary Interpretation That Have Been Traditionally and Generally Important in Donne Studies,” is, as you might guess, not exactly a spring picnic. It’s here that academia’s tendency for querulous over-clarifying most threatens to slip out of control and chase the reader right off the manicured lawns of the Donne industry. Once again, that fate is avoided due to the enthusiastic engagement of the prose involved, especially the fantastic essay “’By Parting Have Joyn’d Here’: The Story of the Two (or More) Donnes” by Judith Scherer Herz. Its focus of course is the set of instructions Donne gave Sir Robert Ker before setting out for Germany in 1619, telling him to be very mindful of how (or if) he disseminated Donne’s manuscript of Biathanatos. “Keep it, I pray,” Donne wrote, “with the same jealousie; let any that your discretion admits to the sight of it, know the date of it; and that it is a Book written by Jack Donne, and not by D. Donne.” Walton picked up the hint of that curious duality and ran with it, and to one extent or another it’s formed the antiphon of Donne interpretation ever since: courtier and divine, attender of plays and ascetic seer, ambitious place-seeker and preacher to kings. Herz looks on the whole business with a healthy skepticism. “Jack and the Doctor … that phrase has reverberated through literary history,” she tells us, “although at the very least there should probably be three terms, since it was a third Donne, that is John, keeping a bit of distance from his character, who set the formula in motion.” She quickly opts, surely correctly, for a multiple Donne, “not either divided or divisible.”

That multiple Donne is on glorious display in this Handbook, in an abundance of investigation and analysis that often flouts the strictures its own contributors attempt to place on it. The book itself, as a physical object, is very satisfyingly solid and full, although the scattered black-and-white photos are curiously blurred and uninspiring. Its scholarship shines on virtually every page, however, and the warnings of some of its scholars – perhaps most testily summarized in Ernest Sullivan’s “Any reader who wants to understand any literary work has to start with its scholarly edition” – serve to remind us that even such a mighty endeavor as this one can and should only ever be a prelude. For Sullivan is as wrong as wrong gets: understanding Donne comes at least as much from the heart as the head, and both those organs work just fine off-campus.

“As late as ten years ago, I used to seek and find out grand lines and fine stanzas” one passionate student of Donne once wrote, “but my delight has been far greater, since it has consisted more in tracing the leading Thought thro’out the whole. The former is too much like coveting your neighbor’s Goods: in the latter you merge yourself in the Author – you become He.” Coleridge had no access to any scholarly editions of the poet’s verse or prose, and the undeniable greatness of The Oxford Handbook of John Donne notwithstanding, the point is: he didn’t need it. Elaboration is the servant of genius, not its jailor – but if you joy in elaboration (and I certainly do), you’ll find none better on the subject than this.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, The Washington Post, The National and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.

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