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Ian M. Slater
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The Delphi Poets edition of John Donne is an impressive accomplishment; a very wide range of material, some of it seldom printed, and hard to find, beautifully formatted, including, besides the Poems, some of Donne's public prose, and selections from his Letters.
It omits a sample of his Sermons (ten volumes of them in a mid-twentieth-century critical edition!), but, given modern sensibilities, this is understandable. On the other hand, Donne regularly preached to standing-room-only crowds: religious interest aside, I would have suggested different omissions, if needed, to make space for some of his magnificent oratory.
However, the collection does have one drawback common to many Kindle (and other e-book) editions. It is quite reticent about the sources of the texts it reprints; when and where they were published, and who edited them.
That there was no concern for suppressing such information is obvious from the fact that the preface to the Letters reveals the source as C. E. Merrill's 1910 edition of "Letters to Severall Persons of Honour," one of the seventeenth-century posthumous editions of Donne's writings (which also included much of his poetry, and many of his Sermons). It just seems to have been left out as irrelevant, or tucked away, to be stumbled upon by accident. Also left out is a whole lot of information necessary for understanding what Donne was talking about, back in the reign of James I.
Since most readers will be interested, at least at first, mainly in the poems, I will concentrate on the problems this situation can pose to the unwary reader, especially (but not only) when it comes to Donne in particular.
Like some other poets of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, Donne (1572-1631) did not see much of his poetry printed during his lifetime, and the posthumous editions, including the generally superior 1633 "first edition" of many of the poems, on which many editors have tried to rely, all have problems.
There were no eighteenth-century collected editions after 1719, which probably spared Donne's work some of the wholesale corruption that marked many Shakespeare editions of the time. This was, of course, the time when Dr. Johnson dismissed Donne, and a good many other poets, as "Metaphysicals" -- which was not the term of approval some moderns have made it. (Johnson picked up the term from Dryden, who was complaining that Donne's love poems could never have seduced anyone, an objection which assumes there is no other reason for writing such a poem.)
Some of the Romantics were more generous, producing a trickle of editions of the poetry in the nineteenth century, based on the seventeenth-century printed texts, with various "correction" and "improvements" -- and simple errors. (Quite typically, the Sermons got a 6-volume "Complete Works" edition of their own -- those Victorians knew what was really important! Too bad it wasn't a good edition....)
Of the few editions of the poems, Alexander Grosart's two-volume "Complete Poems" of 1872, in "The Fuller Worthies' Library," used (then-available) manuscript evidence, and included pieces found only in manuscript. This could have been an advance in scholarship, but, in the interest of Victorian notions of propriety, it was printed "for private circulation," only. Spelling was mostly, but not consistently, modernized; and some of Grosart's attributions of poems have been rejected, among other problems.
More conservative was the American "Grolier Club" of 1895, (New York), "'The poems of John Donne,' from the text of the edition of 1633 revised by James Russell Lowell. With the various readings of the other editions of the seventeenth century, and with a preface, an introduction, and notes by Charles Eliot Norton." It, too, was intended for limited circulation.
These editions culminated in what appears to be the source of the Delphi Poets' verse. The poems therein seem to have been taken verbatim from the two-volume (about 650 pages) "Muses' Library" edition of 1896, the "Poems of John Donne" (the US publisher was Charles Scribner's Sons). E.K. Chambers, a distinguished scholar of Medieval and Elizabethan English drama, was the editor. Chambers also based his version of the text on the early printed editions, and the work of previous editors; in this case on material gathered by Dr. Brinsley Nicholson, whose own work on the project was cut short by his death in 1891.
This is, therefore, in practice as well as date, a nineteenth-century text, in modernized spelling, which the editor re-punctuated to suit himself, openly replacing the "chaos" left by printers.
This is not an obviously bad edition. It does not abound in basic errors about period grammar and vocabulary, nor does Chambers frequently indulge in editorial "improvements" when the text is already clear. But it has shortcomings, both on the technical side (such as in noting variations between the early printed editions) and for "the common reader" and ordinary students.
For one thing, Chambers really should have paid more attention to that pesky, old-fashioned, inconsistent punctuation, which, after all, might be related to what was in Donne's manuscripts; and could be rhetorical (a guide to reading aloud) rather than strictly grammatical (for those who read poetry silently, a very modern habit).
Experience in teaching from Chambers' edition, which in places baffled his students, and himself, motivated H, J. C. Grierson to produce a critical, old-spelling, text edition (Oxford University Press, two volumes, 1912): "The Poems of John Donne. Edited from the Old Editions and Numerous Manuscripts with Introduction and Commentary." This made use of a variety of manuscripts, not autographs, but dating to Donne's lifetime, or contemporary with the printed editions. The text volume is about 500 pages (including Appendixes, with poems whose attribution to Donne Grierson rejected).
The separate "Introduction and Commentary" volume is about 440 pages long (depending on how you count front-matter). This is partly dedicated to explicating the poetry (and justifying Grierson's readings of the evidence, of course), It also identifies Donne's topical allusions, people mentioned or addressed, the backgrounds of his use of metaphors and figures, and defines obsolete words, and obsolete senses of still-current words. Donne was regarded as esoteric in his own day, but even the commonplaces of the seventeenth century may be strange to moderns.
(A good printed popular edition, or selections in, say, "The Norton Anthology of English Literature," or other collections for students, will have some of this material, based on Grierson, and his predecessors and successors.)
Grierson's work, directly and by way of his impact on T.S. Eliot, and other poets, was fundamental to the modern revival of critical (and popular) interest in Donne. The two volumes of Edmund Gosse's "Life and Letters" (1899) also put Donne's biography on a sounder basis than seventeenth-century gossip, with a firm framework for attempts at a chronology of the poetry.
However, Grierson's edition, too, eventually was supplanted, in whole or detail, as more manuscript evidence kept being identified, and textual problems had to be reconsidered in the light of new evidence.
And it wasn't (and isn't) simple. A manuscript might have poems it attributed to Donne, and might be his work, poems it didn't attribute to Donne, but other copies did, and poems attributed to Donne that were clearly by someone else. Donne seems to have circulated some poems in more than one version, producing conundrums for the unwary editor (and reader). Add seventeenth-century free-style spelling, scribal errors, and scribal "corrections," and one can understand why about a dozen additional "major" critical editions of all or part of the "Donne canon" appeared in the twentieth century.
Of course, except for Grierson, these editions remain under copyright. Including, naturally, the in-progress "Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne" (Indiana University Press 1995 and following). It is projected to run to eight volumes, some of them issued in parts. It was itself inspired by the revelations of yet more manuscript evidence, which once again needed to be systematically assessed. (There is also an associated website, and bibliographic supplements are available on-line.)
This all boils down to just a few points.
One, if the Delphi Classics edition has a poem which reads differently than what you find elsewhere, don't be surprised. (Don't assume that Chambers must have got it wrong, either.)
Two, if you don't understand a poem by Donne (or a lot of them!), it may be due to the editing, or to a lack of essential information you can't be expected to have. Or, you may need to re-read, more slowly, and try out different phrasing of the lines. Then, too, sometimes Donne really is very obscure, or the poem is not up to his highest standards (or even very good). Quite possibly it has come down to us with irremediable defects, acquired in transmission or left by Donne.
(Part of an editor's job is provide that information, and alert readers to actual problems with the text, and problems of interpretation; sometimes, just to say that you are not alone if you don't understand it, or don't like what you do understand.);
Three, Delphi Poets, despite providing an enormous benefit to lovers of English poetry, has unintentionally hobbled them as well.
For those who want fuller information, in popular format, the Penguin English Poets series included A.J. Smith's "John Donne: The Complete English Poems" in 1971, revised 1976. (My attempts to summarize the situation with manuscripts and early printings wound up so much like Smith's summary, when I went back to look at it, that I gave it up as unintended plagiarism!) It is currently available as a Penguin Classic, and in Kindle format; although perhaps not for much longer. An apparent successor volume, "John Donne: Collected Poetry," edited by Christopher Ricks, with an Introduction and notes by Ilona Bell, is at this writing available in Kindle format, and scheduled for paperback release in 2013. Ilona Bell also edited the Penguin Classics "John Donne: Selected Poems" (2006).
Grierson's Oxford University Press edition remained in print for much of the twentieth century, a single-volume small-type version being included in the Oxford Standard Authors series into the 1970s, if not later. Neither format is available new [in print; but see Addendum, below] -- Oxford now offers more recent critical texts -- but the Oxford World's Classics, aimed at students and "the general reader," currently includes "The Major Works: Including Songs and Sonnets and Sermons" (originally 1990, revised 2000), and "Selected Poetry" (originally 1996), both volumes edited and introduced, with notes, by John Carey.
For those interested in Grierson's old-spelling edition in particular -- it is quoted extensively in the secondary literature and later editions, and the notes in volume 2 are packed with information seldom repeated in full elsewhere -- the Library of Congress website (archive.org) provides a copy which can be read on-line or downloaded in pdf. The two-volume 1896 Chambers edition also is available from the Library of Congress site, and the full text (I think) can be found at Great Books Online (Bartleby.com). (Grosart's edition, which may be of interest to students of the nineteenth-century, is also at archive.com; and so is Lowell's).
[Addendum, June 2016: As of mid-March 2016, Oxford University Press has made H. J. C. Grierson's classic edition available in Kindle format, divided into the original two volumes (files). I intend to review this more fully after I have had time to work with it. For the moment, I am sorry to report that the Kindle edition lacks both a search function and hyperlinks (i.e., an interactive tables of contents), with the result that is is much, much harder to use than it should be. There is also some marked carelessness visible on the Amazon product pages: the description appears to be a list of contents, but is actually a list of *other* books by or about Donne from the same publisher.]