Volume 1, Number 3 (December 1995)

John Donne. The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, Vol 6: The Anniversaries and the Epicedes and Obsequies. Gen. Ed. Gary A. Stringer. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. lvii + 689 pp.

Review by,
Claude J. Summers
University of Michigan, Dearborn
Summers, Claude J. "Review of The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne (vol. 6): The Anniversaries and The Epicedes and Obsequies." Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 6.1-10 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/01-3/rev_sum1.html>.
Copyright (c) 1995 by the author, all rights reserved. Volume 1.3 as a whole is copyright (c) 1995 by Early Modern Literary Studies, all rights reserved, and may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Archiving and redistribution for profit, or republication of this text in any medium, requires the consent of the author and the editor of EMLS.
  1. The appearance of the first volume in print of The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne is an occasion for celebration. Among the most ambitious and valuable collaborative scholarly enterprises at the end of the twentieth century, the Donne Variorum is an attempt both to digest the vast and widely dispersed critical commentary on Donne and to produce a reliable critical edition of the poems, one based on an exhaustive survey of all known manuscripts and significant printed editions. Even before the appearance of its first volume (rather confusingly designated as Volume 6 of a projected 8 volumes), the venture, underway since 1981, has generated considerable excitement and a host of valuable essays and books, mostly by its industrious textual editors, Ted-Larry Pebworth, John T. Shawcross, Gary A. Stringer, and Ernest W. Sullivan, II. It is no exaggeration to say that scholars of early modern literature have awaited the publication of the Variorum edition with great anticipation. The high hopes that have greeted the announcement of the project and the periodic reports on its progress are richly rewarded in this book, the first fruits of many years of labor. On the basis of this superb volume, one can safely predict that the Variorum edition will not only be an invaluable compendium of scholarship and criticism on a major early modern poet, but it will also quickly displace every previous edition and establish itself as the authoritative text of the poetry of John Donne.

  2. Volume 6 contains the texts and commentary on Donne's first and second Anniversaries, the Funeral Elegy, and the seven works traditionally designated Epicedes and Obsequies. Each poem is followed by a textual introduction and elaborate but accessible textual histories and lists of variants. In addition, the uncanonical elegy beginning "Death bee not proude, thy hand gaue not this blowe," probably written by Lucy, Countess of Bedford, is included as an appendix, since it is connected artifactually and critically to Donne's elegies on Cecilia Boulstred ("Language thou art too narrow" and "Death I recant"). What links these commemorative poems is their concern with death and with the difficulties of mourning the loss of particular individuals; each poem in the volume is occasioned by the death of someone Donne knew or knew of. Like much of Donne's work, including especially his verse letters, with which they share many affinities, these poems are at once occasional and idealized. Even as they are implicated in the poetics of patronage, they aspire to the timelessness of art; even as they are carefully tailored performances that respond to the particularities of their occasions, they afford the opportunity for philosophical speculation and considered self-figuration.

  3. I regret that the editors chose not to include in this volume the verse letter to Lady Bedford beginning "You that are she and you," which (as I have argued in a recent essay) is closely related to "An Elegie vpon the death of the Ladie Marckham," the two elegies on Cecilia Boulstred, and the elegy by Lady Bedford, all of which are presented here. Presumably the poem beginning "You that are she and you" will be published in Volume 5, devoted to Verse Letters, though in his edition of 1967, John Shawcross departed from other modern editors and placed the poem among the Epicides and Obsequies, where it seems to me that it really belongs. I assume that the commentary in Volume 5 will note the relationship between "You that are she and you" and the Epicedes and Obsequies and direct the reader via cross-references to Volume 6. But my point is that the somewhat arbitrary assignment of poems to particular volumes based on generic and thematic considerations has the potential not only for revealingly linking some works, but also for eliding relationships among others, as is the case with these poems, which together form a dynamic sequence.

  4. While the Epicedes and Obsequies have generally (and, in my view, unfortunately) been neglected or (I would argue, wrongly) dismissed as sterile exercises in the art of flattery, the Anniversaries have, at least since Herbert J.C. Grierson's edition of 1912, enjoyed a central place in Donne's canon, particularly as embodying his extravagant wit and arcane learning, but also as illustrating the considerable interpretive difficulties inherent in the Metaphysical mode itself. In the Variorum, the commentary on the Anniversaries is presented in about 300 pages, while that on the seven Epicedes and Obsequies requires about one third of that. As digested in the Variorum, the commentary on the Anniversaries not only epitomizes the history of Donne's critical reception, but also provides a guide to the shifting critical and scholarly concerns and methodologies applied to early seventeenth-century poetry more generally. The commentary in effect recounts a fascinating history of the various approaches of academic critics to poems that are indisputably ambitious, yet puzzling and often alienating to modern readers. The heroes of this scholarly and critical saga turn out to be, in addition to Grierson, such figures as Marjorie Nicolson, George Williamson, O.B. Hardison, and, especially, Louis Martz and Barbara Lewalski, who have located the Anniversaries within significant intellectual and poetic traditions, while also illuminating their complex structure and accomplished technique.

  5. As presented by Commentary Editor Paul A. Parrish, with the aid of Contributing Editors Donald R. Dickson and Dennis Flynn, the Variorum Commentary, which attempts to annotate everything published on these works between 1612 and 1989, is a model of concision, accessibility, and thoroughness. In terms both of usefulness as a bibliographical tool and of appeal to the scholarly reader, the organization is exemplary. Because of the nature of the material, commentary on the three poems grouped together as the Anniversaries ("The First Anniversary," "A Funerall Elegie," and "The Second Anniversary") is presented under several headings, beginning with "General Commentary," and running through eight large topics such as "Donne, the Drurys, and Patronage," "Genres and Traditions," "Language and Style," and concluding with line-by-line "Notes and Glosses" on each of the three poems individually. The commentary on the Epicedes and Obsequies is similarly organized from the comprehensive to the narrowly specific, beginning with a brief section of general commentary on the Epicedes and Obsequies as a group followed by sections devoted to each of the seven poems, each section beginning with general commentary followed by "Notes and Glosses."

  6. The general sections are written with unusual grace and clarity to form absorbing historical essays, while the notes and glosses are appropriately pointed and pithy. Guided by the editor's controlling voice, the general sections and topic essays efficiently summarize a vast amount of scholarship and criticism, but do so with a readability rare for reference tools. While the material is advanced chronologically and neutrally, with a minimum of editorial interjections, the presentation rarely seems mechanical or tedious. The commentary will be of enormous use to scholars as an elaborately annotated bibliography of immense scope and as a convenient collection of glosses to particular lines and cruxes; but it will also repay readers more generally interested in these poems and in the history of Donne's reputation. The Variorum summary of previous scholarship and criticism is not only itself a formidable accomplishment, but it is also sure to be the cause of further achievements as well. It will facilitate additional scholarship and stimulate new approaches. Moreover, on the basis of this volume, one can enthusiastically concur with the editors' claim that the Variorum will "not only enable a better appreciation of individual works and of Donne's overall poetic achievement, but also provide materials toward an enhanced understanding of the aesthetic and intellectual history of the modern period."

  7. Spot-checking the impressive "Works Cited," I have found no omissions or inaccuracies of detail. In addition, the summaries are, within the limits of space, both faithful and fair. My only complaints about the usefulness of the commentary are minor ones involving bibliographical conventions and location of materials within the volume. The "Works Cited" list, to which the commentary is keyed, is unsurprisingly located at the rear of the volume. But the list of abbreviations used in the commentary and the "Short Forms of Reference for Donne's Works" are located at the front of the volume. And because some of the short forms are far from obvious and because the commentary refers to critics only by their last names (even when there are several critics with the same last names), the reader must frequently refer both to the back of the book and to the front of it, while keeping his or her place in the middle, a procedure hardly conducive to the kind of concentration demanded by the general essays. Such complaints are minor indeed, for the book strives toward a high degree of user-friendliness. It provides, for example, frequent cross-references and a helpful index to the authors cited in the commentary. A more general index to other Donne poems discussed in the volume would also be useful, as would indexes to historical figures and subjects discussed in the commentary.

  8. The Variorum commentary makes a significant contribution to the study of early modern literature, yet the Variorum text is likely to make an even more lasting one. What is revolutionary about the Variorum text is that it recognizes that Donne was preeminently a manuscript poet rather than a print poet, and it therefore privileges the manuscript tradition. With the exception of the Anniversaries and the elegy on Prince Henry, which are among the handful of poems that Donne published during his lifetime, the other poems included in Volume 6 initially circulated in manuscript, like the vast bulk of Donne's poetry. Breaking with an editorial tradition that has generally looked to the problematic posthumously published 1633 and 1635 editions of Donne's poems for copy-texts, the Variorum edition generally chooses manuscript copy-texts on the grounds that they are closer to the lost originals than the first printings. And whereas previous editors have created synthetic or eclectic texts, adopting either 1633 or 1635 as copy-text and generally following the printed version's accidentals, while emending its substantives from manuscript sources, the Variorum edition eschews eclecticism. The practice of the Variorum textual editors is to collate electronically every surviving seventeenth-century manuscript and printed copy of each poem, and on the basis of that collation to construct for each poem a schema of textual relationships that accounts for the permutations of the texts. The copy-text that is finally chosen "is what seems to be the earliest, least-corrupted state of the text as preserved in the best witness among the artifacts in which it appears." Emendations of the copy-text are then made very conservatively, primarily to expand scribal abbreviations and brevigraphs and to impose certain print conventions.

  9. In addition to its revolutionary recognition of Donne's practice of scribal publication, the Variorum edition also advances our understanding of Donne's poems by providing an amazing wealth of textual information. The textual apparatuses following each poem are impressive simply by virtue of their comprehensiveness, including as they do textual introductions, information on the copy-text, lists of the sources collated, emendations of the copy-text, historical collations that report all substantive and possibly substantive variants in all seventeenth-century sources, lists of verbal variants in selected modern editions, schemata of textual relationships, and analyses of early printed copies that list press variants, ambiguous hyphenations, and miscatchings. While at first glance, this information may seem overwhelming and intimidating to casual readers, these introductions and apparatuses are actually quite comprehensible. Even critics and students not primarily interested in textual matters will find these apparatuses valuable, for they permit the reconstruction of both authorial and non-authorial versions of each poem and facilitate the recovery of the works in their scribal recensions. The Variorum texts and apparatuses are certain to have a major impact on textual theory and practice, especially as applied to coterie poetry of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

  10. Volume 6 of The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne is in itself a significant contribution to early modern literary studies. But as the first volume of an ambitious project, it has a further importance as herald of the major achievement that the completed edition promises. Indiana University Press deserves commendation for producing so complex a book so handsomely. At this time of outrageous prices for slim scholarly books, it is especially gratifying that support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and several universities have made it possible for the Press to market this large book at a price under $50.00. This volume belongs in every academic library and in the personal library of every scholar seriously interested in the works of John Donne.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at EMLS@arts.ubc.ca.

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[JW, RGS; December 28, 1995.]