John Donne. Pseudo-Martyr. Ed. Anthony Raspa. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1993. 430 pp.
Dennis Flynn. John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1995. 181 pp. + appendix.
Elizabeth Hodgson
University of British Columbia

Hodgson, Elizabeth. "Review of John Donne. Pseudo-Martyr and John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 10.1-7 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_hod1.html>.

  1. Scholars of early modern English literature have been busily working on the corpus of John Donne recently; not only is the multi-volumeVariorum edition of his poetry in preparation, but we also have a new edition of his prose work Pseudo-Martyr edited by Anthony Raspa and a new biographical study by Dennis Flynn.

  2. The 1610 Pseudo-Martyr, Donne's first published text, attempts to persuade English Catholics that they can take James I's Oath of Allegiance and still remain spiritually loyal to Rome. Raspa's is the first modern edition of the text, and for this all Donne scholars and students of the religious politics of Stuart England should be profoundly grateful. Given the length and complexity of its imposing argument, such a beautifully presented, readable text is a significant contribution to Donne scholarship. Raspa has also provided notes and a bibliography which help to catalogue the bewildering library of doctrinal and theological documents to which Donne's cryptic marginal notes allude. In his introduction Raspa aids the reader further by explaining that Donne's allusions really only stem from three main bodies of work: the sixteenth-century documents which argue that new Protestant "saints" are either genuine or only "pseudo" martyrs; sources for three historical precursors of England's division between church and secular power; and works on canon law vis-à-vis the Oath of Allegiance itself. In setting out these issues for us Raspa makes the intellectual context of Donne's argument much more accessible. Raspa's extensive introduction, which discusses the occasion of the tract, the meaning of the text, and the parameters of his textual editing, also helps to describe the many complex strategies and positions of Donne's work.

  3. Raspa's edition, as welcome as it is, could have been more useful still. Raspa chooses to use not one but two copy-texts, and it is not clear from the textual introduction why he makes such a decision. Some of the emendations also seem rather arbitrary; why silently correct the punctuation of a single sentence of Donne's? It would also help if Raspa could more convincingly "sell" Pseudo-Martyr in the introduction; his rather careful prose doesn't quite convey his own fascination with this work. Pseudo-Martyr clearly does have tremendous value in illuminating Donne's role as a published author and polemicist, his patronage-relationships with James I and the court, Donne's own (and his culture's) preoccupations with martyrdom and self-canonization, and Donne's spiritual affiliations amidst the tensions between the Roman church and the English state, but Raspa could have done more to make this clear.

  4. Nobody can fault Raspa for a lack of scholarly labour, however, and the same is true of Dennis Flynn's work, John Donne and the Ancient Catholic Nobility. In the first of what Flynn plans to be a five-volume collaborative biography of Donne, Flynn argues that the standard biographies have systematically underestimated Donne's connections to the powerful Catholic elites of England and their traditions of dissent, martyrdom and exile. He begins with the earliest of Donne's portraits and points out its emphasis on honour, nobility and militant courage rather than the foppish amoral ambition with which Walton and Bald credit the young John Donne. Starting from this reconstructed image of Donne's youth, Flynn traces the Catholic heritage of Donne's extended family in Part One, beginning with Thomas More and descending through the Heywoods (Ellis and Jasper) and Donne's own immediate family. Part Two tracks the interrelationships of Donne's family, the Jesuit missions in England during Donne's childhood and youth, and the great Catholic earls (especially Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and Henry Stanley, Earl of Derby).

  5. The strengths of Flynn's arguments are many. He contributes several new insights and findings, including a convincing case for Donne spending his teenage years not at Oxford but in Europe in religious exile/education among the other Catholic exiles of his family. He points out the fundamental contradiction of Bald's description of a poor outsider who mysteriously becomes a close affiliate of Egerton, emphasizing the very real power-alliances of the Donne/Heywood families. He helps to explain, much more convincingly than Carey, how and why the issues of exile and martyrdom are clearly so central to Donne throughout his life. He also provides complex contextual readings of the Latin Epigrams, both in Chapter Eight and in a special appendix. Flynn writes with eloquence, humour, and controlled passion, and his narrative of the dynamic Catholic gentry in Elizabethan England is convincing.

  6. Flynn's text does raise some difficulties, partly because of its hybrid purpose and narrow audience. As a biography of Donne this text would frustrate newcomers, for it contains in fact very little direct discussion of Donne himself beyond the clearly significant new findings about Donne's adolescence. If, as seems clear, Flynn's primary goal is rather to re-educate Donne critics raised on Bald and Walton, he is asking them to wait quite a while before they see how his discussions will illuminate their understanding of Donne himself. And, since the text stops short of explaining how Donne managed to shift away from the powerful influences of this Catholic community, his readers are left with a central question unanswered. It would help if Flynn was clearer that this work is only the first in several volumes and is not meant to stand on its own.

  7. One is also curious about Flynn's stake in this argument. His goal seems to be to correct Bald and Walton's Protestant bias, and in this he admirably succeeds. He also seems keen, however, to show the nobility of Donne's Catholicism, and this is an ancient and problematic argument. Flynn clearly finds it more attractive to think of Donne as a youthful warrior than as a desperate social climber, even while he implicitly acknowledges that these two identities may be more apposite than opposite. One hopes that in the next volumes Flynn will keep adding to the complexity of his vision until this binarism collapses.

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

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 19, 1996)