John Donne. The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, Volume 8: The Epigrams, Epithalamions, Epitaphs, Inscriptions, and Miscellaneous Poems. Gary A. Stringer, General Editor. Ted-Larry Pebworth, Gary A. Stringer, and Ernest W. Sullivan, II, Text Editors. William A. McClung, Volume Commentary. Jeffrey Johnson, Contributing Editor. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996. 576 pp. $39.95 cloth. ISBN 0 253 31812 2.
Elizabeth Hodgson
University of British Columbia

Hodgson, Elizabeth. "Review of The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, Volume 8: The Epigrams, Epithalamions, Epitaphs, Inscriptions, and Miscellaneous Poems." Early Modern Literary Studies 3.3 (January, 1998): 18.1-6 <URL:

  1. John Donne, who seemed to have been killed off by the loving ministrations of T.S. Eliot and the New Critics, has been in recent years resurrected as an object of serious critical inquiry. Annabel Patterson, Katharine Eisaman Maus, Richard Rambuss, Janel Mueller, Stanley Fish, Jonathan Goldberg and dozens of other "newer critics" have examined Donne's works through feminist, queer-theory, materialist and deconstructive filters, and Donne's political involvements in the Jacobean state have been reinvestigated in biographical works and editions of his polemical prose. Such progress has been somewhat hampered by the often-outdated editions of the texts, though, and this is a problem which the Donne Variorum editors are addressing here.

  2. In publishing this volume of Epigrams, Epithalamions, Epitaphs, Inscriptions, and Miscellaneous Poems second, the editors of the Donne Variorum project cast new light on two important sets of texts: the epithalamions and the epigrams. The epithalamia, because they are so clearly political in motivation while also focused on the erotic relationships which are Donne's forte, have become increasingly interesting to materialist and feminist scholars. The epigrams have likewise received renewed attention because of their political content (this is true of Donne's satires as well). Though this edition does have its flaws, its illumination of these minor but theoretically intriguing works through meticulous scholarship and innovative editing makes it a tantalizing introduction to the project.

  3. Producing a variorum edition in these post-liberal-humanist days is, of course, a project fraught with ambiguity, and the editors frankly admit that theirs is inherently a conservative task. The variorum commentary is as lucid and instructive as it is possible to be, however, and it is certainly instructive to see (for instance) how earlier scholars saw the Lincoln's Inn epithalamium as "graceful" and "sublime"! The editors' helpful general summaries and inclusion of some deconstructionist, Marxist, feminist and queer-theory readings does make for a richer understanding of the texts. The summaries are arranged chronologically, which doesn't make for a very coherent survey of scholarly opinion, though the editors do try to show connections between various central arguments. They also make some effort to contextualize critical work (identifying an argument as occurring in a chapter on Stuart epithalamia, for instance), though there are a few points where a little more elucidation would be helpful. Making clear in the commentary that Heather Dubrow and Heather Ousby are the same author, for instance, would aid readers.

  4. But despite the Variorum title, it is in fact the texts themselves which are the central strength of this project. The editors themselves clearly feel this; in conversation and in promotional literature they focus on the newly edited poems as their central achievement. Donne scholars would, I think, have to agree, for this edition is based on a large collection of new manuscript material and an enormous amount of careful textual scholarship. New poems, new versions of poems, and new source-texts for poems abound. The editors have also shown their willingness to abandon the old copy-text model, and they provide us in a few instances with separate texts for different but equally authoritative versions of poems. This is most illuminating in the case of the epigrams and epithalamia, where the editors allow us to see Donne's revising hand at work.

  5. My only complaint about the edition is that it could go further still in its innovations. The epigrams' variant versions appear in toto, but we only get a sample of the variations in the epithalamia. If the editors find the variations significant, it would seem only fair to give the readers the opportunity to see the entire texts of the variant epithalamia as well. The Variorum editors have also been content to follow traditional groupings of the Donne canon, which makes this volume a peculiar grab-bag of major poems like the epithalamia alongside epigrams, inscriptions, and that helpful category "miscellaneous." The editors argue that the series is roughly chronological, but this final volume includes texts written over a span of at least forty years. It would be helpful to have a more convincing organizational narrative to allay our suspicion that this is the volume of poems beginning with "e."

  6. Finally, a suggestion: the textual apparatus in the volume is admirably lucid, thorough, and ample. It might be helpful, though, to have the texts presented in a more consolidated pattern, with the extensive textual apparatuses preceding the commentaries. Another alternative might be to produce a "texts only" edition later for the benefit of students and scholars at large, so that the fruits of this monumental labour can be available to the wider world long after the variorum commentaries have gone out of date. This edition does John Donne a great service, and all the admirers of his verse should have the chance to profit from it.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1998-, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).

(LH, RGS, 31 January 1998)