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Shami, Jeanne, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester, eds., The Oxford Handbook of John Donne.
by Raymond-Jean Frontain

Shami, Jeanne, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester, eds. The Oxford Handbook of John Donne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. xxxv + 845 pp. ISBN 978-0199218608. $150.00 cloth.


At a symposium on the state of academic publishing held a decade ago at Harvard University, the director of a major university press explained the emerging trend in literary companions, single-volume encyclopedias and other scholarly compendia on a single author, genre, or period at the expense of the traditional literary studies monograph: “that’s where the money is.” Not surprisingly, then, in the last two decades Milton studies (to cite just one example) has produced The Cambridge Companion to John Milton (1989, second ed. 1999), A Companion to Milton (Blackwell, 2001), The Oxford Handbook of Milton (2009) and Milton in Context (Cambridge, 2010). I have purchased, read, and made profitable use in the classroom of each of these substantial guides, and mean no disrespect to the combined editors and contributors when I observe that—apart, to an extent, from the last mentioned—there is a sameness to them, especially inasmuch as many of the same stellar contributors provide for one volume a compressed argument of their book on one portion of Milton’s canon, and for a second the substance of their influential article on another. Publishers seem to be competing to rearrange the same largely finite number of pieces on the board in the hope of creating the appearance of a unique and indispensable effort.

The sameness of parallel efforts concerning other major early modern authors highlights by contrast two features of The Oxford Handbook of John Donne: first, the extraordinary influence that the thirty-plus years-in-progress Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne (Indiana University Press) has exercised on recent generations of scholars engaged in study of the poet-preacher, and, second, the strikingly original conceptual organization that editors Shami, Flynn, and Hester have invented for the volume. Regarding the first, because Donne disseminated through print only a small percentage of his poems while, as contributor Lara Crowley notes, thriving as “the most popular English manuscript poet of his time” (35), the acts of establishing his canon and editing his texts have presented a radically different set of challenges than those faced by scholars who concentrate on Spenser, Milton or, even, Shakespeare. Much of the scholarship assembled in Parts I, II and IV of the Handbook grows directly from the efforts of the various Variorum teams or indirectly from the extraordinarily fertile opportunities for discussion provided by the John Donne Society, which was founded—and its annual conference designed—to support Variorum efforts. Additionally, scholarly advances emerging from the projected Oxford University Press edition of Donne’s prose letters, and the projected twelve-volume OUP edition of his sermons, inform a number of the essays on the political contexts of Donne’s coterie writings and the circumstances of his preaching that appear in Part III.

As regards the second feature, however, it is impossible to over-praise the ingenuity of Shami, Flynn, and Hester’s organizational plan. The eight essays in Part I address such topics as the composition and dissemination of his texts, the nature of his contemporary readership, and the history of editions of his poetry and prose, while the nineteen essays in Part II anatomize Donne’s canon genre by genre with particular attention paid to his subversion of generic expectations.  The twenty-two essays in Part III provide “Biographical and Historical Contexts” for the study of Donne, with an essay by a historian on a specific historical issue (for example, Paul E. J. Hammer’s “The Earl of Essex and English Expeditionary Forces”) helpfully paired with one by a literary scholar on how Donne functioned or wrote within such a context (Albert C. Labriola’s “Donne’s Military Career”). And in Part IV, scholars address seven issues that have permeated recent discussion of Donne (for example, “Donne’s Absolutism”). The end result is, mirabile dictu, as deft and accessible a compendium of the best of current scholarly thinking about Donne as one could hope to find assembled between two covers. It proves as extraordinary a record of Donne scholarship at what is possibly the peak of its most vital era as The Spenser Encyclopedia provided two decades ago for Spenser studies.

The essays in Part I address the challenges faced when establishing the text of a writer whose entire canon is marked by his fascination with the dynamic of oral publication, yet who circulated his poems largely in manuscript, and who—in a text like Devotions upon Emergent Occasions—could exploit as effectively as Spenser did in The Shepheards Calender or Jonson in the prologues and epilogues to his plays the opportunities for self-fashioning afforded by the medium of print. Of particular note are two magisterial essays by Gary Stringer which offer, first, an analysis of how Donne’s poems circulated and shifted shape in manuscript, and, second, a trenchant survey of editorial practice from John Marriot’s Poems (1633) to the Variorum, of which four of the projected ten volumes have thus far appeared. Additionally, the always provocative and occasionally blunt-spoken Ernest W. Sullivan II supplies for this section one essay identifying Donne’s contemporary readers (who proved, Sullivan demonstrates, more numerous than traditionally assumed), and another analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of twentieth-century scholarly editions of Donne’s prose works. Unfortunately, what is missing from this section is a systematic analysis of the essential orality of Donne’s writing—that is, the spoken, dramatic immediacy of his poems as well as the significance of his decision to spend the last stage of his career in the pulpit delivering sermons orally to his audience(s)—which would complement the essays analyzing the manuscript and print dissemination of Donne’s texts.

Donne has proven one of the most brilliantly innovative poets of the English language and, appropriately, each of the essays in Part II surveys the history of a literary genre that Donne inherited in order to analyze the ways in which he negated cultural tradition and/or subverted civil authority. I suspect that the essays in this section will prove the most useful for classroom teachers of Donne’s writing, not simply because they deal most closely with the interpretation of texts, but because so many of the pieces in this section prove to be tours de force. There is an irony to the fact that M. Thomas Hester’s essay on “The Epigram” should concern Donne’s most curt poetic form yet prove the second longest essay in the volume. But richly so, for Hester not only relates Donne’s epigrams to those of his forebears, Sir Thomas More and John Heywood (thereby anticipating some of the conclusions about Donne’s education reached in an essay by Dennis Flynn later in the volume), but demonstrates the epigram’s compression and wit to be essential qualities of Donne’s mind. Likewise, in the essay on “The Elegy,” R. V. Young concentrates on the features of the Latin love elegy that Donne’s own poems routinely ignore.  (Incidentally, Young’s essay proves to be the Handbook’s most persuasive demonstration of Donne’s originality.)  In a second essay, Young analyzes Donne’s turning inside-out, in the four Westmoreland sonnets, conceits common to the Petrarchan love sonnet; in the process Young offers beautifully modulated readings of these poems.

Even at the risk of slighting so many other fine essays in this section, I feel obliged to single out three more. Assessing Donne’s function as a Menippean satirist in “The Courtiers Library,” “Upon Mr. Coryates Crudities,” and Ignatius, His Conclave, Anne Lake Prescott produces as bumptious a piece of academic writing as one might hope to read, and takes her readers on as mad a dash across the most spirited portion of Donne’s canon as Tristram Shandy made across Europe in his effort to outrun Death. Conversely, Dayton Haskin’s essay on “The Love Lyric” offers a sensitive overview of the genre, followed by a finely tuned analysis of Donne’s understanding of the possibilities offered by the form and of the ways in which he stretched the boundaries of the lyric. Haskin is particularly shrewd when demonstrating the ways in which Donne invites the reader to participate in a poem. And in a 30-page essay on “The Sermon” —the longest by far in the volume—Jeanne Shami situates that genre within Reformation theology, analyzes Donne’s place within the tradition of  “Christian eloquence” defined by Augustine and Erasmus, and then considers individual Donne sermons as expressions of his culture’s anxieties.  Shami builds upon her earlier analysis of the hand-written revisions that Donne made to his Gunpowder Plot sermon to demonstrate his awareness of the differences between the immediate audience for his preached text and that of the same text transcribed for print.

The only disappointing essay in Part II is Michael W. Price’s on “The Paradox,” which apparently the author had drafted before his death but did not live to complete. Rather than flesh it out themselves, the editors chose to supplement his rudimentary statement with Ernest W. Sullivan II’s mini-essay on the paradoxical dynamic of Biathanatos. A second, far more substantial essay by Price that appears later in the volume suggests what he might have accomplished had he completed his essay on “The Paradox” which, like Hester’s essay on “The Epigram,” could have proven a lynchpin for the Handbook by demonstrating the ways in which engagement with paradox is the central feature of Donne’s imagination.

Because Donne proves as vivid a personality as Shakespeare and other period writers prove largely opaque ones; because he is the first English writer for whom exist multiple period portraits depicting him from early manhood to death; because Devotions offers a highly idiosyncratic take on the Augustinian model of spiritual autobiography; and because Izaak Walton’s Life of Donne proved the first great literary biography of the English language, Donne has proven to be as pivotal a figure in the history of life-writing as he is in our understanding of the history of the book. The essays commissioned for Part III provide in miniature both a social history of early seventeenth century England and what is generally a remarkably thorough biography of Donne. In one way, the essays in Part III supplant existing full-length biographies of Donne, for they draw upon the most current—oftentimes cutting edge—scholarship, in particular Dennis Flynn’s continuing research into Donne’s Catholic contexts.

More so than the essays in any other section, those in Part III reveal a great deal about the current state of Donne studies. For example, Donne’s patron Sir Robert Drury—whose relation with the poet merited a monograph-length study by biographer R. C. Bald only two generations ago—is barely mentioned, whereas Donne’s relations with Robert Carr and James Hay are scrutinized in terms of Donne’s negotiations of political and ecclesiastical power. Simply put, although Donne’s relationship with the Drurys resulted in his two most ambitious poems, the First and  Second Anniversarie, it does not support current scholarly interest in Donne’s discourse of danger, secrecy, and evasion.  Similarly, I was interested to note that while the names of biographers Izaak Walton, Edmund Gosse, R. C. Bald, and John Carey recur with notable frequency, John Stubbs’s John Donne: The Reformed Soul—which appeared in 2006 as the essays were being assigned, and was being hotly debated in subsequent years as the essays were being written—is all but ignored, suggesting that it has failed to gain even a toe-hold in Donne studies, despite having won a distinguished award in the United Kingdom.

As I was reading the essays in Part III, I considered how I might use them in a graduate seminar on Donne and realized that as the essays are organized students would have difficulty making the leap from Dennis Flynn’s four biographical essays on Donne’s Roman Catholic family, upbringing, and intellectual contexts to Anthony Milton’s analysis of the “avant-garde conformists” of early Jacobean rule and Pseudo-Martyr’s “appeals to Roman Catholics misled by the abhorrent and subversive doctrines of Rome” (494). This gap is filled in part by Achsah Guibbory’s essay on the issue of “Donne’s Apostasy” in Part IV (more on this essay below), but a student reading the essays in Part III is liable to reach Milton and wonder what he/she missed.  Flynn acknowledges that while the adult Donne was “unsparing in his condemnation of Trent, the Jesuits, and papal claims of temporal jurisdiction… , [he] nevertheless remained to some extent a member of the religion he was born into” (522). Yet just a few chapters later Emma Rhatigan associates Donne with Lord Egerton’s support of “Calvinist conformist clergy” (577).  Clearly a pair of essays is needed in Part III summarizing the religious ambiguities or, even, the confusion of the period and the still opaque character of Donne’s own evolution.

The essays in Part IV appear under the cumbersome title “Problems of Literary Interpretation That Have Been Traditionally and Generally Important in Donne Studies.”  It’s difficult to imagine how this section would not stumble under the weight of such a designation, which invites readers to make their own list of the “problems” that might be addressed even before they begin focusing on those selected by the editors. One thinks of hotly debated issues that have engaged the attention of generations of Donne scholars that are omitted from this section and, for that matter, are generally slighted by the entire Handbook, such as Donne’s intellectual engagement with alchemy and numerology; the biographical evidence of the poems versus Donne’s use of persona; or the influence on Donne of identifiably Catholic or Protestant meditation practices. (Indeed, one cannot infer from the Handbook that two of the books that have dominated Donne studies for much of the past sixty years are Louis Martz’s The Poetry of Meditation and Barbara K. Lewalski’s Protestant Poetics and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric.)  Conversely, one thinks of important emerging issues that the Handbook slights as well, such as the growing application of Speech Act Theory and performance study to Donne’s poetry and prose[1], or George Klawitter’s provocative reading in Engimatic Narrator (1994) of the homoerotic nature of Donne’s early verse epistles, largely ignored for the first ten years following its publication but now proving the starting point for a number of recent pieces of criticism.

This said, it is important to note that Part IV includes three of the most valuable essays in the volume: Achsah Guibbory’s “Donne and Apostasy,” Judith Scherer Herz’s “‘By parting have joyned here’: The Story of the Two (or More) Donnes,” and Lynne Magnusson’s “Danger and Discourse.”  After reviewing the various arguments concerning Donne’s “conversion” and the counter-arguments charging him with “apostasy,” Guibbory considers Donne’s preoccupation throughout his canon with faithfulness, truth, and change.  She wisely concludes that Donne’s poetry, “whether erotic or devotional,” displays

an attraction to flexibility, an emphasis on seeking, on process, and a corresponding suspicion of rigidity and divisive dogma—all of which might be seen as variations on ideas expressed in his Sermons and Letters. Donne’s own writing, that is, calls into question the rigid assumptions that might lie behind such terms as ‘apostate’ or even ‘convert’.  (677)

Similarly, Herz addresses the implications of Donne’s own distinction between “Jack Donne” and “Dr. Donne,” concluding that “Donne’s habit of thought involved a stepping out of the self the more fully to step back in”—a process that “often involved a splitting, fictional as well as real, of that self” (740). And Magnusson considers the ways in which the dangers that the younger Donne experienced as a Roman Catholic supplied him with the “strategies for covert and indirect communication” (751) that characterize his writing. Guibbory, Herz and Magnusson form a triptych of invaluable essays that I would use as the starting point in a graduate seminar on Donne.

In assessing the overall volume, I would note some general problems. First, although the essays are cleanly edited, some small discrepancies remain. For example, was Sir Thomas More Donne’s “grand-uncle” (153) or his “great-grand-uncle” (107)? And what is “the carnal/erotic binary” (739) represented by Donne’s identifying Biathanatos as a “Book written by Jack Donne, and not by D. Donne”?  (Might the author mean “the carnal/spiritual binary”?)

More problematic is the distracting use of abbreviated lyric titles. The reader is forced repeatedly to consult the “List of Short Forms” among the volume’s prefatory materials to understand which poem is being referred to. (For example, ED signifies “To E. of D. with Six Holy Sonnets” while BoulNar is “Elegy upon the Death of Mrs. Boulstrode [‘Language thou art too narrow’].” )  Printing titles in full would undoubtedly have added several pages to an already massive volume, but the necessary space could easily have been secured by compressing three essays in Part I.  After an excellent introduction summarizing the importance of archival material in the study of Donne, Lara Crowley’s essay on “Archival Research” offers a general guide to the use of manuscript collections that is more appropriate for a Handbook of Literary Research than the Handbook of John Donne.  Similarly, while I appreciate Donald R. Dickson’s comments on specific “Research Tools and Their Pitfalls for Donne Studies,” some of his essay’s bibliographical information is rendered redundant by the Handbook’s Bibliography.  And Hugh Adlington’s essay on “Collaboration and the International Scholarly Community” has a booster-like Chamber of Commerce quality to it:  while I value greatly the collegiality of the Donne Studies community, I question whether a major reference work should be used to celebrate it.

Finally, there is the volume’s annoying capitalization of any word or noun phrase that might serve to indicate a literary genre, even when it refers to a single instance.  Consider the following sentence: “In a Letter delivering a copy of his Paradoxes to a friend, he requires his addressee’s assurance that he will not copy or circulate the Paradoxes, or the Elegies and Satires” (743-44).   Clearly, the capitalization of “Paradoxes,” “Elegies,” and “Satires” is necessary to indicate that one is writing of all of Donne’s poems in those groups.  But “a Letter”?  Or, elsewhere, “Donne’s five extant Letters to Carr” (530)?  Such instances, too numerous to log, most likely represent a house style applied by a copy editor more concerned with the letter, than the spirit, of the law.

The task of “girding” Donne’s “Giant phansie” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Carew’s elegy) is a challenge impossible to meet. No other Renaissance writer explored, mastered and transformed as many genres as he, making him something of a poetic chameleon. What is more, pertinent archival material continues to be discovered:  hundreds of contemporary manuscript versions of his poems, not known to either Grierson or Gardner, have been identified by the Variorum editors, just as the Conway family papers being mined by Daniel Starza-Smith assist us in reevaluating Donne’s relationship with Sir Henry Goodere.[2] Most maddening, although he is tantalizingly present to us through one of the most recognizable poetic voices in literary history and through an unparalleled series of period portraits, Donne fades like the Cheshire Cat when one attempts to secure a firm grasp on his religion, his politics, his relationship with Anne More, or several other important topics.  When commenting on their own inability to nail Donne to the board, critics are regularly reduced to adapting the challenge that the speaker of “Hymn to God the Father” offers to his Creator: when we have done, we have not Donne, for he invariably has more. But, despite the reservations expressed above, I’m delighted by how firm a purchase of Donne this Handbook allows. Henry King praised Donne as a poet whose “excesses finde no Epitaph,” but that is just what the editors of this volume have succeeded in providing.

Raymond-Jean Frontain
University of Central Arkansas

[1] See the review in this issue of Margaret Fetzer, John Donne’s Performances: Sermons, Poems, Letters, and Devotions.

[2] The recovered Burley MS also contains letters and verse by Donne. A lengthy and detailed study of the MS and substantial transcriptions of the English matter by Peter Redford is forthcoming (2014) at Manchester University Press as part of The Manchester Spenser monograph series. [Editors]


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Cite as:

Raymond-Jean Frontain, "Shami, Jeanne, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester, eds., The Oxford Handbook of John Donne.," Spenser Review 43.3.66 (Winter 2014). Accessed April 22nd, 2018.
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