The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XI. John Donne

§ 14. Letters

Donne’s letters to his friends and patrons were as much admired in and after his life-time as everything else he wrote. A few of them were issued in the first editions of the poems; a larger collection, carlessly edited and in no order, was published by his son in 1651; the interesting letters written to Sir George More and Sir Thomas Egerton were first published in Kempe’s Losely Manuscripts; the Burley MS. contains one or two of an earlier date. Thus, they cover, though much more lightly at some parts than at others, the whole of his life from the Cadiz expedition to the year of his death. Like his poems, they paint the brilliant and insolent young man; the erudite and witty, but troubled and melancholy, suitor for court favour and office; the ascetic and fervent saint and preacher. And this is their chief interest. For some time, Donne held the position, almost, of the English épistolier, collections of the “choicest conceits” being made, in commonplace books, from his letters as well as his poems. But they were not well fitted to teach, like Balzac’s, the beauty of a balanced and orderly prose, though they far surpass the latter in wit, wisdom and erudition. Their chief interest is the man whom they reveal, the characteristically renascence “melancholy temperament,” now deep in despondence and meditating on the problem of suicide, now, in his own words, kindling squibs about himself and flying into sportfulness; elaborating erudite compliments, or talking to Goodere with the utmost simplicity and good feeling; wordly and time-serving, noble and devout—all these things, and all with equal sincerity.