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

§ 3. The History of his Poems

Reference is made elsewhere to Donne as a preacher. Here, we are concerned with him as poet and prose artist. The history of his poems is involved in the difficulties and obscurities of his biography. Only three were published in his life time, The Anatomy of the World (1611, 1612); the satirical lines Upon Mr. Thomas Coryat’s Crudities (1611); and the Elegie on Prince Henry (1613). In 1614, when about to cross the Rubicon, Donne thought of hurriedly collecting and publishing his poems before the doing so could be deemed an actual scandal to his office. He had, apparently, no autograph copies, at least of many of them, but was driven to apply to his friends, and especially to Sir Henry Goodere, the Warwickshire friend to whom the larger number of his letters are addressed. “This made me ask to borrow that old book of you.” The edition in question never appeared, but when, in 1633, the first collection was issued posthumously, the source was very probably this same “old book” (though Goodere had died before Donne), for, along with the poems, were printed eight letters addressed to Goodere and one to the common friend of Goodere and Donne, the countess of Bedford. In this edition, the poems were arranged in a rather chaotic sequence of groups. The volume opened with The Progresse of the Soule and closed with the paraphrased Lamentations of Jeremy and the Satyres, the latter edited with a good many cautious dashes. There are obvious errors in the printing, but the text of such poems as this edition contains is more correct than in any subsequent one. In 1635, a second edition was issued, in which many fresh poems were added, and the grouping of the poems was carried out more systematically, the arrangement being adopted which has been generally adhered to since, and is useful for reference—Songs and Sonets, Epigrams, Elegies, Epithalamiums, Satyres, Letters to Severall Personages, Funerall Elegies, The Progresse of the Soule, Divine Poems. The editions which followed that of 1635 added individual poems from various sources, sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly; and made alterations from time to time in the text, conjecturally, or with the help of MS. copies, which are sometimes emendations, more often further corruptions. Modern editors have followed in their wake, printing more carefully, correcting many errors, but creating not a few fresh ones. The canon of Donne’s poems is far from being settled. Modern editions contain poems which are demonstrably not his, while there are genuine poems still unpublished. The text of many of his finest poems is disfigured by errors and misprints.

The order of the groups in the edition of 1635 corresponds, roughly, to the order of composition. Donne’s earliest works were love songs or sonnets (using the word in the wider, freer sense of the Elizabethans) and elegies (after the manner of the Latin poets), through many of which runs a vein of pungent and personal satire, and regular verse satires. Of these last the editions since 1669 contain seven. We have, however, the explicit testimony of Sir William Drummond that Donne wrote only five. It is clear, from MSS. such as Harleian 5110 and others which have survived in whole or in part, that the first five, or some of them, were copied and circulated by themselves. These alone were included in the edition of 1633. The so-called sixth, which was added in 1635, if it be Donne’s, is much more in the manner of the satirical elegies than of the regular satires; while the seventh, addressed To Sir Nicholas Smith, which was first inserted in the edition of 1669, an edition the text of which abounds in conjectural emendations, differs radically in style and tone from all the others, and there can be little doubt that it is the work of Sir John Roe, to whom it is assigned in more than one MS.