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Literary manuscripts 2010: Donne’s sermons and politics

by on October 28, 2010

At the second Literary Manuscripts Masterclass of 2010 on 25 October, Emma Rhatigan (University of Sheffield), Sebastiaan Verweij (Hardie Postdoctoral Fellow, Lincoln College), and Peter McCullough (University of Oxford, General Editor of the Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne ) presented manuscripts of John Donne’s sermons from Bodleian collections. Dr. McCullough, in his capacity as general editor of the sermons, introduced the class with an overview of the issues surrounding these manuscripts, discussing ways in which sermons were transmitted and identifying the principal manuscript sources for Donne’s, three of which, the Merton, Dowden, and Ashmole manuscripts, are held in the Bodleian. The editing and collation of sermons is still in its infancy, he observed, and much remains to be done. He pointed to the work of Jeanne Shami, who had discovered three new manuscripts in the British Library (Royal MS 17 B.xx, Harley 6946, and Harley 6356) containing a total of seven Donne sermons. He also speculated on the survival in manuscript of sermons dating from 1620 to 1622 but no later and suggested that Donne’s promotion to St. Paul’s and the promulgation of James I’s ‘directions for preachers’, both in 1622, may have played a role in reducing manuscript circulation.

Following Dr. McCullough’s introduction, Drs. Verweij and Rhatigan talked the audience through the items at hand. Those examined were the ‘Dowden’ manuscript (Bodleian Library MS. Eng. Th. e. 102, Summary Catalogue 46602), which includes 8 sermons by Donne, as well as other material, the ‘Merton’ manuscript (Bodleian Library MS. Eng. Th. c. 71, Summary Catalogue 46601), including 16 sermons by Donne, as well as other material, and MS. Ashmole 781, a commonplace book of over 100 items, with one Donne sermon. This last is in an advanced state of decay, due to acidic ink, and is now disbound for preservation purposes. The first item in the Ashmole manuscript, discussed by Dr. Verweij, is Donne’s sermon on the text, ‘Remember now thy Creator in the dayes of thy youth’ (Ecclesiastes 12.1; pp. 1-19). None of the three manuscripts are in Donne’s own hand but are copies made for other interested parties.

In the first lecture in this series Professor Henry Woudhuysen cited the field-defining work of Peter Beal, author of the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts. Dr. Beal’s contribution to Early Modern manuscript studies was confirmed in Dr. Rhatigan’s discussion of the ‘Merton’ manuscript. The distinctive gold-tooled lozenge on its front board, incorporating the initials ‘H.F.’, has been identified by Beal as the mark of one Henry Field, a still mysterious individual, perhaps a relative of Theophilus Field, Bishop of Hereford. Dr. Rhatigan’s own work emphasized the importance of such identifications in studying the creation and use of the ‘Merton’ manuscript and discussed the interrelationships of its contents within the context of Jacobean theological politics.

Donne’s work circulated extensively in manuscripts copied by friends and readers, even after print publication. These manuscripts of sermons represent only a portion of the Bodleian’s Donne collections. Also of note is Bodleian Library MS. Eng. poet. d. 197 (Summary Catalogue 46444), ‘A letter to the Lady Carey and Mrs. Essex Riche’. This verse epistle (the creases in the paper suggest that it was indeed folded and delivered as a private letter) is the only known manuscript of an English poem by Donne written in his own hand.

– Kelsey Jackson Williams
Balliol College


Contents of the ‘Merton’ Manuscript, Bodleian Library MS. Eng. th. c. 71

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