The present edition of Donne’s poems grew out of my work as a teacher. In the spring of 1907, just after I had published a small volume on the literature of the early seventeenth century, I was lecturing to a class of Honours students on the ‘Metaphysical poets’. They found Donne difficult alike to understand and to appreciate, and accordingly I undertook to read with them a selection from his poems with a view to elucidating difficult passages and illustrating the character of his ‘metaphysics’, the Scholastic and scientific doctrines which underlie his conceits. The only editions which we had at our disposal were the modern editions of Donne’s poems by Grosart and Chambers, but I did not anticipate that this would present any obstacle to the task I had undertaken. About the same time the Master of Peterhouse asked me to undertake the chapter on Donne, as poet and prose-artist, for the Cambridge History of English Literature. The result was that though I had long been interested in Donne, and had given, while at work on the poetry of the seventeenth century, much thought to his poetry as a centre of interest and influence, I began to make a more minute study of the text of his poems than I had yet attempted.
The first result of this study was the discovery that there were several passages in the poems, as printed in Mr. Chambers’ edition, of which I could give no satisfactory explanation to my class. At the close of the session I went to Oxford and began in the Bodleian a rapid collation of the text of that edition with the older copies, especially of 1633. The conclusion to which I came was that, excellent in many ways as that edition is, the editor had too often abandoned the reading of 1633 for the sometimes more obvious but generally weaker and often erroneous emendations of the later editions. As he records the variants this had become clear in some cases already, but an examination of the older editions brought out another fact,—that by modernizing the punctuation, while preserving no record of the changes made, the editor had corrupted some passages in such a manner as to make it impossible for a student, unprovided with all the old editions, to recover the original and sometimes quite correct reading, or to trace the error to its fountainhead.
My first proposal to the Delegates of the Clarendon Press was that I should attempt an edition of Donne’s poems resting on a collation of the printed texts; that for all poems which it contains the edition of 1633 should be accepted as the authority, to be departed from only when the error seemed to be obvious and certain, and that all such changes, however minute, should be recorded in the notes. In the case of poems not contained in the edition of 1633, the first edition (whether 1635, 1649, 1650, or 1669) was to be the authority and to be treated in the same fashion. Such an edition, it was hoped, might be ready in a year. I had finished my first collation of the editions when a copy of the Grolier Club edition came into my hands, and I included it in the number of those which I compared throughout with the originals.
While the results of this collation confirmed me in the opinion I had formed as to the superiority of the edition of 1633 to all its successors, it showed also that that edition was certainly not faultless, and that the text of those poems which were issued only in the later editions was in general very carelessly edited and corrupt, especially of those poems which were added for the first time in 1669. This raised the question, what use was to be made of the manuscript copies of the poems in correcting the errors of the edition? Grosart had based his whole text on one or two manuscripts in preference to the editions. Mr. Chambers, while wisely refusing to do this, and adopting the editions as the basis of his text, had made frequent reference to the manuscripts and adopted corrections from them. Professor Norton made no use of the manuscripts in preparing the text of his edition, but he added in an Appendix an account of one of these which had come into his hands, and later he described some more and showed clearly that he believed corrections were to be obtained from this source. Accordingly I resolved to examine tentatively those which were accessible in the British Museum, especially the transcript of three of the Satyres in Harleian MS. 5110.
A short examination of the manuscripts convinced me that it would be very unsafe to base a text on any single extant manuscript, or even to make an eclectic use of a few of them, taking, now from one, now from another, what seemed a probable emendation. On the other hand it became clear that if as wide a collation as possible of extant manuscripts were made one would be able to establish in many cases what was, whether right or wrong, the traditional reading before any printed edition appeared.
A few experiments further showed that one, and a very important, result of this collation would be to confirm the trustworthiness of 1633, to show that in places where modern editors had preferred the reading of some of the later editions, generally 1635 or 1669, the text of 1633 was not only intrinsically superior but had the support of tradition, i.e. of the majority of the manuscripts. If this were the case, then it was also possible that the traditional, manuscript text might afford corrections when 1633 had fallen into error. At the same time a very cursory examination of the manuscripts was sufficient to show that many of them afforded an infinitely more correct and intelligible text of those poems which were not published in 1633 than that contained in the printed editions.
Another possible result of a wide collation of the manuscripts soon suggested itself, and that was the settlement of the canon of Donne’s poems. One or two of the poems contained in the old editions had already been rejected by modern editors, and some of these on the strength of manuscript ascriptions. But on the one hand, no systematic attempt had been made to sift the poems, and on the other, experience has shown that nothing is more unsafe than to trust to the ascriptions of individual, unauthenticated manuscripts. Here again it seemed to the present editor that if any definite conclusion was to be obtained it must be by as wide a survey as possible, by the accumulation of evidence. No such conclusion might be attainable, but it was only thus that it could be sought.
The outcome of the investigation thus instituted has been fully discussed in the article on the Text and Canon of Donne’s Poems in the second volume, and I shall not attempt to summarize it here. But it may be convenient for the student to have a quite brief statement of what it is that the notes in this volume profess to set forth.
Their first aim is to give a complete account of the variant readings of the original editions of 1633, 1635, 1639, 1649-50-54 (the text in these three is identical), and 1669. This was the aim of the edition as originally planned, and though my opinion of the value of many of the variants of the later editions has undergone considerable abatement since I was able to study them in the light afforded by the manuscripts, I have endeavoured to complete my original scheme; and I trust it may be found that nothing more important has been overlooked than an occasional misprint in the later editions. But I know from the experience of examining the work of my precursors, and of revising my own work, that absolute correctness is almost unattainable. It has been an advantage to me in this part of the work to come after Mr. Chambers and the Grolier Club editors, but neither of these editions records changes of punctuation.
The second purpose of the notes is to set forth the evidence of the manuscripts. I have not attempted to give anything like a full account of the variant readings of these, but have recorded so much as is sufficient for four different purposes.
(1) To vindicate the text of 1633. I have not thought it necessary to detail the evidence in cases where no one has disputed the 1633 reading. If the note simply records the readings of the editions it may be assumed that the manuscript evidence, so far as it is explicit (the manuscripts frequently abound in absurd errors), is on the side of 1633. In other cases, when there is something to be said for the text of the later editions, and especially when modern editors have preferred the later reading (though I have not always called attention to this) I have set forth the evidence in some detail. At times I have mentioned each manuscript, at others simply all the MSS.,occasionally just MSS. This last means generally that all the positive evidence before me was in favour of the reading, but that my collations were silent as to some of the manuscripts. My collators, whether myself or those who worked for me, used Mr. Chambers’ edition because of its numbered lines. Now if Mr. Chambers had already adopted a 1635 or later reading the tendency of the collator—especially at first, before the importance of certain readings had become obvious—was to pass over the agreement of the manuscript with this later reading in silence. In all important cases I have verified the reading by repeated reference to the manuscripts, but in some of smaller importance I have been content to record the general trend of the evidence. I have tried to cite no manuscript unless I had positive evidence as to its reading.
(2) The second use which I have made of the manuscript evidence is to justify my occasional departures from the text of the editions, whether 1633 (and these are the departures which call for most justification) or whatever later edition was the first to contain the poem. In every such case the reader should see at a glance what was the reading of the first edition, and on what authority it has been altered. My aim has been a true text (so far as that was attainable), not a reprint; but I have endeavoured to put the reader in exactly the same position as I was myself at each stage in the construction of that text. If I have erred, he can (in a favourite phrase of Donne’s) ‘control’ me. This applies to spelling and punctuation as well as to the words themselves. But two warnings are necessary. When I note a reading as found in a number of editions, e.g. 1635 to 1654 (1635-54), or in all the editions (1633-69), it must be understood that the spelling is not always the same throughout. I have generally noted any variation in the use of capitals, but not always. The spelling and punctuation of each poem is that of the first edition in which it was published, or of the manuscript from which I have printed, all changes being recorded. Again, if, in a case where the words and not the punctuation is the matter in question, I cite the reading of an edition or some editions followed by a list of agreeing manuscripts, it will be understood that any punctuation given is that of the editions. If a list of manuscripts only is given, the punctuation, if recorded, is that of one or two of the best of these.
In cases where punctuation is the matter in question the issue lies between the various editions and my own sense of what it ought to be. Wherever it is not otherwise indicated the punctuation of a poem is that of the first edition in which it appeared or of the manuscript from which I have printed it. I have not recorded every variant of the punctuation of later editions, but all that affect the sense while at the same time not manifestly absurd. The punctuation of the manuscripts is in general negligible, but of a few manuscripts it is good, and I have occasionally cited these in support of my own view as to what the punctuation should be.