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  • The Holy Sonnets. Volume 7, Part 1 of The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne
  • Robert C. Evans
John Donne . The Holy Sonnets. Volume 7, Part 1 of The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne. Ed. Gary A. Stringer, Paul A. Parrish et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. 606 pp. index. append. bibl. $59.95. ISBN: 0-253-34701-7.

This latest Donne Variorum volume conforms to the high standards that have made this edition one of the most impressive scholarly undertakings of our era. The volume opens with a clear, painstaking introduction in which the editors offer exhaustive discussion of previous editions and of manuscript sources, making effective use of graphics in the process. For each sonnet they provide a textual introduction, textual apparatus, historical collations, and a list of verbal variants in selected modern editions. They also print the "Original Sequence," the "Westmoreland Sequence," the "Revised Sequence," and the "1635 Sequence." In short, they give us access to the sonnets in all their messy textual complexities, resisting any impulse to simplify the poems by imposing order artificially. Any serious scholar will need to consult this edition, and any serious scholarly library will need to acquire a copy at once.

Readers will be especially interested in the editors' responses to Helen Gardner's Oxford edition. They challenge (for instance) Gardner's dating of the poems and raise the intriguing possibility that some sonnets could have been written considerably earlier than Gardner (and Grierson) surmised. One possible interpretation of the evidence, for instance, "could imply a date closer to 1600 than to 1610 for the composition" of the poems (xcv). This possibility would significantly alter certain conventional assumptions about Donne's career (such as the still-common habit of distinguishing the rakish young Jack Donne from the pious older divine). However, the Variorum editors (wisely) do not advocate an earlier dating; they simply spell out the evidence and let it speak (as much as it can) for itself. On other issues, though, they are more firm. They show, for example, that no bibliographical evidence supports Gardner's claims for a set of sonnets on "the Last Things" or a separate collection of "penitential" sonnets (xciii).

The commentaries, of course, will attract the attention of most readers, and here as before the editors provide a gold standard by which all future Variorum editions will be measured. The commentaries are clearly organized and lucidly composed, offering detailed paraphrasing and extensive quotation. The general commentary deals with such matters as dating and order, the poet/persona, genre and traditions, language and style, prosody, sacred and profane themes, and the sonnets and other works. The same categories are then used again in discussing individual poems, but these discussions are also supplemented by detailed reports on each work — reports organized from groups of lines down to individual words. Cross-references are helpfully provided; key foreign phrases are not only translated but are given in the original; and the volume concludes with an exhaustive bibliography and with multiple indices. The editors thus impose order on the commentary while still giving a clear and generous sense of its evolution and complexity. [End Page 1322]

Especially helpful are the reports of commentary originally published inlittle-known foreign sources, often written by scholars who are not especially prominent. In reviewing the commentary on sonnet 14, for instance, I found myself repeatedly admiring the insights of C. W. R. D. Moseley, published in a German journal in 1980, and especially the work of Jean Fuzier, published in French in 1983. The great virtue of a Variorum edition (especially one this good) is that every idea, no matter who conceived it or where it was first printed, gets its day in court, and often the least famous witnesses are the most impressive. An edition such as this also helps reveal which ideas have been repeated so often that we really do not need to hear them again, and such an edition also makes clear (often to an embarrassing degree) how little consensus (or even dialogue) exists concerning even the most basic critical issues. One notices, when reading through this volume, how often critics merely...


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pp. 1322-1323
Launched on MUSE
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Archive Status
Archived 2009
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