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Reviewed by:
  • The Cambridge Companion to John Donne
  • Dennis Flynn
Achsah Guibbory , ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Donne. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xviii + 288 pp. index. illus. chron. bibl. $75. ISBN: 0-521-83237-3.

The well-established series of Cambridge Companions to Literature (over a hundred volumes since 1986) now appends The Cambridge Companion to John Donne, sixteen essays by leading Donne scholars, to its list. These chapters, in varying degrees, suggest changes in the course of Donne studies. In a reflective chapter on "Donne's Afterlife," Dayton Haskin observes that Donne "repeatedly exceeds the best attempts to nail him down" (245). The first and most influential [End Page 1323] nailing-down of Donne was by his earliest biographer, Izaak Walton: readers will find that Walton's rhetoric and general ideas about Donne are still prominent in the Cambridge Companion. Significantly, no chapter in the collection mentions David Novarr's penetrating critique of Walton's Life of Donne, nor is Novarr's crucial book on Walton's Lives listed in the nineteen-page "Select Bibliography" of works recommended for students.

Jonathan Post's biographical sketch, leading off the volume, declares that "Donne's life, if disputable in the particular," is nevertheless "more vividly imaginable" because of Walton's work (1). Post repeats several of Walton's imaginings: Donne's time at Oxford giving rise to lifelong friendships; Donne's reading Bellarmine in order to change his religion while studying at Lincoln's Inn in his early twenties; Donne's "daily activities" as a "factotum," serving Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton; Donne's "apparent impulsiveness" in clandestinely marrying Anne More (9), an act that "soon led to their financially-imposed exile from London"; and Donne's beginning at this time, with a wife and growing family to support, "a long, frustrating search for employment" that dragged on for thirteen years (10). These imaginary episodes, presented in a biographical introduction to the collection, recur in later chapters of The Cambridge Companion to Donne. They are founded mainly on Walton's rhetoric and, while little or no evidence otherwise confirms them, much calls each into question. They have been uncritically received as plausible or "vividly imaginable."

Post does raise one important question about Walton's account of Donne's early years: whether, instead of staying at Oxford, Donne traveled abroad to Antwerp in 1585. Post calls this "a matter of considerable debate," though he cites no debate (2). (If there has been debate, this reviewer has missed it; Post does not debate the matter.) Moreover, he makes no mention of the chief evidence for this travel, the translations of Donne's Latin epigrams, edited in 1996 by the Donne Variorum for the first time since 1652. In fact, The Cambridge Companion to Donne is quite silent on the subject of these fifty-five poems, despite listing volume 8 of the Variorum in the "Select Bibliography."

The distinction of a significant departure from Walton's imaginings goes first to the chapter by Alison Shell and Arnold Hunt, "Donne's Religious World," stating the important point that for Donne "Catholic and Protestant doctrines were not always as sharply opposed as religious polemicists sought to make them appear" (67) and citing important historical work by Michael Questier, work that students of Donne should appropriate. Oddly, Questier's work is omitted from the "Select Bibliography" for students, though relevant work by historians John Bossy, Kenneth Fincham, and Anthony Milton is listed. Shell and Hunt actually express doubt whether Donne was properly included in Walton's Lives "alongside George Herbert and Richard Hooker" (68).

Further critical reflection on the opinions received from Walton is in Tom Cain's "Donne's Political World," which defines the pre-Tridentine Catholicism of Donne and his family as "an older Catholicism in which national loyalties were at least as strong as those to Rome" (85). Cain also quotes an important passage [End Page 1324] from Donne's letter of April 1627 to his friend Sir Robert Ker: "My tenets are always, for the preservation of the Religion I was born in," after which Donne goes on to stress his concern also to preserve "the peace of...


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