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The Oxford Handbook of John Donne


Edited by Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn and M. Thomas Hester


Oxford: University Press, 2011

Hardback. xxxv-845 p. 24 black-and-white halftones and 7 maps

ISBN 978-0199218608. £85.00


Reviewed by Freyja Cox Jensen

Christ Church, Oxford



For any reader with a love of learning, first impressions of The Oxford Handbook of John Donne cannot be other than favourable. A satisfyingly heavy and attractively fat volume, despite a somewhat uninspired cover, the book promises a wealth of erudition, and a fitting density of scholarship for a subject as complex and diverse as Donne and his writings.

The Handbook serves variously as an introduction and a sign-post; as its editors remind us, it is intended as “a source of directions, a guard against misdirections, and in indicator of new directions” and not as “a mere summary of existing knowledge” [1]. Nonetheless, it does also serve as a summary of literature on Donne to date, and a very fine one, too. It is certainly the best collection currently available, and will remain a valuable resource even when the Indiana Variorum and the Oxford editions of the Sermons and Letters eventually appear in full.

A brief flick through the pages suggests that, for all its strengths, the Handbook is not quite perfect. It suffers from several defects in style, not least its remarkably inelegant referencing, more usually seen in the social sciences, which complicates the text and interferes with the fluid reading of essays. And not only are there no footnotes; there are no notes anywhere! Surely even a handbook, though intended for a mixed market of scholars, students, and enthusiasts, would benefit from a site for illuminating notes and clear references, a paratext that explicates the prose, yet does not interrupt its flow. It seems a little unprofessional to mar such excellent research, elegantly and accessibly written, with unhelpful and uninformative references.

Another flaw is found in the form of the black and white photographs that appear at intervals throughout the book. Their quality is poor; their placing is not always entirely apposite; that they add very much to the reading, is questionable; and the font in which their captions are written is a hideously ugly sans serif entirely at odds with the rest of the volume. One can only wonder what the people at OUP were thinking... For an otherwise quite aesthetically pleasing book, this is a real pity. If the purpose of the images [as I can only assume it must be] is to break up the monotony of unbroken pages of plain text [and it is a visually daunting page that results from an absence of footnotes], then this might more usefully have been achieved by changing the spacing or introducing sub-headings, not by adding unnecessary pictures with blurb that looks like the result of a formatting error.

Happily, the content of the essays more than makes up for these shortcomings. A treasure-trove to delight any student of early modern literature or cultural history, the Handbook provides a wealth of exceptional scholarship to enlighten, clarify, edify, or debate fifty-six separate component parts of the vast and constantly-shifting sea of John Donne studies. These are stand-alone essays, each of which acts as a lens focusing on an aspect of Donne, his work, or his times. Taken together, they provide a comprehensive guide to almost anything the reader might want to know about Donne, and suggest further avenues for exploration.

Part 1 is entitled “Research Resources in Donne Studies and Why They Matter”, either helpfully or patronisingly, depending on your point of view. Literary scholars might think it rather obvious why it matters that we understand the relationship between what Donne wrote, and what was really published [Chapter 1, by Gary A. Stringer], and how his readers read him in the seventeenth century [Chapter 2, by Ernest Sullivan]. Similarly, essays on the practicalities of editing Donne [Chapters 4.1 and 4.2, by Stringer and Richard Todd, respectively], and modern modes of scholarship including the digital [Chapter 5, Sullivan], might seem unnecessary to those familiar with the field, especially when combined with the editors’ somewhat condescending injunction to readers that they must read Part I before “hoping to approach the subjects of subsequent chapters” [11]. For the newcomer to Donne studies, or for undergraduates, though, Part 1 provides a solid foundation for the understanding of essays to come.

Part 2 details, considers, and explores Donne’s work within various forms and genres: eighteen of them, to be precise, ranging from the epigram to the prose letter, by way of the love lyric, the religious sonnet, the essay, and the sermon, to name but a few. It is this section of the book that provides the main literary content of the Handbook, while Part 3 deals with the world in which Donne lived and worked. In combination, Parts 2 and 3 emphasise the importance of the interdisciplinary connections between literary studies and history, situating Donne’s life, and his writing, in their political and cultural contexts, exploring his confessional heritage and the many, complex roles he played during his life.

Little wonder, then, that we need Part 4 to make sense of the “Problems of Literary Interpretation That Have Been Traditionally and Generally Important in Donne Studies”. It is in this section that the multiple ambiguities highlighted in the preceding essays are brought together and explored in a thematic manner. Surveying the major scholarly debates in the field of Donne studies, the essays in Part 4 provide lucid, coherent and concise critical analyses that will be equally valuable to novice and professional students of Donne. Achsah Guillory tackles the unavoidable difficulties that Donne’s several religious affiliations pose for his readers [Chapter 37], drawing on the religious contexts outlined by Patrick Collinson, Jeanne Shami, and Peter McCullough in earlier essays [Chapters 26.1, 32.1, and 33.1]. Deborah Shuger builds on Parts 2 and 3 as she explores Donne’s relationship with, and attitude towards, monarchical government in a chapter entitled “Donne’s Absolutism” [690-703], and Lynne Magnusson reflects upon the reality of the climate of fear and apprehension that surrounded any act of oral or written ‘publication’ in Elizabethan and early-Stuart England [Chapter 43].

Ambiguity, complexity, and a multiplicity of possibilities characterise the works of the authors contained within this volume no less than they do the works of Donne himself. That the problems, and the possibilities, of Donne scholarship are presented so clearly and comprehensibly, even for a lay reader, is greatly to the credit of the editorial team, and the scholars themselves. This is a fine resource for users of all levels of familiarity with Donne; though, personally, I would prefer my Handbook with a few footnotes, and without the unnecessary photographs...


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