John Donne (1572–1631) printed almost none of his poetry during his lifetime, choosing instead to circulate it in manuscript. Even after the posthumous publication of his Poems in 1633, some of his poetry remained unavailable in print. In fact, Donne's famous elegy "To His Mistress Going to Bed" was first printed in a 1654 anthology and was not included in Donne's works until the 1669 edition. The poem was nonetheless quite popular. It survives in over 70 known manuscript copies, though none is in Donne's hand. (There is only one surviving holograph of the roughly 200 poems which Donne wrote.) "To His Mistress Going to Bed" is an excellent illustration of what Arthur Marotti has termed the "social textuality" of manuscript circulation. This term describes the willingness of many amateur scribes and compilers to consciously reshape or reframe the poems they copied. These scribes adopted a shared, "open source" approach, fitting the texts they copied to their particular social needs rather than attempting an exact reproduction of an authorial ideal.
Scribes and compilers felt free to provide their own answers to questions about the nature of the texts they copied and collected. Is the poem a general reflection on a commonly shared experience? Is it a poetic record of an event in the life of its author, (in the case of Donne, the now famous Dean of St. Paul's)? Is it a work of imagination created by an artist and to be admired primarily as an expression of his craft? The ways in which a particular scribe answered these questions can be gleaned from the kinds of collections in which a scribe placed a poem and from the identifying information—a title, indication of authorship or of the context which produced the poem—included or omitted in a copy. The various manuscript versions reveal more intimately than can a printed edition the range of ways in which the poem was used and understood by readers.
A range of scribal strategies is illustrated in the eight copies of "To His Mistress Going to Bed" at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Three of these manuscripts are in bound verse miscellanies compiled by their owners during the 1630s, and each reflects something of that scribe's habits of collection and interest in the poem.
The compiler of V.a.262 provided his poetic miscellany with the title "Divers Sonnetts & Poems compiled by certaine gentil Clerks and Ryme-Wrightes," which was revised from a still visible first title, "Certaine Sonnets and Divers Works of gentil Clerks." There is a lack of any attribution of authorship here even though three earlier poems in the manuscript are correctly attributed to "Dr. Donne."
The compiler of V.a.103 divided his poetic miscellany with various running heads: "Epitaphs - Laudatory," "Epitaphs - Satiricall and Merry," "Love Sonnets," "Panegyricks," "Satyres," "Miscellenea," and a one-poem unit labeled "An Elegie." The running heads seem to have been entered before the poems were copied below them, making V.a.103 a commonplace book.
The compiler of V.a.125 includes "To His Mistress" amongst a group of poems written by Donne. It is preceded by a fragmentary copy of "The Will," lines 32–36 of which appear at the top of the page, and followed by "Love's Diet" and "The Perfume," titled "To his Mrs." by this compiler.
|Click on the thumbnail images to get a printable PDF version of each manuscript version of "To His Mistress." Print out these different scribal copies so that you can make a close comparison of these texts with one another and with a modern, printed edition of the poem.|
Consider how the paratextual identifying information included in (or omitted from) each copy of the poem changes the way we understand it. How do the different titles alter our reading of the poem? What are we to make of the presence or lack of attribution to a particular author? What about the kind of collection in which the poem is included? Brief descriptions of each collection are provided above. Do the different hands (or writing styles) of the scribe suggest anything about their attitudes toward the poem?
In addition to these paratextual elements, pay close attention to the internal textual differences from manuscript to manuscript (your modern edition of the poem should be especially helpful here). How often do these scribal copies differ from one another? How often do they differ from your modern edition? (If you are having trouble, you might focus in on the first four and the last four lines, each of which should reveal interesting differences.) How do they differ in terms of their use of punctuation? Of spelling?
Donne, John. The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne: The Elegies. Eds. Gary A. Stringer et al. Vol. 2. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000. 8 vols.
Larson, Deborah Aldrich. "Donne's Contemporary Reputation: Evidence from Some Commonplace Books and Manuscript Miscellanies." John Donne Journal 12 (1993): 115–30.
Marotti, Arthur F. "Social Textuality in the Manuscript System." In Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance Lyric. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995. 135–208.
McLeod, Randall. "Obliterature: Reading a Censored Text of Donne's 'To his mistres going to bed.'" English Manuscript Studies 12 (2005) 83–138.
Pebworth, Ted-Larry. "John Donne, Coterie Poetry, and the Text as Performance." SEL 29 (1989): 61–75.