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The Collation

Attempting to censor John Donne

The Folger’s unique collection of manuscript letters by John Donne (1572-1631) is rightly recognized as being of international importance. Donne is regarded as one of the foremost intellectual figures of early modern England, a poet of remarkable erotic daring, a keen legal mind who poured his learning into complex tracts on contemporary controversies, and, in later years, the most renowned preacher of his day. His marriage letters at the Folger (L.b.526-536) have been digitized, edited, and pored over by scholars seeking information about Donne’s scandalous marriage in 1601, which cost him a promising career and earned him a spell in prison. But another John Donne document (V.b.201) lies neglected among the collections enjoying no such high profile. 1

John Donne letter, recto and verso (V.b.201)

John Donne letter, recto and verso (V.b.201)

Why has this manuscript attracted so little attention? Because its author was John Donne, Junior (1604-62), the considerably less admired son of the famous divine. The younger Donne (henceforth simply “Donne”) has gained an unenviable reputation over the years—at best, a gadabout libertine who wasted his wit on fripperies; at worst, a drunk, a sexual predator, and a hot-head who caused the death of an eight-year-old boy. The historian Anthony Wood memorably said of Donne that his nature was vile, and that “he proved no better all his lifetime than an atheistical buffoon, a banterer, and a person of over free thoughts.” 2 A later biographer, Augustus Jessopp, declared Donne’s surviving letters “full of the most shocking indecencies.” 3 Jessopp had one in his possession, he admitted, so “incomparably filthy and obscene” that he kept it hidden from public view and was regularly tempted to destroy it, adding: “I am prepared to believe anything bad of John Donne the younger.” 4

  1. V.b.201 was acquired by the Folger on 30 April 1936 at an American Art Association sale of the collection of J. Percy Sabin (1872-1934). Sabin was the third of three Sabin bookdealers from Summit, NJ. Whereas his grandfather, Joseph Sabin (1821-81) had specialised in American printed books, Percy and his father, another Joseph (1846-1926), steered the family business towards rare prints and autograph letters. V.b.201 was transcribed by R. C. Bald in an appendix to his biography of the elder Donne, John Donne: A Life (Oxford, 1970), pp. 575-7.
  2. Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses . . . to which are added the Fasti, ed. by Philip Bliss, 4 vols (New York, 1967), vol. 1, p. 503.
  3. Augustus Jessopp, “John Donne, the younger,” in Leslie Stephen (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, 63 vols (London, 1885), vol. 15, p. 234.
  4. Jessopp, “Donne’s Epigrams,” The Athenaeum (19 July 1873), pp. 81–2.
  5. The most recent article on the younger Donne is Daniel Starza Smith, “Busy young fool, unruly son? New light on John Donne junior” Review of English Studies, n.s., 61 (2011), pp. 538-61. Donne’s ODNB biographer Joanne Woolway Grenfell also strives for evenhandedness in her judgement on his relative merits and demerits, and George Potter and Evelyn Simpson’s 10-volume edition of the elder Donne’s sermons begins by crediting his role in their preservation. Further work on him has been pursued by Peter McCullough and the editors of the forthcoming 16-volume Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne.
  6. Cited in Smith, “Busy young fool,”, p. 561.
  7. Richard McCabe “‘Right Puisante and Terrible Priests’: The Role of the Anglican Church in Elizabethan State Censorship” in Literature and Censorship in Renaissance England, ed. Andrew Hadfield (Basingstoke and New York, 2001), pp. 75-94, at p. 78.
  8. Cited in Censorship and the Press, 1580-1720, gen. eds Geoff Kemp and Jason McElligott, 4 vols (London, 2009), 1.295.
  9. William Prynne, ‘Practices of Archbishop William Laud’s Press Licensers’, in Canterburies Doome (London, 1646), p. 254. Cited in Kemp et al, 1.307.
  10. Kemp and McElligott, 1.304. The ODNB biographies of Laud’s chaplains, including Bray, William Haywood and Edward Baker, seem to confirm this allegation.


Very interesting! My article on the censorship of Daniel Featley’s sermons (in the Hadfield collection which you cite in n.7) sheds some light on the passages that the licensers objected to.

arnold — November 18, 2013


Dear Daniel Starza Smith,

I have just read with interest the account of your work on the Folger MS of Donne’s son.
I wonder if you have seen my monograph on Donne’s monument in John Donne Journal 2001,
“New Evidence” etc., with many illustrations of my archival discoveries? I have it not digitally, but can send hardcopy pronto if I have your snail address.

With best wishes,

Richard S. Peterson
Professor of English and Comparative Literature
Oxford ’61 St Cat’s
and charter board member, John Donne Journal

richard s peterson — November 20, 2013


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