Editorial Principles

Editing Donne’s prose letters is complicated by the scarcity of letters surviving in Donne’s own hand: only thirty-eight holograph letters are extant. In consequence, it is necessary to reproduce letters that survive only in printed versions (some 168 letters) or transcribed copies (perhaps as many as thirty letters) at indeterminate degrees of remove from the original letters. The Oxford Edition of the Letters of John Donne will authenticate, transcribe, analyze, and present these texts to recover that surely small part of what remains of Donne’s voluminous correspondence. The nature of the surviving material, however, complicates the question of textual authority—not only in presenting individual letters but also in ordering the letters chronologically, identifying their addressees, and even (most crucially for transcriptions of letters in Leicestershire Record Office Manuscript DG7/Lit.2, known as the Burley manuscript) admitting letters to the canon. Our aim in authenticating, transcribing, analyzing, and presenting Donne’s letters is to provide reliable texts for modern readers with minimal editorial intervention. For the surviving holographs we will present texts based on diplomatic transcriptions and also publish images of each.

The bulk of Donne’s surviving correspondence appeared first in various seventeenth-century collections, chiefly in Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (1651), whose publishers, the Marriots, evidently had access for their editions to Donne's fair copies obtained from recipients; whereas in publishing Toby Matthew's Collection of Letters (1660), John Donne the younger was able to add drafts of letters he found among Donne's posthumous papers. We proceed on the basis that a letter’s publication as Donne’s in the seventeenth century justifies its inclusion in the canon. This external evidence may be supplemented by internal evidence: language conveying the distinctive characteristics of Donne’s prose style, and/or details mentioned in the letters tallying in key respects with acknowledged events and associations in Donne’s biography and the history of this period. Print artifacts present various editorial problems, including the customary verbal alterations suffered in the transition from manuscript to print in the publishing house and the imposition of the printer’s own conventions of punctuation, spelling, capitalization, etc. Thus while the printed texts in a number of important ways may not record exactly what Donne originally wrote, they do provide a close approximation of his verbal choices.

About thirty seventeenth-century, scribal copies of Donne’s letters also survive, and they present special difficulties: in deciding whether or not to include in Donne’s canon scribally copied letters not printed as Donne’s in the seventeenth century, we base our decisions on attributions to Donne in manuscripts and on internal evidence, since most of these artifacts specify neither the date, the author, nor the addressee of a letter transcribed. In most cases we do not know exactly when, why, or by whom the copy was made. In light of these circumstances, we edit these scribal copies conservatively by identifying seeming errors and inconsistencies, sometimes in comparison with other copies of the same letter but, more often than not, by analysis of the logic and general coherence of the letter itself in relation to what is known of the history of the time and of Donne’s life. Thus we must combine bibliographical analysis with critical analysis to evaluate the text of each letter. In doing so we recognize that each early copy, though mediated by a scribe, nonetheless constitutes a contemporary’s representation of the original and that we should be wary of imposing on it our own anachronistic apprehensions or perceptions.

Since most of the texts survive only in printed editions or non-authorial copies, we necessarily examine multiple copies of seventeenth-century printings and every surviving seventeenth-century manuscript copy. When a seventeenth-century printing is used as a copy-text, we collate at least five copies of the first printing and at least three copies of all subsequent printings (though we have collated ten copies of the source of most, the 1651 Letters) to account for any press variants. When a copy-text is a manuscript, we verify our transcriptions against original sources; if the manuscript letter was printed, we collate the manuscript against all its seventeenth-century printings. At all stages of transcription and data entry, at least two (and usually three or more) editors proofread the work independently, resolving any problems or differences of interpretation in conference. At each stage of production we take similar care to verify the accuracy of both text and apparatus.

The copy-text finally chosen is the most reliable state of the text preserved among the surviving artifacts, though in the majority of cases there is only a single artifact, the printed text in the 1651 Letters. Since the early printed editions of Donne’s letters were set from holographs or fair copies (or drafts of them), we believe we should preserve the readings of these print copy-texts unless we are reasonably certain a reading is erroneous, even though Donne’s early printers doubtless imposed their own conventions of punctuation, spelling, and capitalization. We correct only obvious errors in the copy-text, emend punctuation when absolutely necessary to prevent misreading, and apply certain print conventions, such as retaining the initial drop caps used by all Donne’s early printers and moving datelines that the printer placed idiosyncratically to the consistent position below the subscription. To represent the copy-text authentically and accurately, we retain certain seventeenth-century orthographical and typographical features: our text preserves the distinct forms of “i” and “j” and “u” and “v,” the ligatured vowels “æ” and “œ,” and italics as they appear in the copy-text. However, we regularize other features of the text as a convenience for modern readers: we expand non-keyboard characters such as macrons, superscript flourishes, and crossed-descender letters; we reduce the long “∫” to “s” and regularize inconsistencies of font and the spacing of punctuation; and we expand abbreviated forms of words that may be unfamiliar. We accept the accidentals of the copy-text as a record of a contemporary reader’s feeling for sense and syntax. For holograph and scribal transcriptions, we transcribe the texts diplomatically except non-keyboard characters such as macrons and crossed-descender letters (recording each change among the regularizations). The textual apparatus will list all regularizations and any emendations made to the copy-text.

The usual rule of textual bibliography is to follow the accidentals of the printed copy-text, since authors expected spelling, punctuation, and italics to be normalized in the print house1. While the punctuation of Donne’s letters in various seventeenth-century collections reflects interventions made by compositors, the punctuation may nonetheless still be consistent with Donne’s original practices; indeed, we have no way of verifying how Donne punctuated these artifacts. And as the intense study of the accidentals of the Shakespeare quartos and folios has demonstrated, modern editors should be wary of assuming they are better suited to understand the text than a compositor who left a printed text that recorded a contemporary reader’s feeling for sense and syntax. Since the early printed editions of Donne’s letters could have been set from holographs of the letters, we represent the punctuation as it appears in the seventeenth-century artifact copy-text unless we are reasonably certain an error has occurred.

The General Introduction will describe the origin and plan of the edition and will discuss the significance of Donne’s letters in the history of their genre, focusing in particular on his purposes in choosing to write letters, his understanding of the nature of the familiar letter, and his achievement in redefining the genre. The General Introduction will also supply an overarching biographical narrative, using the letters as we have determined their dates, addressees, occasions, and other circumstances, pointing especially to areas where evidence departs from received notions.

The Textual Introduction will provide a description of the corpus of materials used in constructing the text of Donne’s letters, outline the seventeenth-century textual history of the letters as a whole, and present a general discussion of our methods for analyzing, transcribing, verifying, and presenting the texts, including procedures for choosing and emending copy-texts, procedures for reportage of variants, and use of bibliographical conventions in the textual apparatus. The Textual Introduction will also specify and explain outstanding points of bibliographical interest, and will sketch the general treatment of the letters by modern editors.

The Textual Apparatus for each letter will include data drawn from holograph letters; scribal transcriptions; seventeenth-century editions, both collections and uncollected printings; modern first printings of individual letters; and selected modern editions of Donne’s letters when relevant. In general, the apparatus will list the source materials by sigla and will include specific information about the copy-text and sources collated, emendations of the copy-text, regularizations, and textual variants.

The Commentary for each letter will offer details on the heading, the addressee, and the date of composition for each letter—contextualizing the letter in Donne’s life and outlining the letter’s textual and critical history. The Commentary also will address authorship questions related to individual letters. Particular passages or words of bibliographical or critical significance, or needing other explanation, are then glossed by line number. The two sample letters illustrate the breadth and depth of the commentary for each letter.

1See Ronald B. McKerrow, An Introduction to Bibliography for Literary Students (Oxford: Clarendon, 1927), 239-51; Philip Gaskell, A New Introduction to Bibliography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 338-40.