The Oxford Handbook of John Donne, edited by Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xxxvi + 845. ISBN 978-0-19-921860-8.

P. G. Stanwood
The University of British Columbia

Stanwood, P. G. "Review of The Oxford Handbook of John Donne, edited by Jeanne Shami, Dennis Flynn, and M. Thomas Hester. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011." EMLS 16.2 (2012): 8. URL:


  1. This huge and important work is a further contribution to the Oxford series of “Handbooks,” which joins volumes devoted to single authors, including Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, and others. In her helpful general introduction, Jeanne Shami declares that this Handbook is not intended merely to summarize what is already known but rather to reveal new directions, or “critical patterns of literary and historical work on John Donne’s writings” (1).  Fifty-six essays by forty-four contributors provide ample opportunity for this ambitious, yet carefully managed enterprise.  The Handbook is set out in four general divisions: Part I is somewhat apologetically named “Research resources in Donne studies and why they matter”; Part II is on “Donne’s genres”; Part III considers “Biographical and historical contexts”; and Part IV, the shortest section, has the curiously wordy title:  “Problems of literary interpretation that have been traditionally and generally important in Donne studies.” Each section has its own brief introduction by one of the editors.

  2. Most of the contributors are well established and familiar names in early modern scholarship, and many are deeply involved in the magnificent Donne Variorum project, which seeks to present all of the poetry in accordance with current textual knowledge.  Under the general editorship of Gary A. Stringer, and a very large number of assistants, Indiana University Press has published four of a projected eight volumes. Stringer’s fine essay on “The composition and dissemination of Donne’s writings” is the first in the Donne Handbook, and he describes well the concerns and difficulties of “reconstructing” and editing Donne’s texts, both in prose and poetry—the latter existing in scores of contemporary manuscript versions.  Meanwhile,  Donne’s 160 extant sermons, and their continuing significance, splendidly discussed in Jeanne Shami’s long essay, are receiving other and renewed attention. They are being edited in a new edition, which Peter McCullough is directing for the Oxford University Press; this will replace the familiar one by Potter and Simpson.  However, McCullough’s work on this edition of sermons, and that of the several editors, is evidently too recent for discussion in this Handbook; and so the brilliant, exegetical study by Katrin Ettinhuber on Donne’s Augustine (2011) forms no part of the Donne Handbook.  Also, the difficulties in compiling and editing the Prose Letters, while admirably discussed by Margaret Maurer, are great; but they must wait for full disclosure.  Perhaps such a book must anticipate as much as remember.  Like any bibliography, and certainly for the enormous one attached to this Handbook, there is no end in sight.

  3. The volume is free of notes of the usual sort, and commentary is carefully eschewed; but references are embedded within the text, often with very great frequency. Sometimes one is reading extended summaries of previous scholarship, with an unhappy clutter of references, a common feature of thesis writing, with little indication of “directions for further work” (663).  The short form for abbreviations of Donne’s work, adopted from the Variorum, at first is troubling for the general reader who will need to refer frequently to the list of short forms in the Note to Readers (a list that comprises seven closely printed pages). Yet out of concern for completeness, all short forms are given in this list, whether they appear anywhere in the essays that follow, such as “AutHook” Ad Autorem [‘Non eget Hookerus’], which is never mentioned.  Many forms that do appear are at first obscure to all but devoted students of Donne, or of the Variorum. Many readers will be turning from the front to the back of this very big book, from short forms to bibliography.

  4. The quality of composition and the careful editing of all the essays is exemplary, and also the thoughtful organization of the entire volume. The essays on editorial concerns very properly begin the volume, for literary criticism depends upon sound textual scholarship, and the central and very large section of this Handbook is concerned specifically with Donne’s texts. Donne wrote in a variety of genres—indeed, mostly in prose, from early tracts to late sermons. Pseudo-Martyr receives one essay (by Graham Roebuck), but Ignatius His Conclave appears fleetingly in Anne Lake Prescott’s chapter on “Menippean Donne.”  One other obviously early but undated work is Essayes in Divinity. What connections, if any, might be made between these two works, or with Pseudo-Martyr?  Jeffrey Johnson’s informative essay on the Essayes is helpful, but it might be connected more clearly to Donne’s other early work.

  5. There is little bridging from one work to another, an opportunity that might have been missed in the discussion of these early works, but also relevant to the later Donne, and to his other works, especially the sermons. A further and troubling animadversion: Are the Essayes really “essays” in the Baconian (and Montaigne) sense at all?  And as one considers “early” and “late,” I think that an uninformed or novice student of Donne might wish to see a convenient chronological list of Donne’s works, insofar as that can be determined, in a separate table; the list of editions in the bibliography fills a different purpose suitable for the citation/reference system, and for specialists. 

  6. The third part of this Handbook is about Donne’s context, a concern that has exercised modern scholars almost above all other interests: Heritage, Early Years, Education, Court and Courtship, Travel, and more. The editors’ plan is to place essays in pairs, one by an historian, and one by a biographer. Thus, in leading this section, Patrick Collinson writes on “The English Reformation in the Mid-Elizabethan Period” and Dennis Flynn on “Donne’s Family Background, Birth, and Early Years.” Both scholars effectively present in epitome the work for which each is well known—magisterial studies of Puritanism, on the one hand, and Catholic connections, on the other.  Over 100 pages later, Flynn pairs again with Johann Sommerville, with Flynn on “Donne’s Travels and Earliest Publications,” and Sommerville on “The Death of Robert Cecil.”

  7. One reaches the last section of this encyclopaedic volume to discover a coda, a survey of lingering problems in Donne studies: Apostasy? Misogyny? Political absolutism? Obscurity? Ambitious? Two Donnes (the lover - the divine)? Dangerous for unsuspecting (naive) readers? The essays are capacious, rich, and fascinating, with Debora Shuger laying waste the notion of Donne’s absolutism by cogently insisting that her chapter possibly “treats a non-issue” (690). The penultimate chapter by Judith Scherer Herz is characteristically elegant, on “the two Donnes.” She deserves the last word in this review of a nearly unreviewable book, for while it is one book, it is also many books—possibly like the Apocalypse, one might best begin by reading this last first in order to see how the first is last. Of Jack and the Doctor, Herz writes:
    Certainly there were distinct Donnes, but they inhabited the one Donne. They played together, they were played off one another, they served and continue to serve a vast variety of polemical ends. They might have been invented at the start as an anxious bit of disguise, but John Donne was/is one and singular and so multiple there is no counting. The ‘two Donnes’ construct was a means, a very clever means, of ensuring that capacious singularity.  (742)
    The Oxford Handbook of John Donne possesses “capacious singularity,” and of its kind, it is a model and a guide for worthy students and seasoned scholars alike. 



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