News ID: 203743
Published: 1228 GMT November 04, 2017

Manuscript that could have undone John Donne discovered

Manuscript that could have undone John Donne discovered

A manuscript of an early work by English poet John Donne, an academic joke that could have cost the poet his reputation — and maybe his head — if it had fallen into the wrong hands, has been discovered in a trunk in the archives of Westminster Abbey.

The manuscript may be the earliest surviving copy of what is ostensibly a library catalogue in Latin: The numbered book titles are all invented, and Donne's list is in fact a string of savage and frequently smutty jokes, many about named contemporary figures, reported.

Matthew Payne, who holds the historic title of keeper of the monuments at the abbey, found the manuscript after rationing himself to one afternoon a week examining the contents of the tin trunk. Among thousands of tattered fragments, many nibbled centuries ago by mice, he found one complete document: The blackened outer pages have neither title, author, nor any clue how and when they came into the abbey.

Payne could read the Latin, but identified the contents by transcribing a few lines into Google. "It may not sound very scholarly, but it can often be by far the quickest way of identifying text. Within a few minutes answers were coming in from all over the world, all giving the same source: John Donne's Catalogus Librorum Satiricus, also known as the Courtier's Library."

Donne, best known for metaphysical poems, is believed to have written and privately circulated the piece — the manuscript is not in his handwriting — in the febrile years leading up to the gunpowder plot, when his own situation was precarious.

He was born into a Roman Catholic family, but eventually became an Anglican cleric and finally dean of St. Paul's. At the time of the catalogue he was viciously satirizing the pretentious wealthy whose ranks he had no hope of joining. He had lost his job as secretary to the powerful Sir Thomas Egerton, lord keeper of the great seal, by defying him to marry his niece Anne. Briefly jailed — he  announced the news to his wife, pregnant with the first of their 12 children, as 'John Donne, Anne Donne, Un-done' — he was then scraping a living as a lawyer.

Payne and Starza Smith will publish an essay on the find in an upcoming issue of the Review of English Studies. Starza Smith said the catalogue, which wasn't published until long after Donne's death in 1631, was the least studied of all his writings.

Donne's introduction comments bitterly: "We are cast by chance into an age in which nothing is worse than to be openly ignorant, nothing more rare than to be fully learned."

He urges those anxious to flash their scholarship to seek out books 'difficult for others to locate'. With his helpful catalogue, his readers would be enabled 'suddenly to spring forth on almost all topics'.

The manuscript will go on display, free, for one week from November 13 in St. Margaret's Church next door to Westminster Abbey.

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