In the long and rich history of English literature, John Donne is almost forgotten about by many today but in his time he was pioneering. Born into a Catholic family at a time when it was illegal to practice the religion in England, Donne wrote often biting satire on legal corruption, mediocre writers, pig-headed officials and every day less glamorous subjects such as the plague, vomit and animal manure. He was a writer entirely different to William Blake.
It is said that he was the very first to write poetry on some subjects. He was as Dr Samuel Johnson labelled, a Metaphysical Poet and on top of all this he became a Member of Parliament, a Royal Chaplain.
His legacy though is less than it might be, perhaps because his works weren’t largely distributed during his life-time and what tomes there are were scattered to the winds and forgotten about after his death.
Last year however a previously unrecorded handwritten manuscript of John Donne’s poetry was been found in a box at an English country house in Suffolk. The 17th-century manuscript is described as being ‘one of the largest and earliest surviving groups’ of the celebrated English poet’s verse.
Dating back 400 years, the bound collection was kept for at least the last two centuries at Melford Hall in Suffolk. Sotheby’s expert Dr Gabriel Heaton was on a “standard checking visit” to the property when he found it in a box with other papers.
“Nobody knew about it … It was tucked away in a corner, collected with loose archival material around the house and not identified as being by Donne,” said Heaton. “I opened the box and came across this astonishing manuscript, opened it up and thought, ‘Hang on, that poem’s by John Donne … hang on, that’s also John Donne,’ and quite quickly realised it was a very very special and significant manuscript. It was a wonderful and exciting moment.”
The 400-year-old bound volume, which contains 139 works by Donne, was sold at auction to an online bidder last December. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has stepped in and put an export bar on the manuscript. However, this lasts only until the end of August – meaning potential saviours have just months to raise the cash to keep it in its country of origin.
The manuscript, pictured above, includes a range of his most celebrated works, including The Storm, The Calm, The Breake of Daye and Sunn Risinge. One of his largest collections to be discovered, it was found last year in a box at Melford Hall in Suffolk, where it is thought to have been for the last 200 years.
Peter Barber, a member of the panel which recommended the export ban, said: ‘John Donne is one of the greatest English poets of all time. This volume contains one of the largest and earliest surviving groups of his verse – all lovingly transcribed by hand. The volume also contains the work of later poets with at least one unknown poem, making it a testimony to British literary taste over 200 years.’
He added: ‘It is crying out for detailed investigation, not least because it also contains clues to the identity of its original, possibly female, compiler who would have been a contemporary of Donne.
‘So further research might perhaps shed fresh light on Donne himself and his world.I do hope the volume can be kept in this country so that its potential can be realised.’
The committee said the export ban could be extended until November if a serious effort to raise the funds is made.
Whilst most people are aware that London (and many other western cities) hosts a whole load treasures from around the world, brought here by a variety of sometimes questionable means, less people are aware even in the U.K. of our national treasures also being lost usually to wealthy American or Asian buyers or in the case of older objects, being housed overseas in countries such as Italy as noted in my post on the recent Anglo-Saxon treasures exhibition.
This isn’t the first time there has been a recent discovery of John Donne’s work at Westminster Abbey 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 including judges which if it had fallen into the wrong hands may well have seen him forfeiting his life.
For other relatively recent posts on similarly interesting writer then you might to read about one of my favourite philosophical writers, John Milton. Also Christopher Smart and his famed feline musings. None quite however match the incredible Jeremy Bentham who you can still go and meet today.