The Oxford Edition of the Letters of John Donne will, for the first time, collect all of the surviving correspondence of John Donne (1572-1631), the early modern poet and priest of the Church of England whose poems and sermons have fascinated scholars, students, and general readers for four centuries. That this edition will be the first concerted attempt at a complete and carefully edited and annotated collection is itself a marvel and may be put down to the complexity of the undertaking. Its value, however, will be very great. It will revise much of what has been thought to be known about Donne’s life and his beliefs and attitudes toward the events of his time. It will also confirm Donne to be as brilliant and multifaceted a letter-writer as he was a poet, polemicist, and preacher. Since the late twentieth-century, there have been several appreciative studies of Donne’s epistolary style; but a complete edition of his letters will convey at full the astonishing range of nuance and intricacy of thought that he summoned as a correspondent in a wide array of circumstances.
Only about thirty-eight of the 230 letters that have so far come down to us are in Donne’s handwriting. Most of the rest survive because they appeared in print within three decades of his death. Of these seventeenth-century printings, 167 letters are extant only in print, the holographs, in fair copies or draft, apparently having been lost or destroyed after the letters were printed. Another, smaller group of extant letters was preserved because they were copied by scribes, usually without attribution or indication of the person to whom they were addressed, generally without dating, and often without clues to the identities or purposes of the scribes. Consequently, the scholarly questions that attend the editing of most of Donne’s letters require painstaking analysis in light of what is known of early modern epistolary habits and attitudes toward the collection and preservation of correspondence. In addition, then, to opening up exciting new lines of inquiry into the details of Donne’s life and times, the edition will constitute a major contribution to the use of letters as sources of historical insight by establishing a canon of the letters; by providing a reliable and accessible text and textual history of the letters; by dating the letters and explaining their respective contexts in an Introduction and Notes; by providing high-quality reproductions of letters in Donne’s hand and of other artifacts; and by assembling with the letters related documents of use and interest to general readers, students, scholars, and critics (e. g., letters to Donne and letters in Donne’s hand written for other persons).
The very great advantage of having such an edition has long been acknowledged. Oxford University Press first commissioned one in 1929 under the editorship of Professor Isaac Avi Shapiro, whose manifold yet unfinished contributions (documents held by the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham University) will be included and referenced in the notes and commentary. The Oxford Edition of the Letters of John Donne will supply reliable texts, informative commentary, and high-quality reproductions of artifacts now available only through consulting widely dispersed printed and archival resources, including many rare book libraries and some relatively inaccessible private collections.