Sir William was the second generation of the Parker family to live at Melford Hall in Suffolk following its purchase by his father, Sir Harry Parker (1735-1812) in 1786. The house remains the family home of the Hyde Parkers to this day. Sir William was educated at Charterhouse School and was known as a sound and well-read scholar. He was employed by the Earl of Moira as his private secretary whilst Moira was in political office. After the death of his father Sir William lived as country gentleman and was active as a magistrate and as a colonel in the local militia. His extensive remodelling of Melford Hall included the construction of the present library.
John Donne (1572-1631) was born (eight years after Shakespeare) into a recusant Catholic household, and several of his relatives fled abroad or risked a traitor’s death as members of the Jesuit mission. Martyrdom was not for Donne: he went to Oxford in the early 1590s (where he avoided subscribing to the tenets of the Church of England and did not take a degree) and then to Lincoln's Inn, where his rakish life provided raw material for his elegies and satires. He tried his luck as a soldier-adventurer then as secretary to the Lord Keeper, but lost that position in 1602 when he eloped with his employer’s niece. Eventually “Jack Donne” the man about town gave way to “Dr Donne” the divine: he converted to the Church of England and in 1615 was ordained into the priesthood. He became Dean of St Paul’s in 1621 and in his final decade Donne was one of the most renowned preachers in the kingdom (and a particular favourite of King James I). Throughout this extraordinary life Donne was writing poetry, and he left behind an extraordinary body of lyrics that are characterised by sceptical intelligence, jarring rhythms, wit, deliberate complexity, extended metaphor, paradox, theatrical arrogance, and frank eroticism.
Donne’s poetry was highly prized in literary circles during his lifetime; Ben Jonson, the greatest poet-critic of the age, esteemed him “the first poet in the World in some things”. It was, however, poetry for the cognoscenti, and that was how Donne preferred it, for with a few exceptions Donne’s poems were not available in print. The poems instead circulated through social networks in scribal form, accessible only to an exclusive coterie. There was a thriving manuscript culture in England in the first half of the 17th century, focused on specific locations such as the Inns of Court and certain Oxford colleges. Donne’s poems were highly prized in these circles and were copied remarkably widely – Peter Beal’s online Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts has some 4000 entries for verse by Donne. Sometime individual poems were copied on loose leaves of paper to be enclosed with letters (although the ephemeral nature of these separates means their chances of survival is low), and many of the handwritten poetical miscellanies of the seventeenth centuries include a scattering of Donne’s verses. Of much greater importance, however, are the consciously assembled collections of poems by Donne, of which about thirty survive (all, other than this, in institutional libraries).
The Melford Hall manuscript contains some 139 works by Donne, ranging from short lyrics to the 520-line ‘Metempsychosis’, making it one of the greatest compilations of Donne’s verse. The only collection that contains substantially larger number of poems is the O’Flahertie manuscript at Harvard (MS Eng. 966.5), and there are only three other manuscripts that have as many as 140 poems. The surviving textual witnesses of Donne’s have been subjected to extensive scholarly attention – indeed the ongoing Donne Variorum is without question one of the most ambitious editorial undertakings in the English canon – and comparison with other texts tells us something of where the Melford Hall manuscript fits into the textual tradition. Readings at textual cruxes have enabled editors to classify the surviving collections of Donne poems roughly into four groups. The current manuscript falls into Group II, a group which includes eight other manuscripts. Within that group, the Melford Hall manuscript has a particularly close connection to a manuscript miscellany in Dublin (Trinity College, Dublin, MS 877) which contains a similar number of poems. Many of the poems appear in the same order in the Melford Hall manuscript as they do in the Dublin manuscript. The two manuscripts are the work of different scribes, however, and differences in content and order confirm that whilst they may share a common (lost) source, or have been produced in parallel, neither the Melford Hall manuscript nor the Dublin manuscript were copied from each other – although in fact a contemporary copy of the Dublin manuscript does survive (Harvard, Houghton Library, fMS Eng 966.3).
The Melford Hall manuscript was an elaborate bespoke production. It was written on expensive Italian writing paper with an unusual peacock watermark (paper with similar watermarks was used for drawing by Inigo Jones, and in a group of consort music part books of the 1630s, for which see Robert Thompson, ‘A Further Look at the Consort Music Manuscripts in Archbiship Marsh’s Library, Dublin’, Chelys, 24 (1995), 3-18 (pp.4-5)) and attractively bound with its edges gilt. The entire sequence of Donne poems is in the fine italic hand of a single scribe without any characteristics of the older secretary hand. The hand has a tendency to become looser and less careful as the manuscript progresses, and has an uneven slant, but retains numerous distinctive features such as the relative lack of ligatures; clubbed descenders most commonly on the minuscule “f”; an initial downstroke on initial majuscules, especially “A”, that descends well below the base line; sweeping loops on “g” “y” and long “s”; and the stem on “p” that starts above the bowl. This hand is not identifiable in any other major Donne manuscript (see http://donnevariorum.tamu.edu/gallery-of-ms-images/). Only one tiny sequence (ll.4-9 of ‘The Calm’) was clearly written out in a different hand. However, the manuscript also seems to have been checked over by a second individual whose corrections to the text are scattered through the volume, although most in the earlier part of the manuscript, written in a lighter ink (or, on a few occasions, in pencil). Sometimes the reviser corrected obvious mistakes or supplies missing words, but some of the corrections reveal that the reviser had access to a second manuscript source. To take one example, l.69 of ‘The Bracelet’ (here titled ‘Elegie’) the phrase “fantastique scenes” (which is found in all Group II manuscripts) is corrected to “fantastique schemes” (the more common reading in other textual sources). There are also occasions when the reviser introduced non-canonical readings (such as l.45 of ‘The Storm’ where “some coffind in theire cabbins lie; equallie” is changed to “some lie in cabbins coffind; equallie”). Further textual complexity is found in the ‘Elegy to Lord Harrington’ where the original scribe seems to have had before him two divergent texts and at various points gives two alternate readings at textual cruxes.
The sequence of poems in the Melford Hall manuscript sometimes follows a logical order, but often no particular structure to the arrangement is immediately obvious. The initials “JD” are found frequently but not consistently in the margin, but on the few occasions where Donne was not the author the correct initials are always given – another indication of the care and knowledge with which the manuscript was assembled. The manuscript begins with six satires. Five of these are by Donne and one, ‘Sleepe next societie’, is correctly attributed to J[ohn] R[oe]. This is followed by ‘The Bracelet’ (simply titled ‘Elegie’), the renowned pair of early verse epistles ‘The Storm’ and ‘The Calm’ (incorrectly addressed to "Ci: Bow:" rather than Christopher Brooke), then ‘The Anagram’ (here untitled), two further verse epistles, six further erotic elegies, and four lyrics (those poems now known as the ‘Songs and Sonnets’) with their familiar titles, including ‘The Breake of Daye’, ‘Sunn Risinge’, and ‘Valediction. Forbidding mourning’. The next 31 poems continue this pattern as elegies and lyrics (sometimes untitled) are interspersed with small groups of occasional verse, mostly obsequies on high-ranking women, and also one poem each attributed correctly to F[rancis] B[eaumont] and R[ichard] Co[rbet]. There then follow a sequence of six verse epistles, then a group of five poems by other authors (notably ‘The Wife’ by Thomas Overbury), before the sequence of Donne’s verse epistles continues with another 16 poems (the Dublin manuscript has a slightly different arrangement of these epistles and more logically keeps them in a single sequence). Another 25 lyrics and elegies follow, then a short group of three “Songs which were made to certeyne Aires which were made before” (the most famous example being ‘The Baite’, which follows Marlowe’s ‘Passionate Shepherd’), 13 epigrams, and four longer occasional poems, including the ambitious Epithalamion for the Earl of Somerset. Donne’s 52-stanza philosophical work, ‘Metempsychosis’, follows, complete with its introductory epistle. The collection ends with a series entitled ‘Devine Poems’: the seven-sonnet sequence ‘La Corona’, the Holy Sonnets (in their “revised” sequence), ‘Resurrection’, ‘A Himne to Christ’, and ‘To Christ’.
Once the sequence of Donne poems was complete the manuscript remained only half full. Subsequent owners added further content over a period of more than a century. The first addition was a group of five otherwise unrecorded poems and a song by Thomas Carew (‘The first Chorus of Jealousy’, beginning “From whence was first”), which were probably transcribed in the 1630s or 40s, followed by two further poems of a similar date in different hands. There are then three further unidentified poems and, in the same hand, a long sequence of sermon notes. These notes show that by the 1680s the manuscript was in Scotland either at Yester House, seat of the Hay family, then Earls of Tweeddale, or in the nearby village of Gifford, East Lothian. Most of these sermons are by the local minister, Robert Meldrum (c.1653-99) and there are clues to the identity of the compiler, who at one point appears to identify himself as “A.L.” (“Att Yester 8.1. May 1687 the heads of some sermons preached by Mr Robert Meldrum then minister of that paroch [...] heard & collected by A.L.”). It may be possible, with further research, to establish the identity of this individual – who was perhaps a secretary or similar highly literate member of the Tweeddale household – and thus gain a valuable pointer towards the origin of the manuscript and whether, for example, it was originally assembled for a Scottish patron.
NO MANUSCRIPT CONTAINING SUCH A WEALTH OF DONNE’S POETRY HAS APPEARED ON THE MARKET IN RECENT DECADES. No such manuscript was in the exceptional Donne collection of Robert S. Pirie, although his collection did include a verse miscellany from the 1660s with five poems by Donne (sold Sotheby’s, New York, 2-4 December 2015, lot 816, $187,500), and the library of Abel E. Berland contained a miscellany with 6 poems and some prose by Donne (sold Christie’s, New York, 8 October 2001, lot 36, $105,000). The only autograph verses by Donne known to survive are a verse epistle (in the Bodleian) and two Latin inscriptions in printed verse (Cambridge and Harvard), and the few scribal manuscripts of comparable importance are also all in institutional collections. THIS IS THE MOST SIGNIFICANT DONNE POETICAL MANUSCRIPT REMAINING IN PRIVATE HANDS.
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