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Standing the test of time

A major AHRC project is collecting the religious works of the one of the most important poets of the Renaissance.

A new scholarly edition of the works of any key literary figure is by necessity a massive and important undertaking. John Donne is one of the most renowned poets of the Renaissance — but his prose and his religious speeches are receiving a growing academic attention.

Now an AHRC-funded project has enabled the publication of a 16-volume collection of the Sermons of John Donne, collating the work of experts across a range of disciplines and from a number of institutions.

“With a project like this, I knew I needed to be preparing texts and commentaries that would be used not just by people in English but in theology and history, so it needed to be interdisciplinary,” explains principal investigator Peter McCullough. “The editorial board had to reflect that so we could help each other fill in gaps, being sure we had the range covered. So it was people who would be senior enough to be respected by the press as editors — and recognised as experts in some field allied to the topic of Donne’s sermons.”

That means that specialisms such as ecclesiastical history are represented on the editorial committee along with expertise in Donne’s life and work. Producing a collection like this — intended to be almost a ‘definitive version’ — is obviously a great honour, but McCullough and his team are also very well aware of the responsibility they are taking on.

“It’s a huge responsibility!” he admits. “That can’t be over-stated: the requirement for accuracy for scholars when quoting something, and when looking for guidance in our annotations, means it needs to be objective, it needs to be absolutely accurate right from typography to annotations, documenting of sources, translating foreign languages, that kind of thing.”

“We’re readers and working with scholarly editions in our everyday lives,” points out David Colclough, the series’ deputy general editor. “You do rely on the editors presenting you with something that is, at its most basic level, accurate.”

The last edition of Donne’s sermons was edited by George R Potter and Evelyn Simpson between 1953 and 1962, but contained no explanatory notes, making the volumes difficult to use effectively. In addition, the standard practices of literary criticism have moved on in the intervening half-century.

“If you look at the edition of Donne’s sermons that ours is replacing, which was until now the scholarly standard edition, we are revising that very significantly,” says McCullough. “One could say we have disagreements with some of the decisions they made, based largely in light of the new evidence our grant has enabled us to find in the data collection phase.

John Donne on the qualities required of a minister

‘[The Minister] shall become Carmen musicum, a musical and harmonious charmer, to settle and compose the soul again in a reposed confidence, and in a delight in God: he shall be musicum carmen, musick, harmony to the soul in his matter; he shall preach harmonious peace to the conscience: and he shall be musicum carmen, music and harmony in his manner; he shall not present the messages of God rudely, barbarously, extemporally; but with such meditation and preparation as appertains to so great an imployment, as from such a King as God, to such a State as his Church’. (Sermon Preached at Whitehall, February 12, 1618; Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne Volume I (2015), p. 115)

We decided to take as the copy text that we use for a sermon the version that survives that is closest to the time it was written and delivered — that’s crucial for us. We’re not interested in these just as reading texts, but to get as close as we can to what was said by Donne in the pulpit on the day. The previous editors, following the tradition that was then dominant in textual scholarship, privileged copies of the sermons that had been revised by Donne later in his life.”

The new project has, obviously, required a lot of work sifting through archives to collate the various versions of the sermons that still exist.

“You need to see someone sitting in front of these collating machines to get a sense of what it really involves,” says Colclough. “This process of comparing two copies of the same thing, allowing the images to waver in front of your eyes to pick out the difference, is something quite considerable.”

He points out that some of the scripts still in existence were transcribed with less-than-standard spelling, while some have scholarly insertions.

“Texts have complicated histories,” says Colclough. “There’s only so much you can do in terms of a printed text and trying to reconstruct the moment these sermons were delivered — to convey the sense of them as events rather than as scripts. They’re not scripts — he wasn’t preaching from notes in his hand. He wrote them up afterwards, and we know that from letters he wrote at the time, but sometimes that was months or even years later, and he worked from what he could remember or whatever brief notes he had.”

Jacqueline Baker, the commissioning editor at Oxford University Press, oversees many similar projects, and emphasises that this kind of work goes some way towards “stabilising” texts that are being studied.

“It sits at the core of our literature list: everything orients around those primary texts,” she explains. “This is one of our exemplary editions — it’s getting great reviews — and we have others, and they tend to metabolise the whole research world around them, meaning that they enable a vast amount of academic work and revitalises the field, opening up new paths for research. It couldn’t be more important.”

McCullough is incredibly grateful for the support of the institutions that have helped the team pull the collection together — but, of course, also for the funding.

“Projects of this scale can’t be done these days without external funding – and our gratitude for that has, I hope, been repaid with the editions,” he says. “I’ve been particularly pleased with the AHRC’s willingness to fund scholarly editions, because they’re so foundational. No matter what your critical approach and no matter how and what you teach, good reliable editions are what you start with, so the AHRC in funding things like this is making an extremely good long-term investment.”

And he is not exaggerating about the long-lasting nature of these critical editions.

“Some editions really stand the test of time to the point where I can’t persuade academics to come on board and start again,” says Baker. “People might be reluctant partly because of the size of the undertaking, but mostly because people don’t think the existing edition needs replacing.”

“This won’t be done again for a minimum 50 years, maybe 100, because these things do have a long shelf-life,” concludes McCullough. “So as a use of public funds, I think it’s really rock-solid.”

For further information, please see the project website.

Article by Carrie Dunn

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