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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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An interesting problem here...

Reading for the first year course I'm teaching this week asked the students to read John Donne's Holy Sonnets 14 & 18. The problem, though, was that these were not obviously labeled in the Norbrook edition of Renaissance Verse which had been set as the course text (I didn't set the course, I am merely teaching a prescribed syllabus).

As a non-Donne expert, I began duly sleuthing and deduced that, in the "Renaissance Book of Verse" (ed. Norbrook):

#259 "Batter my heart..." is Holy Sonnet 14, but is mislabeled in Norbrook as Holy Sonnet 10.
#261 "Show me deare Christ" is Holy Sonnet 17, but appears unlabeled in Norbrook.

All seemed solved. Students emailed.

However, this didn't seem to be the end of the matter. Reading through Arthur Marotti's essay in Critical Essays on John Donne he suddenly referred to "Batter my heart" as Holy Sonnet 10. Oh dear.

John Donne

So: Norbrook and Marotti state that "Batter my heart" is Holy Sonnet 10, while most other sources I can find label it as Holy Sonnet 14 (Wikisource,,, Dennis Foster at Southern Methodist University).

I did, however, find this statement, which could perhaps explain the problem:

The problem of the order and date of the nineteen poems called the "Holy Sonnets'' is very complicated. They have usually been numbered in sequence, but the traditional order has been convincingly questioned by Dame Helen Gardner in her edition of Donne's Divine Poems and is here not indicated. The first two in this selection were first published in 1635, the next five in 1633, the final two, entirely unconnected, not until 1894 and 1899 respectively. Most of the sonnets were probably written about 1609, but "Since she whom I lov'd" was written after the death of Donne's wife in 1617, and "Show me dear Christ" perhaps even later. -- Ian Lancashire, University of Toronto

This seems to, indeed, be the case. A quick read of Skouen, Tina, ‘The Rhetoric of Passion in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets’, Rhetorica, 27 (2009), 159-189 revealed the following:

On the complex textual history and varying numbering of the nineteen Holy Sonnets proper, see T.-L. Pebworth, "The Text of Donne's Writings," in The Cambridge Companion [to John Donne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)...], pp. 23-34 (pp. 30-31)

So, duly following this chain, it emerges that the confusion is highly merited:

All but one of the large manuscript collections that contain the Holy Sonnets present them in a sequence of twelve poems, but they do so in two distinct forms. These two manuscripts sequences have eight sonnets in common, but each has four not present in the other, and their ordering differs. To further complicate their textual history, the editor of the 1633 poems, using one strand of the manuscript transmission, printed one of these twelve-poem sequences, whereas the editor of the 1635 edition consulted another strand, and finding four different poems in its sequence of Holy Sonnets, inserted the, at different points among the twelve printed in 1633, thereby creating a sixteen-poem sequence. -- The Text of Donne's Writings," in T.-L. Pebworth, The Cambridge Companion to John Donne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 23-34 (p. 30)"

Given this information, it would make sense for all course setters to bear this in mind and refer to Holy Sonnets by opening line, rather than by number.

Featured image by lisby1 under a CC-BY-NC-SA license.