Gaskell House Blogs

What’s done is Donne.

22nd February 2021
in blog, Collection, Literature

Why buy Donne?

A number of “new” 19th Century volumes have recently been bought to add to the collection of books at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House. Over the years of restoration, books have been bought and donated to try to reflect the collection which might have been present during the lifetime of the family. These can be seen and looked at chiefly in William’s study.  Much is known about the titles that were present, from clues in Elizabeth’s own writing, from references in her letters and of course from the Catalogue of Sale of 1914. In the last few months staff and volunteers have been looking for new acquisitions to further build the collection.

One of the items listed in the Sale Collection was a volume of poetry by John Donne. That it was there at all is a surprise to some. His wide-ranging poetry which is noted for its direct language, clever metaphors and use of varying forms, addresses love and desire, as well as religious belief.  Some of his work is sensual, almost erotic and as such, not really suitable for a morally upright Victorian Household with four daughters.

Donne was born into a devout catholic family, which would not endear him to the Gaskells.  Like William, from a  non-conformist background, Donne was unable to graduate from Oxford or Cambridge, though it is believed that he did study at both for a while. Later, after his younger brother Henry died in prison for harbouring a priest, John renounced his catholic faith.

He then enjoyed a period of great excitement and adventure, sailing the seas with Raleigh to hunt Spanish Treasure ships and suffered unemployment and disgrace for secretly marrying Ann More, the daughter of a Surrey landowner . Eventually, perhaps in a desperate need to gain employment to support his growing family, he entered the Church (of England), became royal chaplain to James I and regularly preached at Lincoln’s Inn. He was elected Dean of St Paul’s in 1621.  He became one of England’s foremost religious poets and a celebrated preacher, addressing questions of faith and devotion. Both William and Elizabeth would therefore, have been familiar with at least some of his work.

 We know that William gave lectures on English poetry but can only speculate on whether or not he taught Donne. If he did teach Donne, did he look at his range of  work, or did he only examine his religious writings?  We feel sure that he would have very much liked the ingenuity of many poems and the use of puns. In a short poem entitled ‘A Hymn to God the Father’,  the poet expresses his need for forgiveness for his sins. The three verses all end with a version of ‘When thou hast done, thou hast not done/For I have more’.  ‘Done’ here is a pun on his own name, Donne. William would have liked that, as well as the general skill with words and rhymes.

Which Donne to buy?

Trying to find a reasonably priced volume of Donne for the house was difficult. Early editions are highly priced. Thanks to a well-known online used book selling site, we found a 2 volume American edition pub by the Grolier Club in 1895 (380 copies only). 

The Grolier club  is described on Wiki as a private club and society of bibliophiles founded in 1884. It existed for “the literary study of the arts pertaining to the production of books” Our copy has a very attractive green cloth binding with a lovely gilt decoration on the front. It is probably a more attractive edition than the Gaskells would have owned and is obviously later in date than both William and Elizabeth.

There were additional reasons to choose this particular edition. It is revised by writer  James Russell Lowell and  has the bonus of being edited by Charles Eliot Norton. They were friends and colleagues, and both were known to Elizabeth. The short preface by Charles, disappointingly only covers the notes and revisions made by JRL. I (Jane) was hoping for some of his thoughts on Donne as a poet.

Why do squirrels enter the story?

 We were also drawn to this particular edition of Donne’s poems because of its attractive gilt coat of arms on the cover, depicting a squirrel. As members of the gardening team, we couldn’t help being reminded of Plymouth Grove’s squirrel who has a taste for expensive and accessible tulip and crocus bulbs. ( see recent  blog Sir Squirrel Knutsford)  We wondered whether this had a direct link with Donne’s family.

Chris found nothing in a Wikipedia search for squirrels in coats of arms so decided to look further in the library catalogue of the Grolier Club, the book’s publisher. The catalogue describes the book as having a “grayish green cloth gilt-stamped with Donne’s arms on both covers.”

A further internet search produced this image of the monument to John Donne that is in St Paul’s Cathedral where a wolf can be seen in the shield above his head. The engraving is from the late 17th century. We can find no clearer photographic images of the monument.

Another internet search produces interesting information that might not be directly related to John Donne the poet. It appears that there was a Sir John Donne (probably born in 1420s – 1503) who was a Welsh courtier, diplomat and soldier, a notable figure of the Yorkist party. In the 1470s he commissioned the Donne Triptych, a famous triptych  altarpiece by Hans Memling now in the National Gallery, London.

His arms can just be seen above his kneeling figure and in a window in the right hand panel. A clearer image is to be seen in a book of Hours he commissioned. No squirrel here.

Book of Hours

 Although he shared the name with the poet Donne, their relationship cannot be direct, as the earlier Sir John Donne had no male descendants to carry on his surname. A later Donne perhaps “borrowed” the coat of arms. But, the description of the coat of arms, using the Norman French language of heraldry, states “Azure, a wolf salient argent”.  Maybe the passage of time has tamed the wolf into a squirrel.

So, there remain intriguing, unanswered questions about the Donne coat of arms on the covers of the newly acquired books.  If there are any heraldry experts reading this who can help us solve this mystery, we would love to hear from you.

Chris Tucker and Jane Mathieson, volunteers at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

We've got a certainly is a beauty...I must try and make the house give as much pleasure to others as I can.’

Elizabeth Gaskell, in a letter to her friend Eliza Fox in 1850.