Friday, May 31, 2013


No Swallower nor Devourer of Volumes

John Donne (1572-1631), letter to Henry Wotton? (c. 1600?), as printed in The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne, ed. Charles M. Coffin (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), pp. 378-379:
I am no great voyager in other mens works: no swallower nor devourer of volumes nor pursuant of authors. Perchaunce it is because I find borne in my self knowledge or apprehension enough, for (without forfeiture or impeachment of modesty) I think I am bond to God thankfully to acknowledge it) to consyder him and my self: as when I have at home a convenient garden I covet not to walk in others broad medows or woods, especially because it falls not within that short reach which my foresight embraceth, to see how I should employ that which I already know; to travayle for inquiry of more were to labor to gett a stomach and then find no meat at home. To know how to live by the booke is a pedantery, and to do it is a bondage. For both hearers and players are more delighted with voluntary than with sett musike. And he that will live by precept shall be long without the habite of honesty: as he that would every day gather one or two feathers might become brawne with hard lying before he make a feather bed of his gettings. That Erle of Arundell that last dyed (that tennis ball whome fortune after tossing and banding brikwald into the hazard) in his imprisonment used more than much reading, and to him that asked him why he did so he answered he read so much lest he should remember something. I am as far from following his counsell as hee was from Petruccios: but I find it true that after long reading I can only tell you how many leaves I have read. I do therfore more willingly blow and keep awake that smale coale which God hath pleased to kindle in mee than farr off to gather a faggott of greene sticks which consume without flame or heat in a black smoother: yet I read something. But indeed not so much to avoyd as to enjoy idlenes.
bond: bound
acknowledge it): the unopened parenthesis is also in Evelyn M. Simpson, A Study of the Prose Works of John Donne, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), p. 313.
stomach: appetite
with voluntary than with sett musike: "voluntary" is apparently an adjective here, meaning ad lib or improvised — all of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary related to music fall under the category of noun (sense C.I.2).
brawne: brawny
Erle of Arundell: Philip Howard (1557-1595)
banding: bandying
brikwald: brickwalled, i.e. rebounded
Petruccios: Edward Le Comte, Grace to a Witty Sinner (New York: Walker & Co., 1965), p. 255: "What we have here is Donne's only reference to Shakespeare. He had seen The Taming of the Shrew (not printed until the 1623 Folio). It was notorious that Arundel was dominated by his wife." I haven't seen Le Comte's book; the quotation is at second hand, from Graham Roebuck, "Donne and 'All the World'," Renaissance Papers 2002 (2003) 77-89 (at 82, with n. 9).
smoother: smother, i.e. dense smoke

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