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John Donne: The Major Works including Songs and Sonnets and sermons. 
Edited by John Carey. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. 488.

Reviewer: Dr. Anthony T. Sovak, Pima Community College

(June 2014 IssuePDF)

John Donne: The Major Works including Songs and Sonnets and sermonsedited by John Carey covers one of the major metaphysical poets with reference and research tools built in. As for the primary material,  this volume boasts a well rounded collection of Donne’s work, including major poems, sparsely published correspondence and excerpts of his sermons. The comprehensive inclusion of his work coupled with the index, notes and chronology make the volume a valuable addition to any Early Modern Poetry scholar’s library. It is accessible enough to be used as part of a course with a larger focus that includes Donne’s work and yet deep enough to function as a primary text in a more narrowly focused courses. In either case the chronology and notes provide an excellent resource for intertextual analysis of his work. That work would be made more efficient if the dates of publication were consistently displayed with all of the works presented in the volume.

However, it is Carey’s powerful and compelling introduction that makes it so valuable. Carey frames the religious, rebellious and political society of 16th century England provocatively for first time visitor and returnees alike. See Donne as Carey does, through the lens of his contemporaries, and the intervening centuries soon dissipate to reveal a “‘Copernicus in poetry’ -- a Promethean innovator” (xix).  Through the framework of religious persecution, Carey portrays a literary figure in opposition of the state. Students of Donne, from the outset of their studies, adopt a richer perspective of the poet. Carey presents the reader with the two lyrical voices of Donne, that of the love elegies and that of the satires; for example, “The satires and elegies express, through different masks, the same antagonism, superiority, and resentment” (xxi). But it is the situation that created those voices that will cause modern students to hear resonance. For the “...dashing, sophisticated protagonist of the elegies was a fabrication designed to appeal to the Inns of Court students as a group...Hard-up and inexperienced, (those students) provided easy prey for usurers, prostitutes, and other exploiters” (xxi). Students in the early 21st century, who are similarly besieged by “exploiters” in this bleak landscape of poor financial opportunity, will likely be swayed by the appeal of Donne’s fabrication. Similarly, the voice of the satires resounds with this generation who, like Donne’s, are “excluded by their youth” from “the career opportunities for which their education had fitted them” (xxi).

Carey leads us through a tour of Donne’s life with an intimate knowledge of the history and the poetry that allows him to tease out connections between his biography and his cultivated literary personas that we might miss on first or second glance. To assist us in finding our own way, our knowledgeable tour guide leaves page numbers when he mentions those connections so that we may move from the introduction deep into Donne’s work. The solid foundation of viewing Donne’s work that Carey gives us allows us to work with this volume in a non-chronological- non linear way. We are free to follow Carey’s lead when it interests us and, eventually, we begin to depart from his view as we come across our own questions. We then may begin to pursue our own research of Donne’s work and find our own answers.

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