Religion Around John Donne
The Religion Around series from Penn State University Press explores the religious contexts surrounding writers, artists, and other "cultural icons." The work of some of the figures treated in this series, such as Virginia Woolf and Billie Holiday, contains little that is overtly religious. Not so for this recent entry on John Donne. Through his devotional poetry and his sermons, Donne's reputation is built on religion. In fact, Joshua Eckhardt, Associate Professor of English at Virginia
... at Virginia Commonwealth University, points out that the religious themes and contexts of Donne's work have been exhaustively charted by literary and religious historians. Why then, is another volume on religion and John Donne called for, and how should it be approached? Eckhardt's unique approach makes his book particularly relevant to librarians, archivists, and manuscript historians. Eckhardt aims to read Donne's work by surveying "the religion around Donne in the manuscript collections, composite volumes, private libraries, and bookshops of some of the people responsible for reproducing and preserving his works" (2). Rather than looking broadly at the religious culture of early modern England or giving a close reading of Donne's writing in light of other important religious texts of the day, Eckhardt "zooms in on the religion right around Donne in his library, and in his hands" (3). This gives the project a very concrete shape as Eckhardt seeks out the "religion that has been actually, physically 'around' Donne and his writing" (4). In this way, Eckhardt's approach is quite literal, and it makes his book of particular interest to those of us who spend our lives developing and preserving collections of religious literature. By honing in on personal collections and examining how readers treated Donne's work in relation to those collections, Religion Around John Donne functions as a focused history of certain early modern religious libraries. By looking closely at the way Donne's books were handled in various personal libraries and bookshops, Eckhardt engages in "proximate" or "material intertextuality" (3). Instead of a standard intertextuality that would examine Donne's treatment of religious texts in his own writing, we see how Donne himself collected and arranged physical copies of the writings of other English religious figures. We also see how collectors distributed Donne's books and manuscripts in their own libraries. While Donne's poems are filled with the language of heaven, hell, and individual souls, Eckhardt's book "makes no claims about heaven or souls, but it has a lot to say about actual library books" (12). The Bridgewater collection, currently held at the Huntington Library in California, is the first collection that Eckhardt explores. This family library includes items collected by Thomas Egerton, a contemporary of Donne, and developed by his son and daughter-in-law, John and Frances Bridgewater. This collection includes manuscript copies of several of Donne's poems and some of his printed sermons. Surveying the shelves of this family library places Donne amidst the religious controversies of his day in a way that a 17th century reader would have experienced them. The other books and manuscripts in the library provide context that enlivens and complicates Donne's work, also showing certain blind spots in Donne's own perspective on English religion. For example, Donne sends Egerton poems that show concern for persecution of Catholic recusants, and Egerton's papers show his own involvement with the prosecution of recusants. However, those same papers detail prosecution of nonconformists, a group that Donne did not have in view.