University of Virginia Library


It is now time to return to the Herbert manuscript of Biathanatos. During 1609, Jonson wrote and had staged Epicœne, The Masque of Queenes and Britains Burse, and he wrote several short poems. He also prepared the manuscript of Herbert.[40] Although photographs of the hand have been published very recently by Peter Beal, neither the Simpsons, Greg, nor Sullivan, who edited the manuscript of Biathanatos, illustrated the hand of the 'scribe', or the error of not connecting it with Jonson would have been noticed long ago (figure 7).[41]

The only book to acknowledge that Jonson may have been responsible for the manuscript was Evelyn Simpson's The Prose Works of John Donne, which first appeared in 1924. Percy and Evelyn Simpson had married three years earlier. Perhaps because Evelyn was the Donne scholar, the manuscript was discussed in her book rather than in the first volumes of the Oxford edition of Jonson which appeared in 1925. In the first edition of The Prose Works, Evelyn Simpson indicated there might be a problem:

The Bodleian manuscript raises some difficult problems. The hand in which it is written bears an extraordinary likeness to that of Ben Jonson. But in the absence of any clear external evidence—such as an allusion in Donne's introductory letter—it is


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impossible to suppose that Jonson had undertaken the arduous task of copying out a treatise of this length. Further there are palaeographical difficulties when a detailed comparison is made with the holograph manuscript of Jonson's Masque of Queens, preserved among the Royal Manuscripts in the British Museum. The numerous marginal notes are in Donne's own hand....[42]

We must respect Evelyn Simpson's genuine scholarly caution, for her hesitation is understandable: identifying another person's handwriting accurately can prove deeply embarrassing, as (theatrically) Malvolio discovered in Twelfth Night. With no further evidence, she prudently decided to regard the manuscript as a problem. The following year, Greg was supportive of her doubts:

It should be added that other hands occur liable to be confused with Jonson's. A manuscript of Biathanatos is preserved in the Bodleian Library (MS. e Musaeo 131) which shows an extremely close general resemblance, though certain technical distinctions make identity improbable.[43]
By 1948, Evelyn Simpson altered the passage concerned:
The hand in which the Bodleian manuscript is written has a resemblance to that of Ben Jonson, though it is certainly not his. The numerous marginal notes are in Donne's own hand....[44]

This opinion has been accepted without question. In 1972, Robert Pirie referred to the manuscript as 'in a scribal hand'; while in 1984, Sullivan observed that it was the work of 'a single professional copyist' and this was also assumed by Speed Hill.[45] Although these are accurate, though partial, statements, the other manuscripts of this 'professional copyist' (unlike, for instance, the Feathery scribe) have not been identified. In 1925, it might have bee n adequate for Greg to write that 'other hands are liable to be confused with Jonson's': seventy years later, the work of this supposed scrivener has remained limited to a single manuscript.

The real problem with the 'certain technical distinctions' that Greg and the Simpsons made is that they were comparing, as it were, apples with oranges. The Masque of Queenes is a very special manuscript that Jonson prepared for Prince Henry. The manuscript shows Jonson's hand at its most stylised and contrived. A similar example can be found in a copy of Martial that he gave to Richard Briggs in 1619.[46] Comparison with The Masque of


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FIGURE 7. John Donne, Biathanatos. MS. e Musaeo 131, p. 177. With the permission of the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

[Description: manuscript page]


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FIGURE 8. Ben Johnson, 'An Epitaph on Cecilia Bulstrode'. Lowell MS. 1455. With the permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

[Description: manuscript page]


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was, of course, the test Simpson always applied against any other possible Jonson manuscript, but that is scarcely reassuring, for the variety of the evidence concerning Jonson's handwriting found in his manuscripts and marginalia is far more complicated. The moment Herbert is compared with the Lowell Manuscript (figure 8), the fallacy is obvious. The Lowell Manuscript is a fine example of Jonson's typical hand in 1609, carefully written but far more fluent than The Masque of Queenes.

Another document, however, shows that Evelyn Simpson decided to suppress material originally intended for her book before the first edition of The Prose Works of John Donne appeared. These alterations involve more significant matters than merelyan adjustment of tone. At the bottom of an uncatalogued cardboard box titled 'Printed Pieces, Notes and Proofs' among her papers, now in the Osborn Collection at the Beinecke Library, Yale University, is an envelope which contains part of the original typescript for the Prose Works. The passage that has been quoted, before it was altered for publication, first read:

The Bodleian manuscript raises some difficult problems. The hand in which it is written bears an extraordinary likeness to that of Ben Jonson. Mr. Percy Simpson, who as an editor of Jonson is thoroughly familiar with the latter's hand, has examined the manuscript of Biathanatos and declares that the general resemblance is so striking, as well as the agreement of individual letters and groups of letters, that he is disposed to believe the manuscript is in Jonson's autograph. If this can be substantiated it will furnish an additional proof of Jonson's admiration for Donne. The numerous marginal notes are in Donne's own hand....[47]
There was also a further passage that was removed:
But if the Bodleian manuscript is really in Jonson's hand, we cannot date it as late as 1619, and a date between 1602 and 1608 would seem probable. Mr. Simpson believes that it shows a slightly earlier form of Jonson's handwriting than that exhibited in the Masque of Queens (1609), of which the holograph manuscript is to be found among the Royal MSS. in the British Museum.

It is quite clear from this that Percy Simpson believed the manuscript to be in Jonson's hand. If he changed his mind, he left no statement as to why he did so. It would be possible to speculate why the Simpsons decided not to address the manuscript in the context of the Jonson edition (including the problems it would have created for the first two volumes of the edition while it was already at the press), but that is not the main issue. Put simply, the scholarly opinions of Percy and Evelyn Simpson on Jonson's manuscript material cannot be accepted without question. In the case of both the Cotton manuscript and Herbert, Percy Simpson began with an assumption about Jonson's biography and then made a judgment about the nature of the evidence before him based on those opinions. In both instances, he was wrong.


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Of course, we do not have a letter or similar document by Jonson that explicitly states that he copied Biathanatos—therefore, another form of corroborative evidence would help 'determinately satisfy' the question of his involvement. Paper, as a neutral record of such associations, is the best witness we could have, and that is why it is such an important control when discussing these issues.

Simpson, though considered a perfectionist, never took records of watermarks or other forms of evidence provided by paper. Sullivan, however, did—though he dated the manuscript on inferences about when it might have been copied, and did not record the distinctive evidence that could be derived from the characteristics of the mark or differences in the mould. The account that Sullivan provided of the paper to be found in the manuscript therefore needs to be modified.[48] The manuscript consists of 142 leaves, not all of which are conjugate, folded as folio but cut down to quarto size.[49] The paper has four variant watermarks of a double pennant flag with the initials 'G3' (figure 1). The volume is quired in a combination of single sheets and in fours.

As well as the paper used for the manuscript, there is a group of front and rear endpapers. A pair of front and the rear flyleaves are folded as quarto, the rear without watermark and the front with a small bunch of grapes with a stalk. The front flyleaves are quired with a folio sheet of which the first leaf is a stub (which has been numbered) and on the verso of the second is the record of Herbert's gift of the volume to the Bodleian: the watermark was on the cropped leaf. Following the leaf with the record of Herbert's gift is another single folio leaf with a stub bound in before the manuscript. This leaf, on which Donne wrote his letter to Sir Edward Herbert, is without a watermark. These pages have been recorded by the Bodleian as i-x—in order to avoid confusion, the Bodleian method of numbering the preliminary leaves of the manuscript has been retained here. There is also a single folio leaf after the manuscript (but before the rear flyleaves) with a crown and grape watermark—whether this was originally conjugate with Donne's letter is uncertain, but it is probable as the distance between the chainlines (which are much wider than the other paper) is the same. The structure is suggestive of the way in which the manuscript was put together and then turned into the book that was given to Sir Edward Herbert. The volume was bound in gilt-ruled reverse calf with a central ornament of five crossed arrows and a bow, quartered with brown morocco and secured with blue silk ties, of which the stubs remain.

Excluding the endpapers that have been described, the remainder of the volume was initially prepared by Jonson before Donne added the sidenotes. This section entirely consists of paper with flag watermarks, and indicates


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something of the history of its preparation as a document. The watermarks are twins, and these twins change approximately halfway through the manuscript when the sheets begin to be mixed together. The second pair of watermarks first occurs at pages 135-138 and 175-178, where the new paper is bound as the inner sheet of the quire (in fours). The first group of papers is indicated by roman type and the second group by italic. The division between them is as follows:
c.250 x 165mm 2°, pp. 284: ; xi-xiv xv-xxxvi, 1-134 135-138 139-174 175-178 179-184 185-212 213-228 229-258.

There are two parts to the preliminaries and the differences in paper are suggestive. Pages xi-xiv include the title and a list of authors cited. Pages xv-xxxvi is a descriptive list of contents.[50] It would appear that this second section was prepared while the manuscript was being written, as it is on the first group of paper. The first two leaves were then written after the rest of the manuscript had been finished: they are on the second group of paper. The way in which the second group of papers gradually replaces the first suggests that Jonson was steadily working through a single supply of paper that had been mixed together when the sheets were first placed in a heap at the papermill. The conclusion is corroborated by the presence of all four watermarks in the much shorter manuscript of The Masque of Queenes.

As Herbert is also a Donne manuscript, with Donne's marginal notes added to the text, most of Donne's manuscripts have also been examined for their watermark characteristics, to discover whether any of them share the same paper. There are thirty-eight surviving letters and one poem in Donne's hand and six other documents written by him. Like Jonson, Donne appears to have liked fine papers and, as has been shown, he used paper of this kind. While it has not proved possible to examine every holograph Donne manuscript for this study, none so far seen shares exactly the same watermarks as those used by Jonson. The only holograph letter written by Donne that has been dated to 1609 is on a sheet of pot.[51]

Paper and handwriting are two quite independent and impartial witnesses to the history of the preparation of a document. Three acknowledged manuscripts in Jonson's hand written in close proximity to one another are also associated by common watermark evidence. When the paper is also used in the same unusual manner (folded as folio, rather than quarto, and cropped) as another manuscript to which it is in other ways related, it is a piece of evidence that is particularly compelling. In the one manuscript that was


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prepared as a presentation text, The Masque of Queenes, the paper was prepared in exactly the same manner. The conclusion is unavoidable: Jonson was responsible for preparing and copying the Herbert manuscript of Biathanatos. When Herbert is compared with all the available evidence, the euphemism of 'certain technical considerations' dissolves in its imprecision.

What we know of Donne and Jonson's biographies also reinforces the likelihood that Jonson prepared Herbert about the same time as he was working on the manuscript of The Masque of Queenes. Donne was on the Continent between November 1611 and August 1612, while Jonson travelled with Ralegh's son between the spring of 1612 and early 1613. They are unlikely, therefore, to have collaborated on Herbert while either was absent or when they were both in Europe. This suggests that the possible dates between which Herbert must have been prepared can not have been before late 1608 (when Biathanatos was first written by Donne) or after November 1611 (when Donne travelled overseas).[52] For other reasons, an undated letter to Sir Henry Goodyere, that is accepted as having been written in 1609, would also seem to confirm that Herbert was being prepared at that time.[53] The contextual evidence increases the certainty with which Herbert can be dated and, once again, the date that seems most plausible is 1609: paper, biography and correspondence coincide.

The most important issue, however, remains the cumulative evidence that Jonson prepared Herbert : the problem is not if he did so, it is why, and what his involvement might imply. In 1619, Donne famously commented to Sir Robert Ker that 'I have always gone so near suppressing it [Biathanatos], as that it is onely not burnt: no hand hath passed upon it to copy it, nor many eyes to read it: onely to some particular friends in both Universities, then when I writ it, I did communicate it'.[54] In fact, as Peter Beal has recently shown, a second manuscript of Biathanatos survives.[55] Known as Canterbury, the manuscript is textually variant from both Herbert and the 1644 Quarto prepared by Donne's son. At best, then, Donne's comment to Ker is a little disingenuous.

Canterbury is also important for present purposes, because it contains a textual variant that casts some light on Jonson's involvement with Herbert. As Beal has shown, Jonson mis-read the name 'Hillel' and wrote 'stilled'; the same error was made in the 1644 Quarto. The scribe of Canterbury, however, understood the reference and copied Donne correctly.[56] The implication is that Jonson was copying from Donne's papers, and that Donne did not notice the error when adding his sidenotes and making corrections. It is clear that


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they must have worked closely together. This is not, of course, to claim Jonson as an author, but rather as a collaborative participant in the creation of the text. It is not impossible that two friends would have discussed the issues as they worked toget her.

There are many reasons why Jonson might have helped Donne, from a wish to collaborate and a genuine interest on his part in the issues involved, to being paid in cash or kind (and the two are not mutually exclusive). The reason he prepared the manuscript is, of course, an ultimately insoluble problem, but it does indicate a serious ellipsis in our knowledge about Jonson and Donne. Rather than suppressing the connection, we need to recognise their close association with one another. It is not satisfactory to elide the space and construct a narrative that ignores the problem as has happened in the past. For, as Jeffrey Masten's work on textual collaboration makes clear, such co-operation between authors was habitual in the early modern period.[57] Evelyn Simpson's hesitations are understandable, but they also derived from a view of authorship that we now recognise to be too narrowly focused.