Sunday Short: The Variorum Edition of Donne’s Satires at the Digital Nexus?

The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne

It has been over thirty years since Jerome McGann, D.F. McKenzine, and others catalyzed a shift in literary studies (1) to recenter the field as one unavoidably and necessarily linked to textual history and editorial presentation. Due to the turbulent nature of Donne’s source material, Donne scholars have long been at the forefront of this shift to textual studies. The Variorum series is a staple and testament to the value of this critical shift. Assembled by the leading scholars in Donne studies including Gary Stringer, Donald Dickson, Dennis Flynn, Ernie Sullivan, M. Thomas Hester, and others over a period of eight years, the resulting Variorum is undoubtedly an essential tool for aspiring Donne scholars. Yet, McGann and McKenzie’s critique of W.W. Greg and Fredson Bowers’ mid-century editorial practice is nearly banal in the era of Digital Humanities, and the evasive referential nature of the Donne Variorum must be understood, as McGann would counsel us, as a text in time. As Robert H. Hume argues (2), perhaps the pendulum of textual studies has swung too far against “best text” 20th century iterations in the era immediately before Digital Humanities, resulting in a conservative, inactive editorial product. The Digital Donne accompanying website to the Variorum series has the potential to remedy many of the insufficiencies of a text like this in the era of constant digital editorializing and updating, but the text itself owns a discernable dialectical tension between radical honesty and necessary editorial censure.

The presented text of the Satires in this edition of the Variorum is without doubt the best scholarly edition to date and offers significant value to both graduate students and scholars in the field. The editorial team exhaustively cataloged all textual differences in the three manuscript groups that comprise the source material for the Satires. Every textual deviation is denoted and sourced, much like the recent Oxford Editions of Milton and Sidney (the latter of which, usefully, is available online and constantly evolving(3)). The scholarly version of the Satires represented here makes the Variorum a necessary scholarly tool for critics of the Satires, and underlines the enduring significance of McGann and McKenzie’s project for a radically honest paratext surrounding collectively discerned copy-texts.

The pendulum swings the other way in the Variorum’s “Commentary” section. The brief summary of all critical interactions with the text on a line-by-line basis is useful for beginning students of the Satires, but is problematically and essentially cut off in 2009. New Critical readings of the Satires from the early 20th century which have limited  value for modern critics appear in the collection, but contemporary criticism on the political and religious nature of the Satires (of which there has been a significant growth) is missing. This is not an error by the editors, but reflective of the troubled place of 1160 page referential texts in the era of Digital Humanities. This collected commentary will be outdated in five years, and arguably already is.

With such an advanced and essential representation of the text of Donne’s Satires, the Variorum represents a significant opportunity for Donne scholars. Yet as Robert Hume argued, we should not let the postmodern notion of authorial ambiguity limit editorial practice and mire this opportunity. A text like the Donne Variorum has the potential to enter aspiring Donne scholars into the most contemporary readings of Donne, an essential facet of all effective and meaningful scholarship. But the fixed, physical form of the Variorum limits its ability to do this. The Donne Variorum is thus a text interestingly sitting at the nexus point of late-20th century editorial revisionism and the emergence of constantly evolving digital projects. In our current moment, it is essential. As digital humanities projects continue to dominate Early Modern literary circles at conferences and in seminars, it will likely become a relic.

(1) The Textual Condition and A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism by McGann and Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts by McKenzie are the texts I’m thinking of here.
(2) “The Aims and Uses of ‘Textual Studies,’” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 99 [June 2005]: 205

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