Dr. Donne & Sir Edmund Gosse

By Bernstein, Jeremy | New Criterion, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Dr. Donne & Sir Edmund Gosse


Bernstein, Jeremy, New Criterion


In 1917 Albert Einstein published a paper on cosmology--indeed the first significant modern paper on the subject--that was sufficiently implausible that he felt compelled at one point to write, "In the present paragraph I shall conduct the reader over the road I have myself traveled, rather a rough and winding road, because otherwise I cannot hope that he will take much interest in the result at the end of the journey." When it comes to the principal subject of this essay, Sir Edmund Gosse, I know what he meant, and for this reason I shall conduct the "reader over the road" that led me to that rather unlikely figure. In 1983 I was sent for review Daniel Boorstin's Discoverers --a book that gave a kaleidoscopic and not always accurate tour of the entire history, of scientific discovery in 745 pages. On page 316, I came across the following laconic sentence: "In 1619, when Donne visited the Continent, he took the trouble to visit Kepler in the remote Austrian town of Linz" That was it. No explanation was offered. No discussion was presented of what Johannes Kepler and John Donne could possibly have found to say to each other. Indeed, how did such an incredibly implausible meeting ever take place? Were there any consequences? On all of this Boorstin was mute, and, worse, he did not even give a reference, so that one had no idea where to follow this up.

That was in 1983. For the next thirteen years, this matter rested unresolved, gnawing away somewhere in the back of my mind. Finally, in the fall of 1996, taking advantage of that leisure which retirement from full-time teaching affords, I decided that once and for all I would run it to ground. It wasn't easy. But with the help of colleagues from various parts of the country I finally succeeded. It turned out that the existence of this meeting was a discovery of the historian of science Wilbur Applebaum, who was then at the University of Illinois. He is now a professor emeritus at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Applebaum, he later informed me, had been rifling screndipitously through Johannes Kepler's Gesammelte Werke--the great multi-volume compendium of everything Kepler ever wrote--when he came across a letter from Kepler to a woman (no one has been able to identify her) describing a visit that had taken place some time earlier of a "Doctore Theologo" whom he identifies as Donne. The "doctore" he notes, was traveling "with His Royal Majesty's envoy, Mr. Doncastre [sic]." This is a reference to Lord Doncaster --James Hay--whom King James I of England had chosen to lead what turned out to be a futile mission to the Continent to head off the Thirty Years War.

Applebaum published a brief note on his discovery in the Philological Quarterly. He pointed out, incidentally, that the editors of Kepler's Werke had misdated the letter. They had given it as 1608, which is wrong for many reasons including the fact that Donne only received a "Doctore"--honoris causa--from Cambridge in 1615. (Donne was an Oxford man and getting this degree from Cambridge required some very powerful arm-twisting by the King.) Applebaum told me that he had great difficulty convincing the people then responsible for Kepler's collected works that someone there had made a mistake. In any event, among the few scholars who noted Applebaum's discovery was the Harvard astronomer and historian of science Owen Gingerich. In his biographical sketch of Kepler in The Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Gingerich makes a brief reference to the visit in terms almost identical to the language Boorstin used (presumably that is where Boorstin got his information) but with no reference to Applebaum. Incidentally, Gingerich also notes that a year after Donne's visit the British diplomat Sir Henry Wotton--former ambassador to Venice now on a special royal mission which was a sequel to Doncasters and similarly came to nothing--had also visited Kepler. He seems to have suggested to Kepler that Kepler come to England.

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