"Hac Ex Consilio Meo Via Progredieris": Courtly Reading and Secretarial Mediation in Donne's the Courtier's Library

Article excerpt


Sometime after the exectionexecution of the Earl of Essex in 1601, and probably before he joined the Drury household in 1610, John Donne (1572-1631) wrote a short Latin jeu d'esprit, the Catalogus librorum aulicorum incomparabilium et non vendibilium, now known as The Courtier's Library. First published in 1650 as an addition to posthumous editions of Donne's poetry, the Catalogus originally circulated in manuscript among a coterie audience. (1) Like Rabelais's (ca. 1494-1553) list of the books belonging to the Library of St. Victor in the seventh chapter of Pantagruel, The Courtier's Library uses the form of the library catalogue to make a series of jokes at the expense of learned culture. (2) However, where Rabelais satirizes the scholastic learning associated with monasteries, Donne takes aim at the humanist methods adapted by secretaries to produce knowledge for courtly display. The Catalogus provides a parodic image of the Republic of Letters seen from the contemporary English perspective. It lists imaginary books attributed to major Continental figures, such as Martin Luther, On shortening the Lord's Prayer and On the Diametrical Current through the Center from Pole to Pole, Navigable without a Compass, by Andre Thevet; alongside these are titles that satirize contemporary English figures and institutions, for example, One Book On False Knights, by Edward Prinne, Slightly Enlarged by Edward Chute and On the Privileges of Parliament by the famous clown Richard Tarleton. (3) This list is prefaced by an introduction in which a fictive secretary or tutor offers these books as a course of study, suggesting that its "incomparable and unsaleable" books will provide courtiers with irrefutable authorities to support their assertions. (4) However, the Catalogus is not simply a conventional attack upon courts and courtiers: while its jokes are often not particularly subtle, they attest to the problematic displacement of the secretarial labor that undergirded the courtly display of learning.

Despite the complex relation between knowledge production and courtly display in The Courtier's Library, it is one of the most neglected works by Donne. Only two critics, Evelyn Simpson and Anne Lake Prescott, have engaged seriously with the text during the last century. Simpson identifies the allusions in the individual items of the Catalogus and considers both dating and general context. (5) Indeed, her exemplary thoroughness is probably one reason for the work's subsequent neglect. Her emphasis on the identification of the figures whom Donne satirizes has framed its reception: The Courtier's Library has been consulted only occasionally, usually in a biographical context in order to situate Donne's opinions on a variety of authors and fellow countrymen, rather than as a text in its own right. (6)

By focusing attention on the individual items of the Catalogus, such biographical readings ignore the importance of secretarial activity to the framing of the text, which is striking given Simpson's dating of the Catalogus to the first decade of the seventeenth century. These years--from 1601, when Donne lost his place as secretary to Lord Keeper Sir Thomas Egerton (1540-1617) as a result of his marriage to Ann More (1584-1617), until 1610, when he gained a relatively secure position with Sir Robert Drury (1575-1615)--were perhaps the most difficult of his life. For much of the decade, Donne and his family lived in borrowed lodgings, first at Pyrford, the home of his cousin-in-law Francis Wolley, then at Mitcham. Donne's letters from this period attest to his desire for a stable and productive place in society where his abilities would be put to use, as they had been during his employment with Egerton. The context of The Courtier's Library's composition thus suggests that it might offer itself as a source for understanding Donne's perception of his time as Egerton's secretary. (7)

Anne Prescott's perceptive treatment in Imagining Rabelais in Renaissance England suggests that the Catalogus is amenable to far more nuanced readings than simply the biographical. …