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Originally published in the Summer 2002 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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The quest for Donne

By Janet Drummond
English major and magazine intern (2002)

Ernest Sullivan examines a book in the library

Ernest Sullivan

Reproduction of John Donne's signature

John Donne's signature

Photo of an old book containing works by John Donne

An old book with works by Donne. Photo by John McCormick

A portrait of John Donne

Donne portrait, c. 1595, painter unknown. Property of the Trustees of the 11th Marquess of Lothian

Unicorn watermark -- part of the Watermark Project

Unicorn watermark from William Caxton's first printing of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Reproduced by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Thomas L. Gravell Watermark Database.

Ernest Sullivan in Ireland

Ernest Sullivan in Ireland — not far from a library

Picture yourself walking through the unpaved streets of any European town in the 17th century. There were no motorized cars, no television, no cell phones, and no Internet. Imagine a time when books were rare because there were few or no printing presses available. Imagine being a writer of great poetry, sonnets, and essays but being able to publish them only by hiring a copyist. Imagine being a copyist working hours on end, trying to copy the handwriting of many different authors. Mistakes were inevitable.

Now, suppose your friends were writers with unpublished works. The best way to circulate your work was to share it with others. This may have been done verbally or perhaps you would trade and copy each other’s work. So what would have happened to the original works? Originals could be found literally anywhere.

Writers were often commissioned by the church, the government, or the wealthy, or were occasionally commissioned by individuals to write for special occasions. So the authors did not necessarily own their originals. They may be hidden in the belongings of a wealthy merchant, stored on a shelf in the library of a cathedral, or tucked away somewhere in the government records. Authors’ works may have been copied into the records of missionaries or explorers. They may have been recorded in travel journals or sent in letters to friends, relatives, and lovers.

So, 400 years later, when a professor of English has an interest in finding the original works of an author, his search is limited only by his imagination. Literary researcher Ernest Sullivan has dedicated 35 years of his life to searching out original books and manuscripts. John Donne, 17th century writer, poet, and sonneteer, has been the focus of Sullivan’s quest, although he has discovered many other important literary works. A poem by Lord Byron about the birth of his daughter Ada and a handcorrected typescript page of Joseph Conrad’s story, Youth, are his most significant finds, Sullivan says. But John Donne remains his primary research interest.

Why is Sullivan so interested in John Donne? And why would a scholar dedicate his life to searching, re-searching, and researching the works of a Renaissance author? Sullivan began reading Donne as a teenager. “I found Donne to be difficult, complex. As a 15-year-old, I was also caught up in the eroticism of Donne’s poetry.”

Originally interested in studying physics and engineering, Sullivan found Donne’s works “full of intellectual puzzles” that rivaled the complexity of his favorite subjects. Donne, referred to by the 17th-century poet Thomas Carew as “the universal monarch of wit,” wrote complicated, intellectually challenging literature. “Donne saw an interesting connection between the physical world and the world beyond,” Sullivan says. “His metaphysical approach to literature adds mystery and appeal to his work.”

Searching for original documents became even more intriguing for Sullivan because he felt some of Donne’s puzzles were incomplete or did not make sense. He concluded that there must be errors in the copied and published versions of Donne’s work. So he set out on a quest to discover the original texts, or the oldest copies of the original texts that he could find. By comparing texts, he hoped to identify and correct mistakes made in earlier copyings of Donne’s work.

Who was Donne and why was his work important?

John Donne (1572-1631) wrote most of his literature in English and was known as the first metaphysical poet. He was fixated on the connections between the physical and spiritual worlds. According to Sullivan, Donne was popular during his lifetime because his writing intrigued his audience.

Donne attended both Oxford and Cambridge, but did not receive degrees from either. His parents objected to the oath of allegiance graduates were required to take for religious reasons. They were Catholic in an England that was becoming more and more Anglican after Queen Elizabeth’s crowning. Donne married into a Catholic family when he wed Anne More, daughter of Sir George More, and niece of famed Catholic priest Sir Thomas More’s second wife.

Despite his Catholic rearing and marriage, Donne converted to Anglican and became an ordained minister in the Church of England in 1615. He served as dean at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London for 10 years. Because of the contrast between his staunch Catholic upbringing and his decision to become an Anglican minister, some scholars question Donne’s allegiance to the Anglican Church, while others question his allegiance to the Catholic Church. This religious debate may have enhanced Donne’s popularity, says Sullivan.

His popularity was also enhanced by his subject matter. Some scholars go so far as to claim two Donnes. The first was fixated with the erotic and sensual. Sullivan says that a compilation could be done of these Donne works called “great lines to pick up girls.” The “second Donne” was fixated with death and religion. After his wife, Anne, died in childbirth, Donne’s work took on the theme of death. Finally, Donne created a series of works with a religious theme. But the common thread in Donne’s work was his wit.

Because of his popularity, his writing was copied, published, and distributed throughout Europe and possibly throughout the world. Copies of Donne’s work can be found as far away as South Africa and Japan. Searching for Donne is a project so large that several people have worked on it. In fact, the textual editors of the Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne have formed a learning community to share discoveries. Sullivan is a member of the group, which meets twice a year to hash out corrections, changes, and even punctuation. According to Sullivan, “The major Donne search was begun in earnest by John Shawcross. When Shawcross started his search, the number of known Donne works was fewer than 40.” By 1967, that number had increased to 167. “Then Peter Beal began the gigantic task of indexing manuscript English literature from 1500 to the present. Beal raised the number of known Donne works from 167 to 232.”

Sullivan has been able to add 22 additional works to the list for a total of 254 ... and still searching. Every detail of the Donne research — including where works were found, how many copies there are of each, and who discovered them — has been recorded in detail in Sullivan’s three-volume series of books, The Variorum Edition of the Poetry of John Donne, published by Indiana University Press, 1995-2000. Seven additional volumes are in various stages of completion and will be published in the near future.

But the challenge is still to find the most accurate copies of original works. Scholars realized that the work of compiling and comparing the originals and all the thousands of copies was too huge a task to be accomplished solely by humans. Under Sullivan’s direction, a computer program was designed and written at the University of Southern Mississippi. It can collate, compare, and detect differences in up to 100 poems at a time.

The watermark project

Another computer project is underway at Virginia Tech. Developed by Sullivan and English department colleagues Dan Mosser and Len Hatfield, the purpose of this program is to assist in dating literature based on the watermark on the paper. Sullivan explains that “watermarks are similar to DNA. By identifying the watermark on the paper, one can determine its date. Once the date is determined, then the researcher can determine the oldest copy, which should be a more accurate representation of the original than subsequent copies.” (The watermark project can be accessed at

Researchers spend so much time checking copies because copiers either made mistakes or would change the material, thinking they were improving it. To really understand the intent of the author, it is imperative that every word be copied exactly. “Every poem that has a mistake is a misrepresentation of the intent of the author,” says Sullivan.

His goal is to replicate the original as closely as possible and to present to the literary world an accurate representation of the original document. For example, a line in Donne’s Elegy 3, “Change,” contains the word “purified.” This did not make sense to Sullivan. After researching and comparing, he discovered the word should have been “putrified.”

Another Donne discovery

Last summer, Sullivan made another Donne discovery on a field trip to Cashiel Rock, Ireland. While touring a cathedral, he learned of the Bolton Library, a library of old books. He secured permission to look through library indexes, both printed and handwritten, and found another copy of the Donne book Biathanatos. In some versions of Biathanatos, Donne’s son made editing marks. This particular copy did not have such notes.

Most people would spend an extra day in Ireland sightseeing. But Sullivan is always on the quest for Donne and his custom is “to try to carve out an extra day when on a business trip and scavenge around the local churches, cathedrals, libraries, and offices of public records.” He asks for an index and searches it carefully for books, manuscripts, poems, and other literary works. “I used to just glance through the ‘miscellaneous’ category, but have discovered that an index is only as good as the indexer. If the person doing the indexing is not familiar with Donne, he may not recognize a significant work and so fail to mention it in the index,” says Sullivan.

The other challenge is recovering poetry and text that is within the body of other documents. For example, letters and the records of missionaries, merchants, and explorers are all possible places to look for hidden works.

Sullivan has published 12 books on the results of his research and is currently working on an edition of the verse letters of John Donne, an edition of the prose letters of Donne, and an edition of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.

Discovering literary work is both challenging and rewarding, but not just anyone can walk into the library of a cathedral and be shown historical documents. Only people with permission, identification, and credentials are allowed to look at the original documents. Sullivan’s credentials are impeccable and his vitae is the size of a small book. A graduate of UCLA, he earned a B.A. in 1966 and a Ph.D. in 1973. His dissertation was a critical study of John Donne’s Biathanatos. He is the Edward S. Diggs Professorof English at Virginia Tech and formerly served as professor at Texas Tech University. He was president of the John Donne Society from 1993 to 1994, and is the recipient of many awards.