London: Printed by M[iles].F[lesher]. for Iohn Marriot. 1633.
First edition. Small 4to. 190x140mm. pp. , 406. Attractively bound by Ramage in maroon full morocco. Triple filet border in gilt and blind with frame also in gilt and blind with gilt fleurons at the corners. Spine has five raised bands with double filet in gilt. Compartments with single filet border and fleuron, second and third compartment lettered in gilt. Doublures decorated in gilt filets and fleurons. Vellum endpapers. Spine slightly faded but overall a very smart binding. Slight soiling to F1 and small tear to head of Oo4, not affecting the text, otherwise near fine internally. Lacking final blank. The Printer to the Understanders (A1 and A2) and Infinitati Sacrum (A3 and A4) bound after title page and NnI is cancellandum, with running titles but omitting last 2 lines of text, which instead appear on the verso. Although attempts are made to ascribe "states" or "editions" to these variations, Keynes felt that such efforts were fruitless: "I made some attempt to find a method of differentiating earlier from later issues, but it became clear that such states were really governed by chance according to the order in which the sheets were taken up for folding before making the book. No importance, therefore can be given to the various combinations in which the corrections are found". An excellent copy of perhaps the most important and influential collection of seventeeth-century English poetry.
The first edition of Donne’s Poems in 1633 was published two years after his death. During his life, his poetry appeared in manuscript collections copied out and circulated by cognoscenti and although Donne did attempt to bring these copies together for an edition of collected poems, it was never printed. This 1633 edition is therefore the first public appearance of Donne’s poetical work. Donne’s public profile was that of a priest and a lawyer-diplomat, but his poetry was celebrated in high literary and intellectual circles where its opaque, allusive metaphysical manner was understood and appreciated. Indeed, in the “Elegies upon the Author” in the first two editions of the Poems, many of the writers praising Donne concentrated on his work as a preacher and essayist, not as a poet but then this first edition was designed to honour and commend Donne the man, as much as Donne the poet, having as it does an air of “reliquary embodiment”. But, of course, his brilliance as a poet was recognised not least by the Printer to the Understanders for whom “the best judgements… take it for granted” that Donne’s poetry is “the best in this kinde, that ever this Kingdome hath yet seene”, and by Thomas Carew whose Elegie speaks of “widowed Poetry”.
Poems immediately established Donne as the leading poet of his age and a further five editions appeared in the following two decades although the order of the poems was frequently altered to ensure a decorous distance between the religious work and the erotic licentiousness of the secular poems. During the eighteenth century, Donne’s reputation waned in the face of empiricist critiques of metaphysical obscurantism and a feeling that his verse and metre were too rough and inconsistent for an age which valued classical smoothness. Donne’s position was rescued by two of the greatest poets, Coleridge in the nineteenth century and Eliot in the twentieth. The former described Donne as a writer who “thinks and expects the reader to do so” while Eliot saw in him a distant ancestor of the modernists.