Title: THE TITLES/HEADINGS OF DONNE'S ENGLISH EPIGRAMS ,  By: Hester, M. Thomas, ANQ, 0895769X, Jan90, Vol. 3, Issue 1

Section: NOTES


"Titles in manuscripts," Helen Gardner pointed out, "may contain information and, since, where this can be checked, it is often correct, such information should be treated with respect." "But," she cautions, "it is so uncertain whether any of the titles of Donne's lyrics are his own that an attempt to use a title as a guide to interpreting a poem is unwarranted" (Gardner 207).(n1) This conclusion holds true also for his twenty-one English epigrams.(n2) But that does not mean that it is not useful to test the propriety of a title by using the poem's strategies or wit as a guide. Such a venture cannot, that is, determine whether any of the manuscript titles are Donne's; but it can suggest the most likely, the most perceptive, or the most instructive titles in the manuscripts for the epigrams, it can indicate how some Renaissance readers interpreted these poems, and it can provide data about the provenance and state of the many Donne manuscripts.

Four of the epigrams merely move the name of the satirical epigrammatist's victim to the head of the poem: "Phryne," "Klockius," "Ralphius," and "Faustus." Central to the high spirits of each of these poems is a level of play on the name of the victim--as in the implicit comparison of the ancient courtesan with her "painted" Elizabethan counterpart in "Phryne"; the lower-class associations of the name of the pathetic, "sicke" Ralphius; the obscene suggestion about how Klockius (a sly person) evades his vow "ne'r more to come / In bawdie house"; and the multiple play on the Latin meanings of faustus ("prosperous" and "fortunate") as the name of a man who "keepes his sister and a whore... his sister and no more." But none of these titles is essential to the display or enactment of the poet's wit; in fact, in the manuscripts the titles of these poems are most frequently omitted.(n3)

Six of the epigrams have manuscript titles that identify the subject of the poem which does not appear verbatim in the poem itself: "Raderus," "Mercurius Gallo-Belgicus," "Cales and Guyana," and the three poems on ancient figures, "Hero and Leander," "Pyramus and Thisbe," and "Niobe." From one perspective, headings for these poems are essential, for omitting them modifies the reader's experience. Without the headings these poems become riddles, forcing the reader to surmise the subject being described--and this seems alien to the experience they present. Are we supposed to be left at the end of "Hero and Leander," for instance, wondering just who has been described? Is it Romeo and Juliet? Antony and Cleopatra? Mondale and Ferraro? The point seems rather to be--and the titles announce this aim--to illustrate the literary challenge, either generic, thematic, or metaphoric, that is to be answered in the poem. And, in fact, the wit of these poems confirms Donne's re-creative art, his ability to tell an old story in a new way, as the clever economy of the presentation of the heroic lovers as victims of the four elements illustrates. Even in the poem on "Cales and Guyana," the poet aims not to challenge our ability to discover the geography of his subject, but to surprise us with his inventive adaptation of the Aristotelian dictum about the generation of new matter--"one thinges end doth still beginne a new" (Caricato 115). If this poem does "Ridingly catch" us, it is by its implicit critique of Ralegh's call for a "new" "spoyle" of Guyana, which is seen as little more than an inflammatory ("kindled") appeal for more of the "old" false and wasteful valor ("brave"). The other two topical epigrams here require headings for the same reason: "Mercurius Gallo-Belgicus" focuses the reader's attention on the poet's sardonic delight in the venereal and mendacious connotations of the name Mercury and the witty application of the adage fide graeca (Caricato 115) in his attack on the wordy and inaccurate news-journal; and "Raderus" allows the reader the leisure to appreciate the poet's "lashing" of Matthew Rader for his expurgated edition of Martial, in which Donne plays on the Latin root of the editor's name (rado: "to cut," "to lash") and raises questions about the Jesuit priest's commitment to the words of his vows as well as to the words of the Latin poet. A preferable heading for this last epigram may be that given in the Westmoreland MS--"Martial castrats." This title points to the apologies for his obscene poems by Martial which lies behind Donne's poem: Martial begged specifically that his poems not be "castrated" and referred to the Priapi, those raging priests of Cybele who castrated themselves in the frenzy of their rites, as examples of those who "geld" for reasons of "religious" fanaticism. However, this title unique to Westmoreland shows only that its deviser understood the allusion--"Raderus" is preferable because of its identification of the object of the poem's ridicule. Thus, since the wit of these six epigrams resides in Donne's manipulation and adaptation of conventional and semantic norms and forms rather than in any testing of the metaxis of the reader of riddles, it seems appropriate and necessary that they be given headings.(n4)

The next seven epigrams create more troublesome choices: "Antiquary," "A licentious person," "A selfe accuser," "Disinherited," "The Lier," "An obscure writer," and "The Jughler," In Westmoreland only the first of these has a title, and the titles of all seven are frequently omitted in the manuscripts overall. Generally, these are given titles only in Group II MSS and not in Groups III, IV, V. Thus, it seems clear that Poems 1633 took its texts and titles from a Group II MS (like DC), but that those titles were most likely attached to them by the progenitor of Group II; in the same vein, it is also clear that Drummond made up logical titles for the epigrams, so that HN has no authority here either. The titles they occasionally receive are troublesome because of their interpretative or designatory character: they often offer a succint summary of the witty point of the poem or identify the satirical type which the poem addresses. "The Jughler," for instance--which is unnecessarily changed to "Mainliness" by Bennett and Milgate(n2)--provides a wry comment on the verbal and sexual facility of the persona, since to juggle is Renaissance slang for "to copulate" and derives from the Latin joculare which means "to manipulate" and "to jest." The title, in other words, encapsulates the subject and method of the poem in which the speaker "juggles' contrasting meanings of "womans joyes" in order to ridicule his detractor, to raise doubts about his victim's masculinity, and to defend his own sexual prowess. This title does not add to the meanings of the poem on its own, nor offer a directive to the reader, but it does offer a characterization of both the rhetorical and sexual facility of the speaker, the display of which is the main rhetorical concern of the poem.

In contrast to this high-spirited compliment to the persona of "The Jughler" are the satirical judgments in the titles of "An obscure writer," "A selfe accuser," and "A licentious person." The first of these apparently grants a well-earned anonymity to the scholar whose complaint about not being "understood" is derided in the poem, even though he is identified as "Philo." This title, then, offers an interpretative comment on the character's absence of a last name: philo means "love of" but apparently his "twelve yeeres study" is so dull that on one knows to just what he is devoted. Obscure in the sense of "difficult to understand" also parallels Philo's specific complaint--that he "hath been griev'd, / To be 'understood"--but overall the title adds nothing more to the meanings of the epigram than a general, Theophrastean summary or classification of the victim. In the same vein, the title of "A licentious person" might add a level of witty play to the poem. The joke of this epigram--that the profligate will lose his hairs and his heirs and thus end ironically embodying the Psalmist's adage--may be ironically reiterated in the play on licentious as "lawless": the sexual lawlessness of the braggart rake (hares = prostitutes) will render him prey to natural law and to Old Testament law when the sins/diseases of the father are visited upon the son.

"Disinherited," on the other hand, is more a descriptive than a metaphorical judgment. Perhaps the best reason for this title (which still does not make it necessary) is the generic identification it provides, since the wit of the poem derives in part once again from Donne's original treatment of a satiric type familiar to readers of Martial's epigrams. Like those of the epigrams on ancient figures, this title merely alerts the reader to a witty commonplace which Donne then ingeniously re-interprets. Both "The Lier" and "A selfe accuser," however, are totally unnecessary as far as the reader's expectations or the author's wit are concerned (and are frequently omitted in the MSS). The former title is unusually harsh and unequivocal for Donne and is probably not his. The latter title might create some interesting problems, since the poem attacks both the "you" of the poem and his "mistres" (it is entitled "A mistrisse" in HN and "on a Mrs" in S32), but still seems unnecessary to an understanding of the poem.

"Antiquary" is the most problematic of this sub-group, but only because of the two authoritative forms in which the poem survives. Group III, IV, and V MSS call the victims "Hamon," whereas Group II MSS (plus Stowe 962 and Grey) give "he." In one sense this title is merely designatory; its only possible interest derives from its possible topicality: does the poem deride a specific person? perhaps the civilist and anti-Catholic interrogator John Hammond?(n6) does the titles then associate "Hamon" with the Elizabethan Antiquarian Society that was devoted to enforcing the "rational" and "hereditary" bases of Protestantism (whose members Donne attacked in The Courtier's Library)? or is this title intended only to characterize "Hammon" as a conventional satirical type and biblical villain for which Donne invents a novel and surprising treatment? The last reason (although the topical satire is important to the poem) seems to me the most likely support for the title, and "Antiquary" is preferable to the "Hammon" of HN.

The last group of titles creates the most interesting problems, because of both their manuscript history and the possibility that they offer titles that Donne may have composed. These are the only titles that offer interpretative guidelines for the poems, or the only ones that accentuate wittily the central play of the poem they head. These are the other four military epigrams: Zoppo or "A lame begger," Caso d'un muro or "Fall of a wall", Naue arsa or "A burnt ship," and II Caualliere Gio: Wingef. or "Sir John Wingefield." There is, in fact, no manuscript basis for the English title of the last of these four: the poem survive only in W and O'F, the latter of which calls it On Cauallero Wingfeild. Some version of the Italian title for "Fall of a wall" appears in HN and W (with a Latin version in O'F), for "A burnt ship" in O'F, W, and Burley, and for "A lame begger" in O'F, W, and Burley (not counting its several variations in the miscellanies, which also frequently have variant texts). These last three poems are given English titles in Group II MSS (plus Stowe 962 and Grey), and with the exception of the Italian titles are usually given no titles in Group III and V MSS. If these Italian titles are not Donne's, they yet show (like "Martial castratS") a keen perception of the wry satire embedded in these epigrams, especially in their evocation of the precise point or play on which the inventive admonitions of these satirical encomia depend.

The most popular of Donne's epigrams, "A lame begger" is an original turn of the ancient liar paradox, playing on the terminal equivoque to raise amusing doubts the supposed beggar. In this case the Italian title does seem preferable to the English, for zoppo is "cripple or lame person." Like the English adjective "lame," however, the word also identifies a weak, halting or defective speech; in this sense, by capturing in one word the supposed condition and possible contention of the "mov[ing]" spectacle of the beggar it might be preferred to the English adjective-noun title. The Italian title has been used to associate the poem with the other epigrams of the Cadiz Expedition--Grierson, for example, says that the poem "records a common spectacle in a Spanish and Catholic town" (2:59)(n7)--but the point of the distich seems less a conventional attack on Spanish mendacity than a delightful verbal play. I prefer the Italian title because of its economy; either it or the English title is preferable to "A beggar" of HN, which, in addition, has a variant text.

"Fall of a wall" concerns the 1589 death of a Captain Sydenham at the seige of Corunna, most likely as recounted in Anthony Wingfield's (?) A true Coppie of a Discourse... (London, 1589) (Shawcross "Source"). Altering the precise facts of the catastrophe so as to leave the remains of the "too-bolde Captaine" under the fatal "wall," thus rendering the "towne" his "tombe," Donne wryly plays with the etymology of the victim's name so as to problematize the apparent encomiastic tenor of the Planudean epigram with a sardonic warning about the foolish valor of Sydenham. The poem presents, in fact, an ironic metaphoric cipher of the captain's name--for syde is obsolete English for "proud," "boastful," or "too-bolde," and ham is Old English for "towne." Sydenham's death, then, unfolded the aptness of his name: he became a literalized emblem of the biblical warning that the wages of sin/ pride are the town of death. With this understanding of the wry poem in mind, we see that the Italian title evokes more fully than the English title the witty microcosm/macrocosm correspondence and verbal realism of the poem--for caso could refer to both the fall of the wall and the "misfortune" of the captain; and the full Italian title, with the near homophones caso/casa, muro/muorto, sounds the play of metaphor that is central to the poem: the fall of a wall (caso d'un muro) = the house of death (casa di muorto).

In the same vein, although less provocative, is the Italian title for Donne's vivid presentation of the razing of the San Felipe by the defenders of Cadiz--Naue arsa. I would like to argue that the Italian title is an anagram for nausare ("to sicken," "to nauseate"), for the poem does present a sickening portrait of the Spaniards' desperate strategem of razing their own ships during the battle. Donne may have witnessed this horrific scene, or may have based his poem on the more detailed account of Ralegh; indeed the cumulative effect of the paralyzing paradoxes of the poem does convey the precise theme of the vice-admiral's graphic conclusion, "if any man had a desire to see Hell itself, it was there most lively figured" (Ralegh).(n9) The absolute negation and cancellation of all alternatives (the essence of hell) are precisely epitomized by the diatyposis drawn by Donne's cumulative paradoxes. Most obviously rendered by the controlling paradox of fire and water, every phrase and unit of the poem finds its opposite; and this pattern is reinforced by the selection of words with contrasting meanings. The "fired ship" of the opening line, for example, is "on fire," "fired upon," and "has fired its shot"; and "the foes ships" of the fourth line could be both the English warships as well as the San Felipe and the San Tomas, just as "their shot" could be that of either (or both) the English attackers or the Spaniards' exploding magazines. If the scene's graphic presentation of hell is followed, there is, in the same manner, a pitiful play on "rescu'd"--that the soldiers could be saved from drowning only by burning may be a terrible irony derived from the origins of the verb in re + cuss ("to be saved again"), for the destruction of the world comes for them by fire instead of water. Such a moralistic import would accord with the absence of nationality in the poem and its consistent universal terms: the victims are not identified as the Spanish or our enemy by "Some men," "they," and "all"; and the ships are not the Warspite, the Nonpareil, and the Rainbow, or even our ships, but simply "the foes ships."

This universalizing of the scene is also evident in the seemingly curious choice of "decay" to describe the death of the victims, the most usual meaning of which ("to rot") would seem inappropriate to describe the drowning and burning of the Spanish crops. But in its Renaissance senses of "the process" of falling off," "to cause to fall," and "downfall or destruction" (from de [down] + codere [fall]) it negates perfectly the action of the men as they "leap'd forth," jumped "from," and strove "Out of" the exploding inferno of the ship. And, along with the adverb "ever," the choice of "decay" evokes the pattern of human history, man's fall bringing about his "decay" and the fires of hell: "all were lost." All attempts to escape death are "lost" in the scene, just as "all" the words of the sentence are cancelled by opposites. Even the smallest unit in the description has its contrary: "Out of" and "no way" in the first line, followed by "some"/"all," "by"/"from," "lost"/ "found," "Neere"/"lost," "no way"/"could be." The Italian title, then, captures more evocatively than the English one the apocalyptic tenor of this nauseating spectacle, for the central fire/water paradox of the poem is intimated by the possible puns on arsa/arca (dry/fountain) and on arca as a "sarcophagus." I must admit an unwillingness (despite my better judgment) to give up entirely on the possibility of the Italian title as an anagram for Donne's reaction to this scene; but I am more easily convinced that it does invoke better than the English title the principle of total and unavoidable negation which governs the antitheses of the epigram.

The only extant texts for Donne's epigram on the death of Sir John Wingfield at Cadiz are W and O'F, both of which have an Italian title; and they provide a rich and saucy reiteration of the satirical turn which the heraldric images of the poem give to this encomium. Donne elevates the English colonel into a figure of classical and eternal stature, but also uses the occasion to fire one more volley at the aspirations and pride of the Spanish Empire which the English had so recently and boldly assaulted. Just as Essex re-wrote the mythology of Cadiz when he "bestow[ed]" a "fitter Piller" on the island, so Donne converts the symbols of Spanish political mythology into a proverb of English superiority. This transfiguration is effected most obviously in the use of "Piller" as a term of endearment and achievement; the representative of the dreaded English "Pillers" (or pillagers) becomes a lasting "Pillar" which reminds the Spanish of their humiliating defeat; and this saucy thrust at their damaged pride is intensified by the fact that, as an inscription, the poem parodies the impresa of the Spanish king. Philip II's impresa, which was "symbolic of Philip's shedding glory and the true light of God over the nations," depicted Phoebus Apollo moving between the Pillars of Hercules from the "cradle" to the "bed" of the sun; and the imperial motto that was transcribed on the Pillars in Spanish heraldric emblems was "plus oultra"--"farther than" (Hester 84). Thus, the emblematic "sun" of Philip, the sun that was supposed never to set on the Spanish Empire, the pillars that marked not the boundary but the start of the nation's religious and territorial empire, and the motto that expressed its expansionist achievements are rendered applicable only to the daring colonel who pillaged their ports--"Farther then [plus oultra] Wingefield no man dares to go." Therefore, the Italian title, especially through the cognate coballe/cauallero, announces the satirical sting which Donne embeds in his epic praise of the English pill(ag)er. The martial epigram becomes a Martial epigram; and the Italian title cleverly conveys the insult and the verbal assault that the poem delivers.

Even though incompletely, these manuscript data do lead to some interesting conclusions:

(1) 1633 took its titles and texts for the epigrams from the Group II tradition, although apparently a later Group II traditions as seen in the Dolau Cothi MS;

(2) Groups III and IV are independent of Group II in this case;

(3) Some MSS not categorized by Gardner or Beal have some interesting interrelationships: for example, Stowe 962 and Grey share titles with each other and with Group II MSS; Utterson seems to be Group V; and W, Burley, HN, and Wedderburn share some unique titles and verbal features, and O'Flahertie, despite its unusual order of poems somehow joins them (while still being basically Group III). Thus W may not constitute a group by itself, and Bur, HN, and Wed require some kind of classification not yet devised;

(4) Since the titles of 1633 have no authority as far as Donne is concerned, we must attend carefully to the titles by the MSS.

The titles of Donne's epigrams, therefore, will remain problematical--like his poems. It is probably wisest (and safest) to submit "headings" for all of them--but those headings are frequently provided by the manuscripts. There is no need to invent new titles for the poems. And, in fact, many of the titles provided by the manuscripts bespeak an understanding of the wit and dexterity of the poems so succinctly that one is tempted to claim they are Donne's. "Farther than [this] no [editor] dares to go."

(n1) For a fuller study of the problem of Donne's titles see John T. Shawcross. "But Is It Donne's? The Problem of Titles on His Poems." John Donne Journal, forthcoming.

(n2) I have used the edition of John T. Shawcross, and refer to the manuscript sigla and manuscript groupings given there. The Donne manuscripts are listed by Peter Beal. Index of English Literary Manuscripts (London, 1980), 1, 243-568. Additional manuscripts, correlations of this list, and more copies of the manuscripts are detailed in the essays of Beal and Ernest W. Sullivan II in John Donne Journal 7:1.

(n3) "Faustus" remains dubia in the Donne canon. In fact, I think it more likely the work of John Harrington than Donne, but it does appear in significant manuscripts--the "Scottish" manuscripts of Donne: Dalhousie(s). Hawthornden, and Wedderburn, but only in these four. Epigrams whose "titles" are most frequently omitted include: "A selfe accuser." "A licentious person," "Antiquary," "The Jughler," "Disinherited," "The Lier," "Klockius" (almost always). "Ralphius" (appears only in HN). "Raderus," and "Faustus."

(n4) For a fuller study of the intertextual play of "Raderus" and "Ralphius," see M. Thomas Hester. "Reading Donne's Epigrams," PLL 21 (1985): 324-31.

(n5) W has a title for "Antiquary" only: that title occurs in Group II and part of Group V: no title appears in Group III and part of Group V. W has no title for "A licentious person": that title occurs in Group II (and other apparently derived from the same tradition): no title appears in Group III. V (and others: various other titles appear in incidental commonplace books). "A selfe accuser" is given in DC (and Harleian 3991 from Poems 1635 or Poems 1639): no title appears in Group III, IV, V (Hawthornden makes up a different title). "Disinherited" is given in DC (and H399a from an edition): no title in Group III, IV, V (Hawthornden has "one disherited" [sic]). "The Lier" does not appear in Group II MSS; no title in Group III, IV, V (title in Hawthornden only). "An Obscure writer" is given in Group II; no title in Group III, IV, V. "The Jughler" is given only in Hawthornden. Bennett first printed the epigram as Donne's: Milgate followed his lead in giving the poem this title.

(n6) This possibility was first suggested by Grierson, II, 59. Topcliffe, we should recall, employed Hammond; and it was Topcliffe, the ardent government agent, who apprehended various Roman Catholic persons, including Donne's brother, Henry. Group II (and Stowe 962 and Grey, which are thus seen as Group II MSS--there is more evidence for that) give he: Group III, IV, V (and others which are thus seen as Group V MSS--there is more evidence for that) give: Haman: P: Hamon: Stowe 961. Carnaby, Bridgewater, Osborn, Utterson, Burley: Hamon: Dobell, O'Flahertie, Westmoreland: Hammon: Welden. Hawthornden.

(n7) "A lame begger" is so titled in Group II (and Stowe 962): no title in Group V: "Zoppo" in O'F, W, Bur; HN has a variant text and "A beggar": Wed has variant text but no title (suggesting that HN made up the title given); Dob has no title but a variant text; many MSS have variant text and variant title, most involved, both in text and in title, with the word "cripple."

(n8) "Fall of a wall" is so titled only in Group II (and Stowe 962 and Grey): no title in Group III or V (except for O'F and HN).

(n9) "A burnt ship" is so titled in Group II (and Stowe 962 and Grey); no title in Group III or V (except for O'F, HN, and Bur).


Bennett, Roger, ed. The Complete Poems of John Donne. Chicago, 1942.

Caricato, Frank S. "John Donne and the Epigram Tradition." Unpublished dissertion, Fordham, 1973.

Gardner, Helen. "The Titles of Donne's Poems." Friendship's Garland. Rome. 1967. 1, 189-207.

Grierson, H.J.C., ed. The Poems of John Donne. 2 vols. Oxford, 1912.

Hester, M. Thomas. "Donne's Epigrams: A Little World Made Cunningly." The Eagle of the Dove: Reassessing John Donne, eds. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth. Columbia. Mo., 1986. Pp. 80-91.

Milgate, Wesley, ed. The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters. By John Donne. Oxford, 1967.

Ralegh. Sir Walter. The Works of Sir Walter Ralegh. Oxford, 1829.

Shawcross, John T., ed. The Complete Poetry of John Donne. Garden City, N.Y., 1967.

-----. "The Source of an Epigram by John Donne." ELN 21 (1983): 23-24.