"THE SPOKESMAN BEFORE GOD OF A VIRILE, UNCONQUERABLE HUMANITY": RARE FIRST EDITIONS OF JOHN DONNE'S LXXX SERMONS (1640), FIFTY SERMONS (1649), AND XXVI SERMONS (1660), BOUND TOGETHER IN TWO HANDSOME FOLIO VOLUMES
DONNE, John. LXXX Sermons Preached by that Learned and Reverend Divine, John Donne… WITH: Fifty Sermons… BOUND WITH: XXVI Sermons. London: Printed for Richard Royston et al., 1640, 1649, 1660-61. Three volumes bound in two. Thick folio (9-1/2 by 13-1/2 inches), 19th-century half calf, elaborately gilt-decorated spines, raised bands, black morocco spine labels, patterned paper-covered boards. $29,500.
Extremely rare first editions of the three separately published folio collections of sermons by "the outstanding preacher of his day" and one of the greatest poets in the language (Baugh, et al., 613)—the third, XXVI Sermons, one of only 500 copies printed, is "considerably rarer" than the first two (Keynes)—handsomely bound together in two volumes, with engraved additional title page by Merian featuring a portrait of Donne.
John Donne, Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, is remembered as "one of the most celebrated preachers of his age as well as its greatest non-dramatic poet" (Drabble, 283). "Thou shalt yield no precedence, but of time," wrote poet Thomas Carew on Donne's death. In 1919, T.S. Eliot praised Donne for possessing "uncommon dignity and beauty—a style which gives at times what is always uncommon in the sermon, a direct personal communication… [He was] an artist doing the traditional better than any one else had done it… putting into the sermon here and there what no one else had put into it" ("The Preacher as Artist"). Of Donne's estimated 180 sermons, 160 survive, "and they demand reading and study not just as the major productions of his maturity but also as intricate and beautiful pieces of prose… [They demonstrate that] his concern during his ministry was most often to seek edification—of his auditors and of the English church—and, while criticizing those whom he regarded as sectarians, both Puritan and Roman Catholic, to find some form of accommodation with elements of both. As Donne preaches to congregations ranging from the inhabitants of Blunham to the members of the courts of James I and Charles I, he can be seen to be mapping out a middle way that offers at the same time a strong vision of a church still seeking identity and a voice with which its ministers can speak both with and to authority" (DNB). "The sermons are not only rich in learning and curious lore: they are characteristically personal and powerful in their phrasing… At his most characteristic, [Donne] is the spokesman before God of a virile, unconquerable humanity" (Norton Anthology, 918). Donne's sermons "are now very rare" (Allibone, 513).
LXXX Sermons is the first of three folio volumes issued after Donne's death by his son between 1640 and 1660. Prefixed to LXXX Sermons is the first appearance in print (later published separately in expanded form) of Izaak Walton's account of Donne's life, which describes him as a "Preacher in earnest, weeping sometimes… preaching to himself like an Angell from a cloud." Donne's son delayed the publication of the second volume, Fifty Sermons, "apparently for fear of persecution from the Commonwealth government" (Grolier Club 64); it is "a considerably scarcer book than the LXXX Sermons" (Keynes 30). It includes Sermon XLIII, the powerful and controversial "Gunpowder Plot" sermon. Donne preached it in St. Paul's on November 5, 1622—only a year after his appointment as Dean—to mark the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Catholic conspirators attempted to assassinate King James I. The sermon represents a potent tension in Donne's career: raised by a mother passionately committed to the Catholic faith, Donne struggled to reconcile that upbringing with hopes of a diplomatic career under a monarchy that contested papal authority. This volume also collects "sermons which he delivered at Lincoln's Inn [that] are among the most ingenious and thoughtful of any which have come down to us… They will always rank as among the noblest examples of pulpit oratory which the 17th century has bequeathed to posterity" (DNB).
The third volume, XXVI Sermons, issued well after the first and second volumes, is bibliographically complex. XXVI Sermons "was very carelessly edited and printed. It actually contains only 23 instead of 26 sermons; sermon nine is left out altogether, but two of the sermons are printed twice over, numbers 16 and 17 being merely repetitions of numbers five and three [as issued]. The collation… will be seen to be very erratic… The pagination is very faulty, although the right number of pages, 411, is finally arrived at… There are in addition several minor misprints in the pagination. There are also variable irregularities in some of the signatures… a large number of corrections were made while the book was passing through the press… also note a change in the type after sheet Aa… [indicating] that the two parts of the book were printed simultaneously at two different presses… The book was printed by Thomas Newcomb and was twice reissued with new title pages in 1661 (see Keynes numbers 32 and 32a)." With ornamental woodcut initials, head- and tailpieces. Without initial and final blanks. Engraved additional title page is in second state as usual, with "Aetat: 42" in the oval around Donne's portrait. Regarding XXVI Sermons, "the statement that only 500 copies were printed explains the fact that the XXVI Sermons is considerably rarer than the two volumes of 1640 and 1649" (Keynes). This copy of XXVI Sermons is from the large-paper issue, likely to allow it to be bound uniform with the first two volumes, as in the present copy, though the "To the Reader" bifolium has been inserted after A2 from another copy of the regular-paper issue. STC 1738; Wing D1862. Keynes 29, 30, 31. Grolier Club 62, 64. Lowndes, 660.
Very faint dampstain along lower and outer edge of both volumes, text generally quite clean. Fifty Sermons title page darkened and stained, with a minor repair and creasing. XXVI Sermons with marginal tear to G3, not affecting text; final two leaves with some larger marginal repairs, affecting a few words on just the last leaf. A very good and handsome, tall copy.