John Donne, Devotions (1624)

John Donne’s Devotions appeared in five editions from 1624 through 1638—the most popular book Donne published in his lifetime. This copy of the second edition (1624) is the first to appear on this site, though the two copies currently recorded in the Private Libraries in Renaissance England (PLRE) project were also both owned by women: the diarist Elizabeth Isham (d. 1654) and Frances (Stanley) Egerton, Countess of Bridgewater (d. 1636).

This copy of Devotions, currently in a private collection, contains a variety of names, sayings, ownership rhymes, and pen trials inscribed in the early hand of one Elizabeth Richardson, who laid claim to the book in four places: “Elizbath Richardson Har Book god gave Har graes therin to look Amen” (second front flyleaf verso); the same inscription repeated on the third front flyleaf verso; “Elizbath Richardson Har Book god made man and man man [error for “made”] mony god made Bees and Bees made hony a man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weedes fare god and keep his Command” (second rear flyleaf recto, top); “Elizbath Richardson Har Book god gave Har Grace ther In to Look not to look bot tak good hed that god may help har In Har ned and when the bell for Har doth tol lord Jesus Chris receved Har sole” (second rear flyleaf recto, bottom). “Elizbath Richardson” without an accompanying inscription also appears twice: among other names on the first rear flyleaf recto, and oriented vertically in the outer margin of N7v alongside the conclusion of Expostulation 12.

Other names scattered across the front and rear flyleaves include John Richardson, Nicholas Richardson, Jane Richardson, William Watson, Thomas Watson, Jane Watson, Mary Watson, Jone [Joan] Watson, and “The older Mary Richardson.” These are not the names of additional owners: all seem to be inscribed in the hand of Elizabeth Richardson and likely represent family and relations.

Second rear flyleaf verso

Unfortunately, the name Elizabeth Richardson is too common to identify, even with the contextualizing help these other names provide. In addition to a profusion of pen trials, the copy features a large decorative calligraphic ‘K’ (third front flyleaf recto), a charming sketch of what looks to be a peacock (second front flyleaf verso), and a passage inscribed on the first rear flyleaf verso, “Now sence our frend Most ly foll deep With in the silent Grave Let us Not Wep bot be content That god Hes [illegible] Will shall Have.”

The verses Elizabeth Richardson inscribes were all circulating in the mid-seventeenth century. One of her ownership rhymes appears in a 1640 edition of Dorothy Leigh’s popular The Mothers Blessing posted on this site on February 11, 2019.  Held by the Folger Shakespeare Library, this copy of Leigh contains two short inscriptions by Elizabeth Bewe that identify the book as her own; the second reads, “Elizabeth Bewe her Booke God Give Grace therin to looke and when the bell for her doth toll Lord Jesus Christ Receve her Soule Amen” (A6r). A manuscript notebook associated with the Jeffreys family of Acton, Denbighshire held by the Folger Shakespeare Library (V.a.489) contains iterations of two of Richardson’s other verses, “God made man and man made money God made bees and bees made honey” (39v) and “A man of words and not of deeds” (68v); both were copied in the mid-seventeenth century. Other versions of both rhymes appear in the Folger Union First Line Index of English Verse.

The book remains in its original binding, which features blind fillets around the perimeter with a gold fillet frame and centerpiece ornament.

A final noteworthy feature of this copy illuminates a condition—and danger—of early modern reading. One leaf (Z2) in the middle of Donne’s Expostulation 21 is missing because it has been burned away; other leaves on either side of the missing leaf are charred. Evidently an early reader, possibly Elizabeth Richardson, was reading Donne by candlelight, got too close to the page, and set the book on fire. The scorched pages provide an apt metaphor for the experience of reading Donne’s passionate extremity: “Thou kindlest thy fires in us,” he writes in Expostulation 13, “and yet doest not alwayes burne up all our drosse.” But they also remind us of the importance of candles to the early modern reading experience.

Source: Book in private collection. All photos reproduced with permission.


2 thoughts on “John Donne, Devotions (1624)

  1. Georgianna Ziegler

    The Folger has a copy of Wodenote’s Hermes Theologies (1649) owned by a woman of the same name who wrote in it: “Elizabeth Richardson, her book . . . 1666” There are also books owned by Jane Watson (Warton’s Refinement of Zion , 1657 – “Jane: Watson hir Booke”), and Mary Watson (Andrewes’ Devotions, 1682 – “Mary Likes Watson From her Father”). These could well be different women than those names appear in the Donne, but I thought I would mention them anyway.


  2. Joseph Black

    Thank you, Georgianna! I’ll look at these signatures the next time I’m at the Folger (after re-opening). This Elizabeth Richardson consistently spells her name ‘Elizbath’ so that might be a way to differentiate. The dates feel right though


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