Donne through contemporary eyes: new light on his participation in the Convocation of 1626.
Convocation, although it had certain powers to legislate for the Church, normally met when Parliament did because of the ancient claim of the Church to tax itself. There were two houses: the House of Bishops, presided over by the Archbishop, and the lower house, consisting of deans and various elected clergy, presided over by a prolocutor whose election had to be confirmed by the upper house.(1)
On this occasion John Donne was chosen as Prolocutor, and on Wednesday 8 February delivered an oration in Latin to the full Convocation to mark his assumption of the office. He was introduced to the assembled clergymen by Dr Leonard Mawe or Maw, Master of Peter-house, Cambridge, and a third speaker, Dr Samuel Harsnett, Bishop of Norwich, replied to Mawe and Donne. New light is thrown on the occasion by two pieces of fresh evidence, the text of Mawe's address and a reaction to all three speakers by a contemporary eye-witness.
Mawe's speech is preserved in British Library Harley MS 7045, fos 18-[18.sup.v], a volume of collections by the Cambridge antiquary Thomas Baker (1656-1740), 'socius ejectus' of St John's College. In the 'tabula Materiarum' (fo. 2) it is silently incorporated under the general heading of 'Particulars concerning Peter-House' (on fos 16-[22.sup.v]) because the speaker, Leonard Mawe, served as Master of the college from 1617 until May 1626, when by royal warrant he was appointed Master of Trinity.(2) Although Mawe himself was a head of house and Doctor of Divinity, as a parish priest he took his place in the Lower House of Convocation. Rather surprisingly, the compilers of the Index to the Baker Manuscripts of 1848 chose to list the speech under Mawe's name but not that of its more famous subject, which accounts for its having escaped attention for so long?(3)
In his opening remarks, and with considerable emphasis, Mawe defined Convocation as the vehicle for transmitting the will of the bench of bishops to the deans and minor clergy. One of his comparisons seems near to blasphemy: the bishops are like Moses on Mount Sinai, speaking directly to God, while the lower clergy are like the Israelites, waiting for the tables of the law to be brought down to them. The bishops steer and navigate the ship, while the lower clergy perform humbler tasks. The bishops are the greater stars ('stellae primae magnitudinis'), shedding light and warmth on a cold and cloudy lower world. The function of Donne as Prolocutor was limited to that of 'Internuncius' between the Upper and Lower Houses, 'tanquam Angelus ascendens et descendens inter Domum hanc superiorem vestram, et illam inferiorem nostram'. Nevertheless, after this inauspicious start, in an orotund panegyric embellished with classical and early Christian references he congratulated his colleagues on their choice of a representative endowed with all the girls of genius, truly a man in a thousand. Donne is
virum edecumati ingenii, prompti Eloquii, vegetae memoriae, variae et multiplicis lectionis; cui cor, limante Minerva, acrius, et quem utraeque docuerunt artes Athenae; Porciano plane ingenio, ad omnia natus, ad omnia factus, adeo in quamcunque se partem versat, valet.
As a theologian, moreover, he is the acknowledged master of his time, the Chrysostom of his age. Presumably his hearers were not supposed to ask themselves what might be the purpose of such high attainments in an official whose role was to serve as little more than a messenger.
Rather surprisingly for this religious occasion, Mawe listed first and foremost among Donne's many distinctions his skill as a poet, setting it before his accomplishments as orator, controversialist, and preacher. 'Versus pangit? nemo felicius; Orationes texit? nemo elegantius; Controversias tractat? nemo solidius: Conciones format? nemo artificiosius aut dulcius...' He went on to praise Donne as a speaker who, in Suidas' happy expression, is not content merely to collect rain-water, but is himself a raging torrent, sweeping his hearers along with the force of his eloquence. At the same time Donne is equally versed in civil, canon, and common law, prudent in the handling of current affairs, and a trustworthy Church administrator. Most striking of all, because essentially gratuitous, is the curious aside on Donne's personal appearance. In speaking of him as a person 'edecumati ingenii' ('of outstanding genius') Mawe made choice of an adjective favoured by the fourth-century orator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. And it was from Symmachus' letters to Ausonius that he quoted the remark, made in connection with Donne's modesty ('verecundia') that 'those of honest mind mostly bear an unprepossessing face' ('imbecillis frons') - the point evidently being that such was not Donne's case. Mawe felt completely unable to praise Donne adequately, but concluded by asserting that Donne would amply compensate for Mawe's deficiencies through the brilliance of his intellect ('beata quadam ingenii sui ubertate abunde compensabit').
Donne obviously took great pains in the preparation of his speech, which survived and was printed in all editions of his poems between 1650 and 1719.(4) Bald comments on its highly wrought Latinity, and speculates on the effect it had:
Instead of the terser Latin of the Conclave Ignati or the Catalogus Librorum this speech is extravagantly Ciceronian in style. It is to be feared that Donne was showing off. It may be doubted if, even in that age, many of his audience fully understood what he was saying, so long are the periods and so prolonged are some of the suspensions of the sense. Compliments, too, that would not have seemed much more than common courtesies in English sound hyperbolically extravagant in Latin, and, tour de force though the piece may be, it is doubtful if it could have achieved much effect, other than to impress the simple-minded.(5)
Bald was not aware that there does exist a contemporary reaction to Donne's speech, and to those of Mawe and Harsnett, apparently that of an eye-witness, but certainly not of someone who could be termed simple-minded.
Among the Scudamore Papers in the British Library is a newsletter written on both sides of a single sheet of paper measuring approximately 7.5 x 11.5 inches.(6) There is no indication of the person or persons to whom the letter was sent, and it is neither signed nor dated, though the opening phrase ('On wensdaie last...') suggests that it was written within the week following Donne's delivery of his address. In the top left-hand corner of the recto side of the paper, at a right-angle to the main body of the text, is written 'Coppy of L Scudamores letter'. The letter is included in a volume of miscellaneous correspondence relating to John Scudamore, 1601-71, and is probably by him. Scudamore, an MP in the 1620s and ambassador in Pads 1635-8, was created a Viscount in 1628, so it looks as though the annotation was written in, possibly by a secretary, at least two years after the letter was composed. Scudamore was the recipient of several series of newsletters from such correspondents as John Pory, John Flower, and Sir Henry Herbert,(7) and the present document appears to be an example of Scudamore's own efforts as a writer of newsletters.
The letter opens with an account of Dr Mawe's address:
On wensdaie last Dr Maw presented in Convocacon The Deane of Paules for Prolocutor: his oration in stile was good Latine, in matter ordinarie, but that hee did extraordinarilie flatter the Bishops and Prolocutor, leauing the lower howse of clergie nothing but what they should receaue from the Bishops, in which also did concurre the Prolocutor, both making the Bishops stellas maioris magnitudinis; and the inferior, minoris magnitudinis ... from the Bishops hee descended to the Prolocutor, to whom hee attributed all artes all learning, historie, law canon and ciuil, Diuinitie, eloquence, wisdome (and all this truly, had hee not doonne it before his face and beyond measure).
This is immediately followed by an account of Donne's own speech:
Dr Dunne succeeded him who in extenuating his owne sufficiencie, did well manifest the contrarie. For hardly cold a man disclaime art with more arte, or professe his owne infirmities, with greater strength of natures endowmentes, or with better eloquence discouer that oratorie which hee did deny (heerein hee gaue mee good satisfaction of modestie and sufficiencie; modestie in the matter because hee spake tam submisse of himself; sufficiencie in the manner because hee spake like himself valde ornate). Ascending from himself hee spake of the Bishops with the same comparison and to the same effect as Dr Maw, not without flatterie although heerein inferior to Dr Maw.
The Bishop of Norwich 'made the replie, in a good stile though slow and sometimes to seeke for a woord':
... of Dr Maw hee said that hee did well commend the Prolocutor, for learning, wisedome, eloquence, etc being himself excellent in all theese (and hauing clawed him, hee came to the Prolocutor, of whom hee said) that when hee left the vniuersitie, all the muses, all the artes, all learning did accompeny him thence.
The letter-writer then moved on to other items of news. The king has sent a letter to Parliament saying that Sir Edward Coke has been made a Sheriff and therefore cannot be an MP. The Duke of Buckingham and the Bishop of Lincoln, John Williams, either have preferred or will prefer bills against each other. The Dunkirk pirates have captured so many English seamen that they cannot find room for them all in their prisons. It is striking, however, that these and other events, which might seem to modern readers to have a greater national significance than a series of speeches at Convocation, are treated fairly briefly, sometimes in a single sentence. Clearly the letter-writer was deeply interested in the affairs of Convocation, and in Donne himself, and expected the recipient or recipients of the letter to share his interest.
The letter shows a curiously mixed response to the three speeches. The writer evidently admired Donne's abilities, and was happy for them to be praised, but he did find the compliments 'hyperbolically extravagant', to use Bald's phrase, not merely the natural result of using the rhetorical devices of Ciceronian Latin. (He gives the impression of having fully understood what was said.) He was basically a supporter of the Church of England, but was repelled by the fulsome and obsequious flattery of the bishops. (If this could be felt by an Anglican, it perhaps helps to make more comprehensible the hatred of the bishops often expressed by their opponents in the late 1630s and 1640s.) We might consider the praise of Donne by Mawe and Harsnett to be excessive; at the same time it demonstrates the status and reputation he had achieved at this stage of his career.
N. W. BAWCUTT The University of Liverpool
HILTON KELLIHER The British Library
1 R.C. Bald, John Donne: A Life (Oxford, 1970), 481.
2 Calendar of State Papers' Domestic, 1625-1626 (1858), 539. According to DNB Mawe became Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1628 and died in 1629.
3 Index to the Baker Manuscripts. By Four members of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society [i.e.J.J. Smith, C. C. Babington, C. W. Goodwin, and J. Power] (Cambridge, 1848).
4 Reprinted in Bald, op. cit., Appendix D, 573-5.
5 Bald, op. cit., 482-3.
6 BL Additional MS 11044, fo. 10.
7 The British Library has a substantial series of Scudamore papers, but there is also a large collection in the Public Record Office (Class C115, 'The Dowager Duchess of Norfolk's Deeds, etc.'). The literary interest of the papers has only recently been appreciated; for a pioneering investigation see J. P. Fiel, 'Dramatic References from the Scudamore Papers', Shakespeare Survey 11 (Cambridge, 1958), 107-16.
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|Author:||Bawcutt, N.W.; Kelliher, Hilton|
|Publication:||Notes and Queries|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1995|
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