Press release

Rare seventeenth century poetry manuscript at risk of export

Manuscript of works by the poet John Donne is at risk of being lost abroad unless a UK buyer can step in to save it

John Donne poetry collection
  • Manuscript of works by the poet John Donne is at risk of being lost abroad unless a UK buyer can step in to save it
  • Donne was a contemporary of Shakespeare and one of the best known poets of the Stuart period

An incredibly rare Stuart manuscript of works by the poet John Donne is at risk of leaving the UK unless a buyer can be found to match the £466,000 asking price.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has today announced a temporary export bar on the work in a bid to save it for the nation.

John Donne (1572 - 1631) was an English poet and cleric whose works were widely appreciated and circulated among his contemporaries in manuscript form. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Donne was one of the best known poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Donne was ordained in 1615 and became the royal chaplain to King James I. During his lifetime, Donne did not want to be thought of as a poet or author and was said to regret allowing his longer poems to be printed in 1611 and 1612 making this manuscript, a rare early surviving copy of his works.

His preference for publishing poems in manuscript form make it difficult to date Donne’s works, however experts believe this copy dates to around 1625. His first full collection of poems was not printed until 1633.

At the time of his death in 1631, Donne’s works were highly sought after by his contemporaries, however, by the end of the 17th century, his poems were judged to be undecorous and Donne fell out of favour until the late 19th century when his works were rediscovered. Today he is celebrated as one of the leading Renaissance poets.

Committee Member Peter Barber said:

John Donne is one of the greatest English poets of all time, and this recently-discovered volume contains one of the largest and earliest surviving groups of his verse - all lovingly transcribed by hand.

The volume also contains the work of later poets with at least one hitherto unknown poem: making it a testimony to British literary taste over 200 years. It is crying out for detailed investigation, not least because it also contains clues to the identity of its original, possibly female, compiler who would have been a contemporary of Donne. So further research might perhaps shed fresh light on Donne himself and his world. I do hope that the volume can be kept in this country so that its potential can be realised.

This manuscript is one of the five most significant and largest collections of Donne’s works ever to be identified and the most important to emerge in almost half a century. The manuscript includes a range of Donne’s works, including his famous works, ‘The Storm’, ‘The Calm’, ‘The Breake of Daye’ and ‘Sunn Risinge’. Only one poem in Donne’s own hand survives and is today held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Evidence of manuscript copies of Donne’s work are crucial for understanding of his works and his literary reputation.

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) made its recommendation on the grounds of the manuscript’s outstanding significance for the study of John Donne’s poetry, for the story of collectors and literary tastes in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and for the study of the dissemination of poetic manuscripts in the period.

The decision on the export licence applications for the manuscript will be deferred until 23 August 2019. This may be extended until 23 November 2019 if a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the item is made at the recommended price of £466,000.

Offers from public bodies for less than the recommended price through the private treaty sale arrangements, where appropriate, may also be considered. Such purchases frequently offer substantial financial benefits to a public institution wishing to acquire.


Notes to editors

Organisations or individuals interested in purchasing the manuscript should contact the RCEWA on 0845 300 6200.

Details of the manuscript are as follows:

The item is a bound quarto volume containing 139 poems by John Donne and a few additional poems by his contemporaries, possibly in more than one italic hand of c. 1625-35, with corrections and revisions in another hand. The volume also contains 10 lyrics of the mid 17th century and later prose and songs of the 18th century.

The volume is 250 x 190mm, comprising 365 pages, some blank and the binding is contemporary gilt panelled calf. Cropped pages in the manuscript indicate that it was bound after the Donne sequence was completed.

The hands are unidentified. The majority of the poems, written in one sequence, are by John Donne (1572-1631). The Donne sequence may be in one hand throughout, but subtle differences in instances of the non-professional script might suggest a collaborative domestic production.

The date of compilation of the Donne poems is likely, on the evidence of content, the binding and watermarks, to be 1625-35, with the volume continuing to be used until the mid 18th century.

The manuscript is unknown to scholars and the wider public and recently resurfaced at Melford Hall in Suffolk. Its earlier history is obscure, although the binding and watermarking suggests a possible Oxford connection.

Sir William Parker of Melford Hall, 7th Bt. (1769-1830), (armorial bookplate dating from before his accession to the baronetcy in 1812); thence by family descent.

The Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest is an independent body, serviced by The Arts Council, which advises the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria.

The Arts Council champions, develops and invests in artistic and cultural experiences that enrich people’s lives. It supports a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to digital art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections.

Published 24 May 2019