This handwritten volume, known as the Newcastle Manuscript, is an anthology of verse and prose made for Sir William Cavendish (1592–1676), the first Duke of Newcastle. It includes 98 poems by John Donne and masques and poems by Ben Jonson. There are also 85 poems by a physician named Dr Richard Andrews, who was an acquaintance of both writers.
Although print was introduced into England in 1475, many writers still circulated their works as manuscripts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Rather than reproducing their texts for the anonymous masses, they preferred to present them to select groups of noble friends and potential patrons. These were then shared and hand-copied by other readers and scribes in private collections like this one.
John Donne in manuscript
John Donne was famously wary of print, publishing just a few works in his lifetime. But his poems were copied out by hand more than any other writer of his day. In a Latin verse addressed to Dr Andrews, Donne argued that ‘what is written out by hand is in greater reverence’ than print.
With this in mind, it is perhaps surprising that Donne’s racy ‘Elegy: To his Mistress Going to Bed’ was included in these elite manuscripts, but banned from the first print editions.
The manuscript poems digitised here include ‘Elegy:To his Mistress Going to Bed’ (ff. 95v–96r), ‘The Apparition’ (f. 112r), ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’ (ff. 112v–13r), ‘The Good Morrow’ (f. 113r–v), ‘Song: Go and catch a falling star’ (f. 113v), ‘The Flea’ (f. 124r–v) and Holy Sonnets including ‘Death be not proud’ (f. 140v).
As the poems were transcribed, subtle changes crept in. For example, in this copy of ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’, line 17 reads ‘Off with those shoes, and then softly [not ‘safely’] tread’.
Ben Jonson and Cavendish
Sir William Cavendish was a friend and patron of Ben Jonson. However, their relationship was more complex than the typical early modern association of sponsor and artist. Cavendish was an aspiring writer, and Jonson instructed and mentored him. Throughout his long life Cavendish wrote, published and produced numerous poems and plays, including elegies for Jonson after his death. Critics often compare Cavendish’s writing style to Jonson’s, and he has been associated with the Sons, or Tribe, of Ben (a group of Jonson’s followers).
Totalling 208 leaves, the inclusion of so many of Jonson’s poems and masques in the Newcastle Manuscript demonstrates Cavendish’s interest in his career and creative methods.
Digitised here is ‘My picture left in Scotland’ (f. 47v) which is based on a poem that Jonson sent to William Drummond of Hawthornden after staying with him in Scotland. In the poem Jonson provides a candid, yet comic description of his physical appearance: ‘my hundred of grey hairs’, ‘my mountain belly, and my rocky face’. The ‘Epitaph on Katherine, Lady Ogel’ (f. 55r) was written to commemorate the death of Cavendish’s mother, Lady Ogel. The pencil designs surrounding the poem are a rough sketch of a design for her memorial tablet.
 The Latin verse is not part of this manuscript, but it appears in the 1635 edition of Donne’s Poems, p. 278. The English translation is by W Garrod in ‘The Latin Poem Addressed by Donne to Dr. Andrews’, The Review of English Studies, 21(81) (Jan. 1045), pp. 38–42. There is some debate over whether this Dr Andrews is the same one whose poems appear in the Newcastle Manuscript.
I nowe thinke love is rather deafe then blynde
or els it could not bee
Whom I adore so much should so sleight mee
shoulde slight mee
And cast my suite behinde
I’me sure my Languidge to her is as sweete
And all my closes meete
In numbers of as suttle feete
As makes the yongest hee
Thatt sits in shadowe of Appolloes tree
O but my consci^ous feares that flye, my thoughts betweene
my prompt mee, Ix ^ that shee hath seene
My numbers of graye hayres
Tould six and forty yeares
Read so much = wast, as shee cannot embrace
My Mountayne Belly, & my Rockey face
And all these through her eye have stopt her eares
To Mr Ben: Johnson in his Jorney
by Mr Craven
When wise, and learninge are so hardly sett
That from their needfull meanes they must be bard
unless by going harde they mayntnance gett
Well maye Ben: Johnson say the world goes hard
This was Mr Ben: Johnsons Answer of
It may Ben Johnson slander so his feete
For when the profitt with the payne doth meete
Although the gate were hard the gayne is sweete.
- Full title:
- A folio volume of works in verse and prose by John Donne, Ben Jonson, Dr Richard Andrews and others. Compiled for Sir William Cavendish.
- 17th century
- Manuscript / Drawing / Illustration / Image
- John Donne , Ben Jonson , Richard Andrews , John Rolleston [scribe]
- Held by:
- British Library
- Usage terms:
The British Library has decided to make the images of pre-1800 collection items available on this website. For more information please refer to the following guidance.
- Harley MS 4955
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Poetry, Language, word play and text, Power, politics and religion, Renaissance writers
Andrew Dickson explores John Donne's fascination with death as a literary, philosophical and emotional subject, and examines its presence in his poetry and treatises.
- Article by:
- Aviva Dautch
- Renaissance writers, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage, Poetry, Language, word play and text
The suitor in 'The Flea' enviously describes the creature that ‘sucks’ on his mistress’s skin and intermingles its fluids with hers. Here Aviva Dautch explores images of eroticism, death, guilt and innocence in John Donne's poem.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Renaissance writers
Ben Jonson went from a classically educated schoolboy to an apprentice bricklayer and solider, before becoming one of the 17th-century's most eminent playwrights and poets. Andrew Dickson recounts Jonson's eventful life, and how his success was often marred by a difficult relationship with alcohol, with fellow playwrights and actors, and with theatre itself.
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