Donne's place in the twentieth century owes a great deal to the careful work of his editors. The establishment of a good text, of the poems especially, has been difficult, not only because Donne is not an easy poet, but also because of the considerable variation among the numerous manuscript copies and among the early printed editions. Except for the 1611 edition of the First Anniversary, which Donne probably saw through the press, he had no hand in the publication of any of his poems: they circulated in manuscript, subject to the vicissitudes which are inevitable to frequent transcription, and there was no collected edition until after his death. Professor Grierson was the first to surmount most of the difficulties presented by this situation, and his edition (1912) has become the foundation for all subsequent editorial work.I ran into an even worse situation when I was trying to write about Milton's Paradise Lost. Not only does PL have the usual manuscript issues, but Milton didn't even do his own original writing. Can we trust the accuracy of an exasperated daughter who is boringly forced to transcribe her crabby father's oratory? Probably not.
I am unable to tell you exactly which difficulties Professor Grierson managed to surmount, though I daresay his wife simultaneously coped with decades of irascible muttering. Nonetheless, here we are, all these hundreds of years later, faced with a poem on a page. In a certain way, we have to "suspend our disbelief," as Coleridge said in an entirely different literary context. The Donne on the page of my book is not an exact replica of the Donne who sneezed onto his sermon in the autumn of 1611. But he's as close as I am able to get. Someone, at some point, thought there should be a comma at the end of "But not of such as pleases when 'tis read,"--and was it the sneezing Donne? Was it Donne's semi-educated curate? Was it the admiring Catholic lady who lived down the street? Was it a dogsbody clerk who was suffering from the first symptoms of plague? Was it Professor Grierson's ironic teenage daughter, who one night sneaked into his study and made a little change that no one ever noticed but me?