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Case Study: John Donne and Ben Jonson

A good example of the significance of handwriting analysis to literary studies is its potential impact on our understanding of the relationship between two great figures in the English literary canon, John Donne and Ben Jonson. Because of the difference in their styles of writing, Jonson and Donne are commonly considered to be very different, in fact they have often been discussed as heads of rival "schools" of poetry, but they were well known to each other and each seems to have held the other in high respect. They moved in the same literary and social circles, shared patrons and friends, and wrote poems in each other's praise.

The most intriguing piece of evidence for a close working relationship between the two men, however, is a copy of Donne's treatise Biathanatos, which may in fact have been copied out by Jonson. The similarity between the hand in the manuscript and Jonson's was first noted in the 1920's, but then it was generally agreed that the hands were not the same. The issue was resurrected by Mark Bland in 'Jonson, Biathanatos and the Interpretation of Manuscript Evidence', Studies in Bibliography, 51 (1998), 154-82, which can be read here.

If Jonson did copy the work, it shows the men working together intimately. Biathanatos was a defence of suicide (including the suggestion that Jesus took his own life) and Donne restricted its circulation very closely, only allowing access to a few chosen scholars and close friends. If the hand is indeed Jonson's, it shows that Donne trusted him deeply. It would also be an extraordinary labour for Jonson to have engaged in, for at the time of the manuscript's preparation (about 1608-9), he was at the height of his success and literary powers - not a time when he would be expected to engage in the relatively menial task of copying a substantial prose work by someone else.

There is no question, however, that the hand in the Biathanatos manuscript looks very much like that of Jonson. Bland's article succeeds in establishing that the earlier rejection of a possible identification was made on inadequate grounds, and provides important supporting evidence from watermarks and format, but it does not include a thorough comparison of the Biathanatos hand with Jonson's. Although it looks similar to Jonson's hand the case cannot be said to have been satisfactorily proved without a systematic demonstration of the points of identity. Bland intends to put this final element of the argument in place in a forthcoming monograph.

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