Death, be not proud . . .
No man is an island . . .
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.
These phrases all come from the pen of John Donne (1572-1631), an influential English poet whom some of you may remember from your high school poetry anthologies.
Others of you, those of you who love poetry, know Donne as one of the masters of the written word, a poet whose sensuous, complex and rich language is both a delightful indulgence and a source of insight into the intricacies of human experience.
He was and is best known for his explicit love poetry. Here is a sample from Elegie [XIX] “To His Mistress Going to Bed.”
O my America! My new-found-land,
My kingdome, safeliest when with one man man’d,
My Myne of precious stones: My Emperie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
But you might be wondering—what does John Donne have to do with the Missouri Botanical Garden?
The answer—we have recently found out that we own a book that was a part of Donne’s personal library. The book, The Herball, or Generall historie of plantes by John Gerard, was printed in London in 1597.
This exciting discovery was made by Dr. Hugh Adlington of the University of Birmingham in the UK. He saw a scanned copy of our book online and recognized the motto on the title page. Part of the motto was cut off, but he could still read, “Per Rachel ho servitor & non per Lea,” which means “I served you for Rachel and not for Leah.” This is a reference to the Biblical story of Jacob and his two wives who symbolized two different lifestyles, the contemplative (Rachel) and the active (Leah). Adlington knew Donne wrote this at the top of the title pages of books that he owned.
This is actually one of two Donne books in St. Louis. Saint Louis University owns Donne’s copy of Codex canonum vetus ecclesiae Romanae, a work of theology. Compare the title page of their book with ours.
Identifying the books in Donne’s personal library is important because knowing what an author was reading can help us understand the meaning of what he or she was writing. Authors may even annotate their books, writing their thoughts in the margins. Sadly, Donne apparently did not write anything in our Gerard, and while some of his poetry does use flower symbolism, plants do not dominate in his work.
Gerard’s Herball was a popular book in its time. It provided its readers with basic information about the medicinal and culinary attributes of various plants, information of general interest to a wide range of people. Donne may have chosen to add this book to his library for the same reason we may choose to buy a dictionary or the Joy of Cooking.
The identification of this book is a small piece in the big puzzle of an interesting life. Who knows what avenues Donne scholars may take in the future? Who knows what secrets our book may reveal with new analytical techniques?