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This article is taken from PN Review 217, Volume 40 Number 5, May - June 2014.

Vestiges 8: John Donne Adam Crothers
Vestiges 8 title page to Ovid’s Metamorphoses

This title page to Ovid’s Metamorphoses bears, in its lower right-hand corner, the signature of John Donne. Donne turned twelve in the year of publication, 1584, and while he was not necessarily a schoolboy when he owned and marked it, the amount of autographing and scribbling in other hands suggests that it was indeed a schoolbook. A later reader, Daniel Evans, has expended some effort ringing changes
upon his own signature.

That the book has been possessed and superficially altered by many has some relation to the unifying theme of the Metamorphoses. And Donne’s involvement in this process might lead yet more ingeniously to his fifth elegy, ‘Change’, a poem that promotes a change less of physical form than of one’s attitude towards the formalities of love. The speaker suggests that women, ‘like the arts’ (and perhaps like an individual printing of a single linguistic artwork), are ‘unprized, if unknown’, and gain value through their desirability and attachment to more than one man; he resolves to become like this, loving not nobody, and not several people at once, but a Reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge series of individuals, like waters that ‘kiss one bank, and
leaving this / Never look back’.

This is presented as neither fickleness nor a promotion of polygamy: the best way not to ‘stink’ is to keep flowing, constancy arising from constant change. Comparing man to beasts, Donne specifies ‘Foxes and goats’: goats ...

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