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Folger Shakespeare Library Fellows
By Nicholas Pedersen
In 2003, two members of the Class of 2004 were chosen to be Fellows in January of 2004, Mihailis Diamantis and Nicholas Pedersen. Mr. Pedersen has provided this account of his experience.
For my senior thesis, I wrote on the four most prominent members of the so-called “metaphysical school” of poets—John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Andrew Marvell. My primary interest was in the critical dispute over whether it is appropriate to group these poets together in the first place. Though various early twentieth century critics, such as Eliot and Grierson, comfortably did so, more recent writers have questioned the existence of the metaphysical school altogether, arguing that the connections between the respective poets are far more tenuous than has traditionally been thought. Seeking to make a contribution to this debate, I made a case for the existence of the metaphysical school by focusing on a parallel between the poets that critics have traditionally neglected—their substantial innovations in poetic form and meter. When I learned of the Folger’s extensive collection not only of relevant secondary sources, but of relevant facsimiles and original manuscripts, I needed no convincing that this was the place for me to spend my January.
My thesis benefited immensely from the Library’s invaluable collection. I was able to find obscure articles from the 1930s that are impossible to get hold of anywhere in the Pioneer Valley. Perusing seventeenth-century commonplace books, I was surprised to learn that the Donne poems so often read and remembered in modern times—“The Flea,” “The Good Morrow,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”—were precisely those that seventeenth-century readers wanted to remember the most. One of the more exciting moments at the Folger came as I was looking through a facsimile of an early manuscript of Herbert’s poetry. Since I was focusing so much on stanzaic experimentation, I thought it would be wise to look at original versions of the most famous examples of “shaped” poems, Herbert’s “The Altar” and “Easter Wings.” Upon examining the latter, I discovered that its shape in the manuscript—the shape we have every reason to believe the poet intended—was in fact very different from the one printed in most modern editions of seventeenth-century verse. This piqued my interest, and encouraged me to examine later manuscripts and printed editions of the poem in order to trace the shifts in the poem’s shape over the four hundred year period since it was written. In my thesis, I was then able to discuss such shifts, noting how each one affected the meaning of the poem itself. None of this would have been possible if I had not gained access to the Folger ’s resources.
I made all kinds of progress on my thesis in my two weeks on Capitol Hill—far too much to describe here. Yet the seventeenth-century artefacts I was able to see—particularly those relating to Donne, whom I have long considered my favorite poet—ensured that my experience at the Folger was as personal as it was academic. The number of extant documents written in Donne’s hand is regrettably small: only one of the poems from his own pen survives, and it is an unremarkable one. Also extant is a collection of letters the poet wrote to his new father-in-law after his secret marriage to his boss’s niece, Anne More—a marriage that led to his immediate termination as Thomas Egerton’s private secretary, and marked the beginning of the long period of unemployment and despair that produced his greatest poetry. The Folger happens to possess many of these letters, and while I was at the library the Curator of Manuscripts, Dr. Heather Wolfe (Amherst ’92), showed them to me. My thesis had very little to do with Donne’s biography, and the letters were entirely unrelated to my research. Their scholastic irrelevance, however, did nothing to diminish their personal value to me. To behold this correspondence, written at such a crucial juncture in Donne’s life, was an exhilarating and indescribably meaningful experience for me—one that I will never be able to forget.
Accompanying the personal experiences like this one was the abundance of personal advice I received from the various scholars at the Library. Like many of the Folger Fellows who have come before me, I am an Amherst senior who has seriously considered pursuing English at the graduate level. While at the library I was able to discuss graduate studies with many professors in the very field I would be trying to enter. Largely as a result of their advice, I have decided to pursue another of my interests—the law—next year. Despite this decision, however, I have not really been able to let the world of the Folger go: I have taken a job with the federal government, and my future office sits a mere five blocks from the Folger, which ought to make it easy to drop in for plays, public exhibitions, and perhaps tea every once in a while. To me, the Folger is a place like Robert Frost—a library that stays with you long after you have left it behind, a place you never really want to bid farewell. And so I have decided not to.
I thank the Friends of the Amherst College Library for making fellowships like mine a possibility.