DONNE, John (1572-1631). Autograph letter signed ('J. Donne') to Lady Kingsmill [Bridget (née White)], 'At my poore house at S: Pauls', 26 October 1624, 2 pages, folio, integral address leaf in autograph, 'To the Honorable lady the lady Kingsmill' (first leaf browned, light dust stains to address leaf, some old repairs to splitting at folds, seal tears); in a black morocco slipcase. Provenance: purchased from Barnet J. Beyer Inc. through Seven Gables, New York, 10 August 1948, $900.
DONNE'S GREAT LETTER OF CONSOLATION. In language and reasoning reminiscent of his great funeral sermon 'Death's Duell', Donne sets out the consolations of religious reflection for Lady Kingsmill on the death of her husband: Donne distinguishes between 'Those things w[hi]ch god dissolvs at once' -- that is to say, the structure of the universe, which remains intact until annihilated at one stroke at the Apocalypse -- and 'those things w[hi]ch he takes in peeces, as he doth Man and wyfe': for these, His purpose is to reunite them at the last. We should not complain, or reproach God, lest it render us 'uncapable of beeinge reunited to those whom we loved here': God's purposes are mysterious to us -- 'We would wonder, to see a Man, who in a wood, were left to hys liberty to fell what trees he would, take onely the crooked, and leave the straytest trees; but that Man had perchance a ship to build, and not a house, and so hath use of that kinde of timber'. Let us not presume to contest God's actions, 'as though we could direct him to do them better'; we should no more presume to alter his actions than the Scriptures -- 'As they do yll, who add to hys written wyll, hys Scriptures, a scedule of Apocryphall books, so do they also, who to hys other wyll, hys manifested Actions, add Apocryphall conditions, and a scedule of such limitations, If god would have stayd thus longe, or If god would have proceeded in thys, or thys Manner, I could have borne it'. Donne alludes apparently to Lady Kingsmill's recovery from an ailment of childbirth, and the loss of a child: 'The difference ys great, in the losse of an arme, or a Head; of a child, or a Husband: But to them, who are incorporated into Christ, theyr Head, there can be no beheadinge; upon you, who are a Member of the spouse of Christ, the Churche, there can fall no wydowhead'; the letter ends with prayers for her wellbeing.
Bridget White, in London as a young woman early in 1610, was the recipient of the series of lively letters with which Donne's son chose to open his edition of his father's Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (1651). The daughter of Thomas White of Southwick, Hampshire, she had returned to the country by midsummer, and married Sir Henry Kingsmill, son of a local squire, later in the same year. Donne is known to have written to her again from France in 1612, but after that no letters are known until this magnificent letter of consolation, composed on the day of her husband's death. Lady Kingsmill lived on until 1672, and was one of those to whom the younger John Donne presented an edition of Biathanatos after its publication in 1646.
Peter Beal's Index of English Literary Manuscripts, 1625-1700, lists 38 of Donne's letters as extant, of which only three are in private hands. The present letter is one of only two to survive of the Letters to Severall Persons of Honour; it is one of the five used by Izaak Walton in his Life of Dr John Donne to exemplify the poet's epistolary style. NO AUTOGRAPH LETTER OR MANUSCRIPT BY DONNE HAS BEEN SOLD AT AUCTION SINCE THE VERSE EPISTLE TO LADY CAREW IN 1970. THE PRESENT LETTER, WITH ITS REMINISCENCES OF THE STYLE OF HIS SERMONS, IS PERHAPS THE FINEST IN EXISTENCE.