I have been enjoying rereading many of my earlier writings about Sackville, and rediscovering fascinating details from his life that I can't wait to share with the world (meaning the very small but enthustiastic world of The Apocryphal William Shakespeare readers thus far). One of these details, first suggested by Patrick Buckridge, is the possibility bordering on a near certainty that the great metaphysical poet John Donne sent his "Six Holy Sonnets" to Thomas Sackville, the "E. of D." (Earl of Dorset) for review around a year before Sackville's death. Astonishingly, Donne scholars have never noticed that Thomas Sackville is the most likely candidate to be the "E. of D.", instead proposing several implausible or near-impossible candidates from the Earl of Doncaster to the Earl of Derby to Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset after April of 1608.
Here's why I'm convinced that Donne sent his “Six Holy Sonnets” to Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset for his critique around 1607, some months before Sackville's death in April of 1608. Although Donne’s tribute to the E. of D. is undated, there are strong reasons to believe Donne’s “Six Holy Sonnets” refer to six of his seven La Corona sonnets, a tightly linked group of religious sonnets composed around 1607, the year before Sackville’s death. Given Donne’s high praise for the E. of D.’s “fatherly yet lusty” poetry, which he credited with inspiring his own sonnets, by far the most credible E. of D. is Thomas Sackville, Earl of Dorset, the greatest aristocratic poet of the age as well as a known sonnet-writer and plausible father figure to Donne (who was thirty-six years younger than Sackville). Donne’s tribute to the Earl of D. reads in full:
SEE, sir, how, as the sun's hot masculine flame
Begets strange creatures on Nile's dirty slime,
In me your fatherly yet lusty rhyme
—For these songs are their fruits—have wrought the same.
But though th’ engend'ring force from which they came
Be strong enough, and Nature doth admit
Seven to be born at once; I send as yet
But six; they say the seventh hath still some maim.
I choose your judgment, which the same degree
Doth with her sister, your invention, hold,
As fire these drossy rhymes to purify,
Or as elixir, to change them to gold.
You are that alchemist, which always had
Wit, whose one spark could make good things of bad.
Donne was addressing a very major poet indeed, an alchemist whose wit held such power that a single spark of it “could make good things of bad.” His tribute to the Earl of D. does not in any way convey the sense that he is writing to an aristocrat whose last great poetic work was composed some forty decades in the past. Instead, Donne is writing to a revered older poet whose power of invention still inspires.