The Melford Hall manuscript, discovered in 2018 and referred to in this earlier question, contains 145 poems by John Donne among sundry other poems by divers poets such as Thomas Overbury, Francis Beaumont, and Thomas Carew. The manuscript also has six previously unknown and unattributed poems. The first such poem, "A Paradox", appears on ff. 46r.–46v. Here is a screenshot of part of f. 46r., with the first six lines of the poem:

Part of page 46 recto of the Melford Hall manuscript, showing the first six lines of the unattributed poem "A Paradox". A transcript follows the images.

And here is a screenshot of part of f. 46v., showing the remaining twelve lines of the poem:

Part of page 46 verso of the Melford Hall manuscript, showing the first six lines of the unattributed poem "A Paradox". A transcript follows the images.

Here is a modern-text transcription of the poem. The transcription is by me, and corrections are welcome:

Whoso terms love a fire, may like a poet
Feign what he will, for certain cannot show it.

For fire never burns but when the fuel's near
But love doth at most distance most appear.
Yet out of fire, water did never go
But tears from love abundantly doth flow.
Fire still mounts upward, but love oft descendeth:
Fire leaves the midst: love to the center tendeth.
Fire dries and hardens: love doth mollify,
Fire doth consume, but love doth fructify.

The powerful queen of Love (fair Venus) came
Descended from the sea, not from the flame
Whence passions ebb, and flow, and from the brain
Run to the heart like streams, and back again.
Yea love oft fills men's breasts with melting snow
Drowning their lovesick minds in floods of woe.
What is love, water then? It may be so;
But he saith truth, who saith he doth not know.

(Text modernized)

The poem is between two others that are known to be by Donne. The preceding poem, untitled in the manuscript, is usually called "The Paradox" and begins "No lover saith, I love". The subsequent poem is the well-known "Song (Go and Catch a Falling Star)". Despite this placement, "Whoso terms love a fire" does not read like Donne to me.

The poem has some elements in common with those of John Roe, which, as Herbert Grierson noted in his two-volume edition of Donne's poetry, were often included in manuscripts alongside Donne's and printed in editions of Donne's work printed posthumously from those manuscripts. The Melford Hall manuscript too includes four poems by Roe, such as "Song: Dear Love, continue nice and chaste". Grierson says Roe's poems bear:

very little resemblance to Donne's work. They are witty, but not with the subtle, brilliant, metaphysical wit of Donne ; they are obscure at times, but not as Donne's poetry is, by too swift and subtle transitions, and ingeniously applied erudition ; there are in them none of Donne's peculiar scholastic doctrines of angelic knowledge, of the microcosm, of soul and body, or of his chemical and medical allusions. (II.cxxxii)

I'm wondering whether any scholar or critic has attributed this recently-discovered poem to Roe. It's possible, though to my mind unlikely, that someone has argued that the poem is indeed by Donne. And yet another possibility is that the poem has been ascribed to some third poet, perhaps one of the others whose work is also in this manuscript. So: Has recent scholarship attributed this poem to Roe, Donne, or any other poet?


Donne, John. The Poems of John Donne. Ed. Herbert J. C. Grierson. Two vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912. Volume I: The Text of the Poems, with Appendices. Volume II: Introduction and Commentary. Retrieved from archive.org April 30, 2023.

Medford Hall Manuscript. 1620–1759. British Library, London. Manuscript. https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=egerton_ms_3884_fs001r. Accessed April 30, 2023.

1 Answer 1


‘A Paradox’ has long been known via other manuscripts of Donne’s elegies, where it usually follows Donne’s ‘The Paradox’. The author has not been identified. Helen Gardner suggested that it was written by a friend of Donne’s in amicable competition:

This poem [Donne’s ‘The Paradox’, which starts “No Lover saith, I love”] is comparatively rare in manuscript. It usually occurs with, or close to, a very similar poem ‘Who so termes Love a fire’. In the Group II manuscripts1 ‘No Lover saith, I love’ occurs without title, followed immediately by this second poem, called ‘A Paradox’. In Lut, O’F ‘No Lover saith, I love’ occurs among the Songs and Sonnets and the other poem occurs among the miscellaneous poems in couplet (many spurious) which Lut, O’F include as Elegies. In HK 1 both poems occur in the second collection of poems marked by the mysterious initials ‘L. C.’, most of which are by Donne (see Textual Introduction, p. lxxix). Both are included in the miscellany common to H 40 and RP 31, the first being untitled, as in Group II, and the second called ‘A Paradox. Love is no fier’. I give the text of the second poem from TCD. […]

The two poems, linked by manuscript tradition, are linked by theme and manner. Possibly they are rival attempts by Donne and a friend to write paradoxes to prove that ‘Love cannot be known’: the one arguing that since Love slays and dead men tell no tales, nobody can know what Love is; the other that the most common description of it is plainly false but its opposite is unprovable. The superior vivacity of ‘No Lover saith, I love’ justifies the editor of 16332 in printing it and in rejecting its fellow.

Helen Gardner, ed. (1965). John Donne: The Elegies and The Songs and Sonnets, p. 161. Oxford: Clarendon.

1. “Group II contains four manuscripts: A 18 (British Museum Add. MS. 18467), N (Norton), TCC (Trinity College, Cambridge), and TCD (Trinity College, Dublin)” (p. lxvii). The other manuscripts mentioned by Gardner are Lut = Luttrell, O’F = O’Flaherty, HK = Haslewood-Kingsborough, H 40 = Harley 4064, and RP = Rawlinson Poetical. 2. John Donne (1633). Poems with Elegies on the Authors Death. London: John Marriott.

Mark Bland discussed the manuscript evidence in detail and concluded that the poet was “associated with the Middle Temple in the late 1590s, and the circle of Sir John Davies”:

The best manuscript of ‘A Paradox’ is Bodleian Library Add MS B.97, for which we have some information: this is the Leweston Fitzjames MS and is well known to Davies scholars as an important witness to the poems of that author (Krueger 1962). Fitzjames was admitted to the Middle Temple in the mid-late 1590s, so what this stemma tells us is that ‘A Paradox’ has strong links to the Middle Temple: an association that points to Davies, Hoskins, Rudyerd and their ilk. Secondly, one might note the position of British Library Harley MS 4064 and its later twin Bodleian Rawlinson Poetry MS 31. Harley MS 4064 is an important Donne manuscript of the Group One tradition, and what we know about this is that it may have come to Harley amongst some purchases made from the Cavendish family. If this is the case, with the stress firmly on the if, then it is possible that Harley MS 4064 is in some way associated with Sir Henry Wotton, who was at the Middle Temple, who was closely associated with Donne, and who was a tutor for the Cavendish family around 1612. I suspect therefore that the fact that the Donne poems in Harley that are not in Rawlinson is owing to the fact that these copies were amongst the material that Wotton returned to Donne, whilst the fact that ‘A Paradox’ is in both manuscripts is further evidence on its non-canonical status.

Mark Bland (2013). ‘Stemmatics and Society in Early Modern England’. In Studia Neophilologica 2013, p. 7.

  • Oh interesting. The Guardian article where I learned about this MS says that it contains "six other poems otherwise unrecorded". That is erroneous, then, as this poem is not "otherwise unrecorded". It's merely unattributed.
    – verbose
    May 1 at 23:15
  • The Guardian was probably relying here on a press release from the British Library. Some confusion or over-simplification persists on the BL web site, for example this post by Dr Alexander Lock, Curator of Modern Archives and Manuscripts which says that the manuscript contains "six currently [sic—presumably "previously" was meant] unknown and unattributed seventeenth-century poems". May 2 at 6:23
  • 1
    But how hard would it have been to write, "six unattributed seventeeth-century poems, five of which were previously unknown"? May 2 at 6:32
  • this is what I'm saying, Gareth, my man.
    – verbose
    May 2 at 6:41
  • @GarethRees That's a question only Dr Lock can answer ;) May 2 at 17:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.