Donne: The Reformed Soul.
John Stubbs begins with a claim that places him in a line of descent from Donne's first biographer, Isaak Walton: 'His biography is worth studying not only because he was a splendid writer, but also because he was a brave and principled man' (p .xxv). Walton's Donne is a type of the reformed sinner: a writer whose later works and actions atone for the 'follies' of his youth, whether these were marrying the daughter of a social superior or writing erotic poetry. As Stubbs makes clear, the modern biographer inevitably works in the shadow of Walton's master narrative, critically weighing his evidence and revising his interpretation; as Stubbs cautions, 'For all its charm and fondness, there are certain regions and intensities of feeling [Walton's] Life simply avoids' (p. 464). Nevertheless, the sense of the exemplary character of Donne's life and work connects Stubbs with his great predecessor.
Stubbs's biography is further marked by its debts to two modern biographical studies, R. C. Bald's John Donne: A Life (1970) and John Carey's John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (1981). Stubbs relies heavily on Bald's primary research and documentation, while his interpretation of Donne's spiritual dilemma is inflected by Carey's emphasis on apostasy as a psychological leitmotif that underpins Donne's art. Stubbs gives a comprehensive sense of the double theological and political bind on English Catholics, and then advances a less conflicted reading of Donne's crisis of faith than Carey. As his title indicates, Stubbs's Donne is a 'reformed soul': a man who became at ease with an Anglicanism he initially adopted for more pragmatic reasons. In Stubbs's reckoning, Donne is characterized by his readiness to adapt to prevailing conditions; unlike his recusant mother, who 'had lived without compromise', Donne 'set a more practical example for those who have to make the society they inherit work' (p. 446).
Such an approach has much to recommend it: Stubbs is good on Donne as a social operative who manoeuvred adroitly between different groupings (the Inns of Court, Essex's hangers-on, Egerton's household, the Stuart court) and adapted himself to their contrasting demands. He makes effective use of the verse letters and other public poems as performances through which Donne drew himself to the attention of influential patrons like the Countess of Bedford and the less savoury Robert Ker, Earl of Somerset. Such work shows Donne as a poetic pragmatist, using his distinctive verse as a calling card in the search for preferment and favour. Stubbs's warning against making grandiose comparisons between the early modern and the modern underlies his sympathetic approach to Donne's career: 'Becoming a Protestant in the 1590s was not like joining the Nazi party in the 1930s' (p. 446). Perhaps not, but the real issue concerns the 'intensities of feeling' within Donne's work, which this approach 'simply avoids'.
The biography is less compelling in its treatment of the poems for which Donne is still chiefly read. While cautioning against a simplistic biographical approach, Stubbs reads the Songs and Sonets and Elegies as evidence of Donne's tantalizingly elusive sex life: 'The Good Morrow' is a poem of marital content written for Ann (p. 149); 'On His Mistres' warns her not to think of accompanying him to Europe (p. 195). Such readings are not of themselves implausible, but they do betray the central weakness in the book's advocacy of Donne as a 'splendid writer': the complexity of the poetry is not extensively explored. The reader has to take it on trust that Donne was an original writer; exaggerated claims like 'there are virtually no contemporary poets who can be said to have influenced him' give little substance to this contention (p. 29). Biographers, of course, must concentrate on the shape of a career and the excavation of the social milieux in which their subjects operate. Yet a clearer sense of the disruptive energies inherent in Donne's erotic and devotional verse, and the contexts from which this verse emerged, would have enhanced this portrait.
Richard Danson Brown
The Open University
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|Author:||Brown, Richard Danson|
|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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