John Donne: The Reformed Soul.
JOHN DONNE: THE REFORMED SOUL (Norton, $35) is lively despite itself. Considering his raucous times, equally divided between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the poet and preacher wasn't really up to much--one stint of soldiering; one long marriage; one dead brother; one unregenerate mother; a number of erotic poems and satires that he kept from being published; a greater number of astonishing sermons and Holy Sonnets, all of which would find print; many letters seeking favors, appointments, or a loan; and a tubercular death at age fifty-eight. Throughout it all, of course, a marvelous mind watched itself, took meticulous notes, made radiant metaphors, and moved on like a thickening of light. But motions of the mind are hard to make exciting unless you go in for precisely the sort of Lit Crit that T. S. Eliot indulged and John Stubbs eschews.
Biographer Stubbs has fudged his want of racy material with sentences that are supple and witty, digressions that are gossipy and engrossing, sidebars on the religious wars between Roman Catholics, high-church Anglicans, and those increasingly obstreperous Puritans, and quite a lot about real estate and disease. (See, for instance, cupping and/or the application of dead pigeons to one's feverish feet.) We will be acquainted by accretion with Donne the courtier and genius, the Catholic who became an Anglican, the man-about-town who became an ascetic, the "masterful groveller" and prince of "circumspection" who, after the too-hasty marriage he hoped would upwardly mobilize himself but rather almost permanently ruined his career prospects, kept his head down, his options open, and his powder dry for the rest of his life. Had King James--who was once quoted as saying that "Dr. Donne's verses are like the peace of God; they pass all understanding"--given him a diplomatic post, he might never have found God.
But in Donne's case, as with so many other notable writers, the life is interesting only because the literary texts have endured. A biographer who gives short shrift to the strategies and the perplexities of the sermons and sonnets shirks his duty. Just for instance, why did Shakespeare, with whom Donne shared several decades, a closet Catholicism, and a metrical tradecraft, seem to have so much more fun playing with the language?