Donne: the Reformed Soul, by John Stubbs

The double life of a poet
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The Independent Culture

John Stubbs divides the life of the great metaphysical poet and divine John Donne into three parts. In the first he grows up and sows his famous wild oats. In the second he tries with increasing desperation for secular preferment. At last, pushed by his friends, patrons and by King James I, he takes holy orders and finds a religious vocation, becoming Dean of St Paul's.

Each phase has its attendant spiritual and psycho-sexual dimension. Donne's family had deep Roman Catholic roots. The ancestral tree included martyred Thomas More (his teeth and brain-pan cherished heirlooms) and other notable recusants and exiles, and Donne's mother in particular was an unwavering Papist whose eventual removal to the Continent loosened the Roman bonds on Donne, who gradually found his way to a tense Anglicanism. But the shadow of Roman Catholicism fell across his formative years and never quite lifted. He went to Oxford early, and left early without a degree, before having to take the Anglican oaths; at the Inns of Court again he found a place of tolerance. His brother died as a result of harbouring a priest, and the priest himself was executed. Donne strove to place himself beyond suspicion.

He was a committed scholar and, if we read the early poems as in one way or another "confessional", as John Stubbs does, an eloquent and successful philanderer. He was also an adventurer and went to the wars, rising perhaps, though only perhaps, to the rank of Captain. There is an abundance of perhapses in this book: the imagining of missing facts and missing documents, and an inclination to read the inferred life into the writing, give Stubbs's Donne substance, but this solid fellow is a creature substantially of fiction.

The first third of the book ends with "Jack" Donne's secret marriage to Ann, the wife who was to bear him 10 children and from whom he would gratefully escape for years at a time on Continental and other junkets, attempting to mend the fortunes that the marriage itself, a complex breach of trust, had marred. John Donne, Ann Donne, Undone, he quipped on his wedding day. He dropped out of a promising career into the doldrums where he struggled for 13 years to re-establish preferment. For her part, as Stubbs says, Ann "is a woman stifled by history". Marrying Donne brought her an anonymous immortality, and what must have been in later years considerable pain, anxiety and neglect.

Under Queen Elizabeth Donne failed to advance. James I was more accessible, but the scholar-poet did not thrive much better under him. James admired his skills as a polemicist and potential divine but Donne resisted a religious vocation as long as he could. At last in 1617 he succumbed and spent the last 14 years of his life as the (most of the time) respected Dr Donne. Between young Jack and the Doctor posing in a shroud for a final portrait Donne sensed an enormous gap, and Stubbs finds in this gap his subtitle, "the reformed soul".

Yet what's surprising is less the differences between the three phases of his life than the similarities. The body aged, sexual desire declined, and yet at every stage Donne is politic, calculating, scheming, needy. The only ill-considered act he committed (and often half-repented) was his marriage. Being a closet Roman Catholic as a boy compelled him to dissemble. It was a strategy for survival. Dissimulation was a kind of performance, and Donne became a consummate performer in poetry, letters and essays, as a courtier among the older ladies, in the pulpit. Having studied the law, he developed forensic skills that found their way into his poetry as disputation, argument, flirtation, using all the public registers including the drama. A poet in a nightshirt addressing the sun is not, except ironically, being intimate or even aping intimacy.

Later he wrote for money: poetry had been celebration, entertainment, exploration; now it was suborned to occasions that engaged him hardly at all. He wrote for alms, a poetic busker. What continued to interest him was what happened in the language, the surprise and invention, the way a kind of formal abstraction took over, and the poet even on conventional occasions avoided mere conventionality. A Donne poem was to be cherished, like a Pindaric ode, despite the occasion.

Stubbs insists Donne was consistently "a brave and principled man". Brave often, but to call him principled is to erode the meaning of that word. He did what many others did and had to do, among poets most notably Dryden, who ended up on the Roman side. He was a survivor, and he orchestrated his final days so that his legend might thrive. He knew how history was written, and what might be edited out. He knew which side his bread was buttered and he took the part of authority even when he had misgivings; he was moderate, but acquiescing. As Stubbs says: "For almost 60 years, Donne had survived by altering." Only the reaper was not beguiled. It is hard to square his alterations with principle.

Stubbs makes it his mission to bring Donne alive by defining his background, so that it "swarms into the foreground". We have a strong sense of the smells, textures and temperatures of the age, new and old styles and fashions, the complex political and social conflicts. He communicates them with thrift and clarity. The situation in Bohemia, the Overbury affair and much else make sense, the age flickers alive. He writes for the penny stinker and the scholar; his book will appeal to student and specialist.

I wonder whether Stubbs, insisting on Donne's originality within the English context, perhaps forgets the wider European context, the Spanish poetry of the age, with which the poet would have been familiar and in which some of his tricks were also played? He hardly discusses the poetry as poetry, or his conceits, or how metaphor generates metaphor with Protean unexpectedness, prompted by semantic nuance.

Yet there is a wonderful abundance here and one would only wish the book a little longer, a shade more severe, and a little less apolo- getic about its amazing, repulsive and beguiling subject.

Michael Schmidt's 'Lives of the Poets' is published by Phoenix