Friday, May 25, 2007

Book Review: "John Donne: The Reformed Soul"

I often find fault with subtitles for the eye-rolling breathlessness they seem to lend to a book's cover (...The Fair That Changed America, The Men Who Made America Rich, ...The Election That Changed the Country, The Drink That Changed the World, Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, &c.). You get the point. The subtitle to John Stubbs' new biography of poet and cleric John Donne, however, is well chosen and utterly without hyperbole. John Donne: The Reformed Soul is the story of a man whose life, whose very soul, was indeed reformed, reshaped, reborn - in many and various ways, no less - over the course of his earthly existence.

Stubbs says it best, in a closing chapter: "For almost sixty years, Donne ... survived by altering. He had transformed himself from a closeted Catholic, as boy and youth, to a government secretary; from social outcast, after he married, to a pillar of the community, as a priest; from avant-garde poet, in his writing, to a popular preacher" (p. 442). Donne, who saw his brother persecuted to death for clinging to the Catholic faith, became a staunch defender of Anglicanism and dean of St. Paul's. The man who wrote the barely-veiled lines "
License my roving hands, and let them go, / Before, behind, between, above, below" as a youthful poet, who married for love and came close to committing professional suicide by doing so would, in his bereavement, preach a marriage sermon in which he called that sacrament "but a continuall fornication sealed with an oath" (p. 350).

Donne mellowed on that last point within a year or so, to be fair, but his life, as Stubbs vibrantly recounts, was indeed a life of reformation. As his nation and the world changed around him, Donne changed as well.

This is the second exhaustive biography I've read in the last month or so that has brought a historical figure I hadn't known much about to life for me (the other was Hugh Brogan's Alexis de Tocqueville, which I reviewed here). Stubbs does an admirable job of fleshing out Donne's life and works, though it is the life with which he concerns himself primarily. Michael Dirda and Thomas Mallon point out in their reviews that Stubbs may be too quick to glean autobiographical details from Donne's poetry, but these usages seem to be tactfully done and appropriately hedged so as to make them unobjectionable. The research is thorough, and the notes and bibliography are both reasonably comprehensive and useful. Like the Brogan book, this no breezy weekend read, but it too will reward your attention.