A life of contradictions

Wendy Smith is a New York-based critic and the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

IN the 1620s, long after he had taken holy orders and become Dr. John Donne, the earthy, erotic poems written by rakish Jack Donne were still circulating in manuscript copies among the Jacobean elite. There surely were occasions when the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral found it embarrassing to know that somewhere someone was reading “The Flea,” which urged a nervous mistress to surrender her virginity, or “The Sunne Rising,” whose narrator lolled abed in his lover’s arms and bid this “busie old foole” to go wake up someone else. Donne never allowed these poems to be published. In his youth, he wanted to be perceived as a “literary gentleman,” not a plebeian professional. Later, while he was writing some of the most beautiful religious verse in English, the author of “Death Be Not Proud” deemed it wiser not to print early work that would remind his patrons of the promiscuous courtier he had once been.

These are not the only John Donnes we meet in John Stubbs’ elegantly written, psychologically and historically astute biography, “John Donne: The Reformed Soul.” Stubbs also introduces us to the scion of an adamantly Catholic family who became a conforming Protestant, to the military adventurer who raided Cadiz with the Earl of Essex, to the rising civil servant who wrecked his career for love, to the harassed father scrabbling to support an ever-increasing brood.

Donne could be many people, and his admirers were sometimes uncomfortable with his contradictions. His biographer is not. “The various Donnes that posterity has inherited represent stages in the life and growth of a singular individual, the different forms one soul took on,” Stubbs writes. Paying astute, sympathetic attention to each of them, he pinpoints the underlying unity: Donne’s decades-long search for his proper place in the world, for a community he could truly call home.

His childhood home was deeply involved in the conflict of faiths that convulsed 16th century Europe. His father, a London ironmonger’s apprentice who rose to prosperity, practiced Catholicism in secret. His mother was a great-granddaughter of England’s preeminent Catholic martyr, Sir Thomas More; her brother was a Jesuit priest tried for high treason who fled to Europe. In 1593, when John was 21, his brother Henry was arrested for harboring a priest and died in prison; his mother soon went into exile overseas. Meanwhile, Donne was desultorily studying law at Lincoln’s Inn, living on a dwindling inheritance, “trying not to look like a London ironmonger’s lad.” He formed close friendships with other witty, intellectual and pleasure-loving young men. He began to write poetry -- “tender, brutal, cocky, manically unsure, knowingly sad” verses that, beneath their surface concerns with sex and seduction, spoke of a world in which nothing was certain and death was omnipresent.

Donne might appear to be just another high-living gallant, but Stubbs compellingly shows the poet in the 1590s quietly asking himself what he believed and where he fit in. Like his slightly older contemporary, Shakespeare (also thought to be the son of recusant Catholics), he looked around at a society shaken by murderous religious-political disputes and grew deeply suspicious of rigid ideologies. He privately began to see his mother’s family as zealots unrealistically clinging to purity when England was offering them a state church that was, as Stubbs nicely summarizes Donne’s view, “ ‘Catholic’ in the literal sense of the word: ‘universal,’ with a place inside for everyone.” He took his first tentative steps toward joining that community by enlisting in Essex’s expedition against Roman Catholic Spain, then using connections forged there to land a post as secretary to Lord Keeper of the Seal.


Now Donne was part of the Protestant establishment, an able bureaucrat with a bright future. Yet letters to his friend Henry Wotton expressed lacerating disgust with Queen Elizabeth’s corrupt court. Stubbs’ characterization of Wotton is one of the many superb thumbnail sketches that contextualize Donne in a dangerous world that made no distinction among personal, political and religious affiliations, a world in which loyalty to the state might mean betraying someone you loved.

So perhaps Donne wasn’t entirely sorry when the revelation in 1602 of his secret marriage to 15-year-old Ann More got him thrown in jail and out of his job. Once her furious father was forced to accept Ann’s marriage to a social inferior, the lovers retreated to a country estate provided rent-free by her sympathetic cousin. Poetry written during those years limns an ecstatic physical and emotional union with an intelligent, passionate companion. Perhaps this blissful society of two was the home Donne had been looking for.

But it wasn’t just the two of them for long. Their first child was born in 1603, and Ann had a baby almost every year thereafter. Donne badly needed an income to supplement the modest annuity provided by her grudging father, and the “Holy Sonnets,” chronicles of his still-unsettled spiritual state, wouldn’t provide it. It must have been galling for someone who refused to publish his poetry because it was a private pursuit, shared only with friends, to be reduced to writing marriage songs and mourning verses for money (even if they did put him in touch with the sort of “well-read, aristocratic females he found so easy to enchant”). No one else wanted to hire him, not for the secular jobs he thought he deserved. His prose writings on religion, which he did publish, convinced no less a person than King James that Donne’s proper place was in the pulpit.

Donne resisted for years, intent on finding his own way to God. In 1615, crushed by debt and having no other prospects, Donne took holy orders more or less as a last resort. Stubbs sees no shame in this; he portrays Donne throughout as a man who thoroughly understood mixed motives. From his earliest lyrics to his final sermons, Donne depicted a world in perpetual flux, roiled by shifting emotions and allegiances. There was only one certainty: “all our periods and transitions in this life, are so many passages from death to death” -- a point underscored 18 months after his ordination by the loss of Ann in childbirth.

Perhaps the severing of his strongest earthly tie made it easier for Donne to fully accept his new calling; perhaps he was simply ready. Writing of Donne’s 16 years as a minister, Stubbs movingly depicts a man “living the life he had always wanted ... intellectually and spiritually engaged.” He numbered both Puritans and “Church Papists” among his friends, believing that English Protestantism had room for a broad spectrum of religious convictions. “They are all virtuall beams of one Sun,” he wrote of Christianity’s warring factions, and he warned those intent on enforcing narrow orthodoxy, “Come to an Inquisition upon another man, so as thou wouldst wish God to enquire into thee.” He died in 1631, serenely awaiting the judgment of “a merciful God, who is not willing to see what I have done amiss.”

This wonderfully rich biography sensitively traces the lifelong quest that enabled Donne to write so eloquently about different facets of human experience. It immerses us in the dynamic pell-mell of early modern Britain, a nursery to the flowering of the English language that bequeathed us Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible as well as Donne’s poetry. And without ever penning an anachronistic phrase, Stubbs reminds us how urgently we still need voices as ardent yet balanced as that of John Donne, who rejected simplistic ideas to embrace complexity and contradiction, who had the courage to choose tolerance and moderation in a world racked by fanaticism.