Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Donne, The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs

Donne, The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs, Viking, 2006
I've long been interested in the poetry and prose writings of Donne. His "metaphysical" poetry gives expression to a profoundly trinitarian spirituality. His insights penetrate the depths of the believer's experience of the "three person'd God". But, who was the man behind the literature?
The poet was a born outsider, the child of a Catholic family at the time of the Elizabethan Protestant ascendancy. His illustrious ancestor was none other than Thomas Moore, who was executed for his faith under Henry VIII. As a young trainee lawyer at Lincoln's Inn, Donne was something of a womanising libertine. His early poems mocked the hypocrisy of genteel society and celebrated his amorous conquests. Something of an adventurer, he enlisted in the Earl of Essex's Spanish invasion force. Donne was involved in the dashing and audacious raid on Cadiz. But gradually, Donne became more serious about life. The imprisonment and death of his brother Henry for his role in a Catholic conspiracy made Donne distrustful of religious fanaticism. This was one factor that led him to convert to mainstream Protestantism. He no longer wanted to be an outsider. What Donne wanted was acceptance and career advancement.
Donne was appointed as clerk to the powerful Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Seal. But he lost his job and with it his carefully cultivated place in society, when he secretly married his beloved Anne More. Her hot tempered father, Sir George was outraged when he found out about the match. Strings were pulled and Donne was sacked. He was an outsider once again, a social and moral outsider who had to find work wherever he could, living in squalid accommodation with his wife and growing family.
During this time, Donne developed something of an interest in theology and his poetry took on a more spiritual flavour. His religious prose writings impressed King James, who had Donne appointed Doctor of Divinity and made him a royal chaplain. When the idea of him becoming a clergyman had first been mooted, Donne baulked at the suggestion. He thought that the "irregularities" of his private life and his old erotically charged poetry made made a career in the Ministry unthinkable. But he reconciled himself to ordination and threw himself into the task of being a Protestant Minister. He was a dedicated student of Scripture and theology. His sermons were crafted with great care and attention to detail. It was through his work in the Church that Donne was brought in from the cold. He was appointed Reader of Divinity at Lincoln's Inn, his old law chambers and was made Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral. Donne was often had the high honour of preaching before the King. Career-wise things had worked out well for him. But tragedy struck when his wife, whom he had so impulsively married for love, died at the age of thirty-three.
Theologically, it seems that Donne was something of a middle of the road Protestant. He disliked the Roman Catholic extremism that led to his brother's untimely death. The preacher did not seem to have much time for the growing Puritan movement either. At one point, he worked closely with William Laud, Bishop of London and arch persecutor of the Puritans. Donne, the "reformed soul" is not one of the heroic figures of church history, who stood valiantly for his principles come what may. He was willing to make adjustments to fit in with the Establishment. The preacher was most alarmed when one of his sermons did not meet with the approval of King Charles I. He made a grovelling apology to the King for any offence caused. I can't imagine his Puritan contemporary John Preston doing anything like that. This is not to say that Donne was altogether lacking in courage. He was braved the disapproval of his Catholic family when he embraced Protestantism. It took some spirit and determination to follow the dictates of his heart and marry Ann. Becoming a clergyman was no easy decision for him. He knowingly alienated one of his key patrons when he was ordained a Minister. Donne's poetry also evinces an intellectual courage, as he examines the intricacies of his own "labyrinthine soul". But the poet could sometimes be a little too eager to please his betters. The younger Donne used to ridicule such obsequiousness in his satirical poems.
John Stubbs has given us a vivid and compelling portrait of the life and times of John Donne. He ably charts his transformation from young, lascivious, Catholic outsider to respectable Protestant clergyman. Stubbs has a feel for Donne's poetry and gives helpful analysis of his key philosophical ideas. All who appreciate Donne's writings will enjoy this well-written biography. But I could have done with a little more information on Donne's theological position. A couple of things come to mind: Why did he so reluctantly accept the traditional Calvinistic teaching on predestination? Did he have a clear understanding of justification by faith alone? We are not told. But we do know that Donne faced death, the "last enemy" with quiet confidence. Days before his departure from this life, the sickly Donne preached a dramatic sermon entitled Death's Duel. His final message concludes,
"There we leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross, there bathe in his tears, there suck at his wounds, and lie down in peace in his grave, till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and an ascension into that kingdom which He hath prepared for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. Amen."
Donne had a fine sense of the interconnectedness of human life and held that the death of one man diminishes the whole of humanity,
"No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." (MEDITATION XVII, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions).
His Holy Sonnets reveal the source of Donne's hope in the face of death,
Holy Sonnet I
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t'wards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour my self I can sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.
In Holy Sonnet X, Donne even taunts death,
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


Brent N. said...

I haven't read Stubbs' biography, but I just read R. V. Young's devastating review of it, "A Novel Donne" in the latest issue of the John Donne Journal vol. 26 (2007). I strongly recommend the review as a good place to start in pursuing this interest further: Donne's biography is notoriously fraught. For my money, the best book on Donne's theology is Jeffrey Johnson's The Theology of John Donne (D. S. Brewer). Mary Papazian's John Donne and the Protestant Reformation (Wayne State UP) is a recent collection of essays emphasizing the Protestant influence in Donne's life and writing; there is also a growing body of work on the Roman Catholic influence.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm writing an essay on Donne's poetry for second year literature at UNE, Armidale, and found your book review helpful as a bit of background to the man himself. Thanks! Elizabeth Hardy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I came upon your blog in a search for John Donne 's theology, having just read that the was a fellow prisoner of Bunyan. I've always appreciated his poetry, but was a bit put off by the "metaphysical" designation. My sympathy lies with the Puritans, but we're not all called to be martyrs.