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John Donne: The Reformed Soul

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I have long had a bit of a fascination with John Donne. A poet and eventual clergyman who lived from 1572-1631, Donne’s poems are among my favorites. His Holy Sonnets have given me much cause to think and his early works, so often sexual and vulgar, have shown a man who underwent a clear and profound transformation in his life. From writing poetry which described forbidden and clandestine affairs that involved bribing servants, hushing siblings, and sneaking past parents in order to consummate love, Donne progressed to poetry celebrating Christ and his triumph over 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.

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Donne was born into an English Roman Catholic family at a time when belonging to the Roman church could and often did carry grave consequences. Though his father died while Donne was only a young boy, he still received a good education and soon learned of his ability to mold language. He also learned of his ability as a lawyer and a statesman and soon converted to the Anglican Church in order to enhance his career prospects. Proudly profligate, Donne spent his youth and early adulthood attempting to satisfy every lust of his flesh. Yet in an age where marriages were strictly arranged by fathers to further their own ends, Donne secretly married for love and was to suffer the consequences of such an uncouth arrangement for the rest of his life. After trying unsuccessfully to rise through the ranks in government service, he eventually became a priest and spent much of his career as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Though a number of his sermons and works of prose has survived, Donne is known today as being one of the greatest English poets. He is remembered in common phrases he coined such as “no man is an island,” and “know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne: The Reformed Soul is a new account of Donne’s life by John Stubbs, a young scholar from England. It relies equally upon previous biographies and the record of Donne’s life as it is found in his prose and poetry. In a biography of a poet, we depend a great deal on the ability of the author to interpret the poetry. If he misinterprets the man’s writing, he misinterprets his life, and especially so when so much of Donne’s poetry, and his early poetry in particular, was autobiographical. On the whole, though I am largely unqualified to make such judgments, I felt that Stubbs was accurate in his interpretations and presented Donne as he appears in his works. Where I had a little bit less confidence was in the author’s understanding of Donne’s theology. Donne lived in a time of great political and ecclesiastical complexity, a time when religion and politics were hopelessly intertwined. Thus it can be difficult to separate what Donne truly believed from his studies of Scripture and what he almost had to believe in order to maintain his position. And, of course, in a book of this sort we get only a small glimpse into Donne’s theology through his surviving sermons. The sermons and poetry combine to provide a glimpse into an odd, uneven faith that seemed to yearn for much of the Catholicism Donne had left behind and also yearned for God to be someone other than who He reveals Himself to be. Whether Donne truly knew and loved the God of the Bible is difficult to know and certainly not ours to judge. Reading his works, though, presents enough confusion and slightly unorthodox theology that it becomes quickly apparent why Donne is known as a poet and not as a great Christian or theologian.

This biography is a long read and certainly not always an easy one. It turns often (and obviously) to seventeenth century language and this can take time and effort to unravel. Yet the book is clearly well-written and is a rewarding read, even if it can be complex. In the early stages the book is really quite sensual as Stubbs moves through Donne’s years as a philanderer, a man who enjoyed the thrill of the chase but who quickly tired of the women he caught and who subsequently moved on to others. He occasionally employs harsh language in giving the sense of the words Donne and other poets used in their poetry. The latter portions aptly describe Donne’s life in the context of the fascinating period in which he lived out the last years of his life.

John Donne: The Reformed Soul is not the kind of biography that would likely be written by a Christian or published by a Christian publisher, even if does deal with a Christian figure. Yet it is an interesting biography and a good one that has been well-reviewed by many notable publications. It is well worth reading for anyone who has an interest in the great poet John Donne.

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