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. …