An Apposite Portrait

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An Apposite Portrait John Donne: The Reformed Soul ByJohnStubbs W.W.Norton. 565 pp. $35.00.

RECENT ACADEMIC treatments of John Donne have largely been devoted to "recovering" the sociopolitical context of early modern England - an approach that tends, perhaps inadvertently, to immure the Monarch of Wit behind the bars of history. So when John Stubbs, at the outset of his new life of Donne, offers the noble proposition that "His biography is worth studying not only because he was a splendid writer, but also because he was a brave and principled man," it sounds a faint yet unmistakable note of defiance. That Donne belongs to the present Stubbs asserts explicitly only in his Introduction and Afterword (where we discover that J. Robert Oppenheimer 's decision to christen the first nuclear explosions in the New Mexico desert "Trinity" was a bleak allusion to Holy Sonnet XIV: "Batter my heart, three person 'd God"), but it is a conviction that informs the entire work and makes for an invigorating and apposite portrait

Which is not to say that Stubbs something of a Wunderkind, at age 29 neglects his subject's context. We learn the larger story of England's break with the Roman Catholic Church as well as the effects of the schism on the country and its people. The Reformation was almost 40 years old when Donne was born to Catholic parents in 1 572. Open recusancy meant fines, imprisonment, even execution. With his younger brother Henry (who would later expire in the plague-ridden Newgate jail after being arrested for harboring a Catholic priest), Donne attended Oxford and then Cambridge, skipping town when it came time to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Queen and the Reformed Church - "something his family simply would not allow." Probably in the early 1590s, having embarked on a study of law at Thavies Inn in London, he began writing the most original and intellectually sophisticated lyric poetry of the age.

Because scant letters or diaries exist that reveal Donne's inner life, many previous biographers have succumbed to the post-Romantic temptation of reading the poems autobiographically. John Carey's widely admired John Donne: Life, Mind and Art (198 1) is frequently guilty of this. It straightforwardly infers the "confessional" nature of, say, Holy Sonnet XVII ("Since she whom I loved hath paid her last debt") or "A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy's Day" in a manner that fudges the gap between lawless life and scrupulously regulated art.

Stubbs is more skeptical, more tentative in his inductions. Examining the early love poems - like all Donne 's verse, they appeared in print only posthumously - he purloins details from "The Per- fume," a work dealing with a clandestine love affair, to furnish a vivid conjecture of Donne's own early sexual career. Since we are usually in the dark as to the factu- al bedrock of what we are being told, the effect is sometimes disorienting. But Stubbs can be counted on to own up when- ever he engages, however plausibly, in a flight of fancy. Indeed, he reassuringly remarks that none of the perspectives of- fered in the early poems "can be said to define Donne or his con- duct, or to form a journal of actual encounters. Rather, [they] show him testing outthe different tones and registers suggested by a variety of situations." Stubbs' respect for the difference between art and life is suchthat he is able to provide broad insights into the ways they can sometimes over- lap: "[Donne] liked structure, and de- manded much of it. He molded his experiences and imaginings into fabulously complex verse schemes, and also tried to give a regular shape to the varying activities of his days." The style proclaims the man, but in more oblique ways than one might imagine.

This cagey method - in John Ashbery's phrase, "fence-sitting/Raised to the level of an esthetic ideal" - results in extended portions of The Reformed Soul being written in the subjunctive mood. Occasionally it reads like a piece of richly convoluted metaf iction, as unlikely subplots sprout and wither within the space of a few pages. …