Most startling in the wealth of John Stubbs's new life of John Donne is that the subject of the biographer's attentions spent a very long time trying to escape his poetic fate. Even late in his life, according to Stubbs, Donne was fending off his literary inclinations like so many pesky acquaintances. He complained about having "this itch of writing" and told a friend that he wanted to follow "a graver course than of a Poet, into which (that I may also keep my dignity) I would not seem to relapse." When he did give in to his urges, his poems (which were often bawdy) were for friends only, and he objected to their being circulated beyond his small inner circle.
Considering that Donne was the author of what remains some of the greatest, not to mention the most enduring, verse in the history of the English language—much of it concerned with his own famously complicated relationships to religion, romantic love, and death—and that he was perfectly aware of his own talents, his efforts at denial seem puzzling. It's difficult to imagine being capable of producing a poem like "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" and choosing not to indulge that extraordinary gift. Written for his wife, Ann, as he was embarking on a long trip abroad, this one piece of Donne's contains enough transcendent lines and images to feast on for years. Even a single stanza—perhaps the poem's most famous—is profoundly arresting in both its beauty and its technical ease:
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
And yet such delicacy was never enough for Donne, who was, as Stubbs and others before him have noted, a mass of contradictions, with all the aspirations one might expect of a bright, well-educated boy born into a middle-class Catholic family just after the Reformation. The child of a wealthy ironmonger and a mother whose Papist roots went all the way back to Thomas More (Donne's uncles were rumored to carry fragments of the martyr's teeth around in their pockets), Donne was born in 1572, a tricky time to be a Catholic in England, to say the least. He and his brother Henry were sent to Oxford at the ages of twelve and eleven to take several years of classes before the required recitation of the Oath of Allegiance at the age of sixteen in order to take a degree. The oath, a cruel invention of the Protestant authorities devised to exclude Papists from state benefits, involved pledging "loyalty to the Reformed, Protestant Church, and to the Queen as the head of that Church." As Stubbs writes, "there was a race against time and puberty to get clever Roman Catholic boys through college before the oath was imposed."
From Oxford, Donne moved on to Cambridge (no oath necessary) and finally to the Inns of Court in London, where he seduced women (remember "The Flea"?), studied law, and waited for an opening that would allow him into the royal circle. More than anything, he wanted a position at court, and in spite of his upbringing, he was more than willing to leave behind his religion to get one. As Papists were being tried and executed and banished all around him (Henry Donne died of the plague in prison, and his mother was forced to leave the country for much of her life), Donne ascended to the coveted spot of secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Seal. Egerton was a higher-up in the Protestant legal system and a confidant of the queen, and by going to work for him (the two men had met on a disastrous military mission in the Azores), Donne tacitly acknowledged "the legitimacy of the Reformed Church and Queen Elizabeth's reign," setting himself neatly on the path to the future.
Except that this "seasoned Lothario" could not control his more earthly desires in the service of his political and professional ones. He soon fell in love with Egerton's teenage niece, Ann More, and eventually married her in secret, against the wishes of her father and everyone else. He was immediately fired. As Isaak Walton, Donne's first biographer, put it, the marriage was "the remarkable error of his life; an error which though he had a wit able and very apt to maintain Paradoxes, yet he was very far from justifying it." Donne knew that his actions were foolhardy in light of his professional goals, but he couldn't help himself. On the day of the marriage, so a contemporary joke went, he chalked the phrase "John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone" on his kitchen door.
And so, Donne found himself banished to the countryside, living in the home and at the favor of a cousin of Ann's, spending his days writing groveling letters to Ann's enraged father and anyone who might be willing to help him. Nevertheless, the couple were quite happy, and Ann produced a child annually while Donne tried to figure out how to salvage his career. He also wrote poems about his newfound bliss. He was besotted with his wife, so much so that even the elements seemed weak to him in comparison with his feelings. Writing cheekily to the sun, he was both braggart and ardent lover: "Thy beames, so reverend and strong / Why shouldst thou thinke? / I could eclipse and cloud them with a winke, / But that I would not lose her sight so long . . ."
Indeed, Donne's poems for Ann number among his most gorgeous. "I wonder, by my troth, what thou, and I / Did, till we lov'd," he asks in one. And feeling persecuted by the world for marrying for passion, he defiantly pronounces in another: "Wee can dye by it, if not live by love, / And if unfit for tombes and hearse / Our legend bee, it will be fit for verse." These are words to wallow in for eternity. The one great flaw of Stubbs's book, in fact, is that Stubbs chooses not to wallow for even a moment. While he is brilliant at mining Donne's poetry for biographical detail and as evidence of his psychological state at various times, and at setting all of it in historical context, Stubbs never takes the time to examine a poem from all angles, to appreciate the skill and the fiery beauty that Donne fused like no one before him and no one since.
For, in the end, Donne found almost every problem of his life, every attempt to live within his conflicted self, "fit for verse." He is remembered as much for his Holy Sonnets—"the journal of a soul that finds itself alone"—as he is for his love poems. The sonnets, written mostly between 1609 and 1614, contain among them Donne's famous "Death be not proud" and "Batter my heart, three person'd God." Fourteen offerings of fourteen lines each, they are the anguished record of a man searching for "the right eternity."
He found it, apparently, when in January 1615 he at last succumbed to a long-standing offer and pledged himself to the priesthood, becoming the dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral in London. Ironically, he made this decision not for spiritual reasons but for material ones. The Donnes had lost three of their children to illness in one year (Ann was soon to die, too), and he no longer felt he had any other way to support his family. His efforts to find new patronage had failed (everyone remembered his old ways— what he called "the worst part of my historie"), and no other option was open to him.
Fortunately, the role of divine interpreter suited him, and he was soon transformed, after the awarding of an honorary doctorate from Cambridge, into the revered Doctor Donne. He produced a collection of sermons that are as powerful and full of emotional and intellectual tension as his best poetry, and often directly related to it. It was from Donne that we learned no man is an "iland," and Donne who reminded his flock: "If a man of my blood, or alliance, doe a shamefull act, I am affected with it; If a man of my calling, or profession, doe a scandalous act, I feel my self concerned in his fault; God hath made all mankinde of one blood, and all Christians of one calling, and the sins of every man concern every man." If two lovers can never be separated but only endure "an expansion," then the same is even more true for the world at large.
When Donne finally exited the world in 1631, he left behind the image of a saintly preacher who had touched thousands. He aided this legacy by posing carefully for his white marble death effigy and making a final thundering public appearance to preach, as Isaak Walton put it, "his own Funeral Sermon." In his last public words, Donne spoke of the dying that begins "even at our birth"—just one more reason we should be glad for the company of his poetry, that we might read it as we go.
Melanie Rehak is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her (Harcourt, 2005) and the assistant poetry editor of the New Republic. Her poetry and prose have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Nation, and other publications.