Literary biography is one of the background noises of our age. It’s a decent, friendly sort of hum, like the Sunday papers or chatter on a train. It gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip, and what’s more it saves them the trouble of reading history. And poems too, for that matter. Not to mention the ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism. But there are two respects in which literary biography is intrinsically pernicious, however well it’s done. The first is that literary biographies need a thesis in order to catch the headlines. This can turn what ought to be a delicate art into a piece of problem-solving or a search for a key to a life. Wordsworth? Well, that stuff about Lucy is really all about his affair with Annette Vallon. Byron? Just remember he loved his sister. Shakespeare? Didn’t you realise he was the Earl of Oxford? The other problem is that even the best examples can’t entirely avoid the naive reduction of literature to evidence or symptom – epiphenomena which are brought about by, and potentially reducible to, biographical origins.
These generic pressures set up a conflict between literary biography and what it’s like to read most poems. Reading poems is usually, if things go well, a process of losing and finding one’s balance, and then wondering if one has really grasped the thing after all. John Donne’s poems in particular are extremely unstable. Critics have often got into a sweat about the way that they argue implausible cases, and very often, too, things happen in the course of them which make it quite clear that while the speaker is busily arguing the hind parts off whatever quadruped or biped he has in his sights he is not actually getting very far in persuading them of his case. In ‘The Flea’, just as the would-be lover is telling his wouldn’t-be mistress that the flea is an emblem of their spiritual union and a sign that sex amounts to no more than a flea-bite, she purples her nail with its blood, and squishes the argument. The energy of the poems comes from the kinds of non-understanding they generate: you get one strand, start to be convinced, and then another cuts across and pulls you in a new direction. When those poems are solemnly presented as evidence or symptoms of a life one’s immediate reaction is to protest that their vitality, which depends on a plurality of disintegrating perspectives, might be a bit like life as it might feel to live it (confusion, moments of triumph, realisations that it isn’t that easy, surges of power, cross-currents of frustration), but it is not at all the matter of a biography.
John Stubbs’s Life of Donne does everything a decent literary biography ought to do. It strives to be imaginative and readable. It evokes the world in which Donne lived, and it delivers the facts about his life quite well. The facts – which go some way to show how hard it is to write a literary biography of Donne – are these. He was born in 1572 to a strongly Catholic family. His mother was a great-granddaughter of Thomas More’s sister, and it seems that she kept More’s skull among her personal effects until the end of her life. His father was a Catholic and an ironmonger, but it would be wrong to think of him as a merry blacksmith who sold nails by the pound: he was a warden of the Ironmongers’ Company, and clearly a person of substance. He died when Donne was four, whereupon his mother married another Catholic, a surgeon called John Syminges. There was enough money to send John to Oxford at the age of 12. Students were required to subscribe to the 39 Articles at the age of 16, but Donne left the university before reaching that age, and is said to have spent some time in Cambridge. He witnessed the sharp end of the persecution of Catholics late in Elizabeth’s reign. His uncle Jasper Heywood was one of the leaders of the English Jesuit mission; he was caught and imprisoned in 1583, and Donne went with his mother to visit Heywood in the Tower. Donne’s family fortunes did not improve: his brother Henry was imprisoned in 1593 for harbouring a priest, and died of the plague while in Newgate.
We don’t know much about what Donne did when he left university. He may have travelled abroad. A ‘Jhon Downes’ is recorded in a list of household servants of the Catholic Earl of Derby from 1587, but it’s anyone’s guess whether or not that was the poet. Donne reappears in the records when in 1592 he entered Lincoln’s Inn. This put him among the late Elizabethan smart set. The Inns of Court were finishing schools for highly trained and rhetorically skilled university men. Many of those who attended them did not go on to have careers in the law, and some spent large proportions of their time watching plays and circulating manuscript poetry. But the Inns also fostered many articulate defenders of the Common Law, some of whom were to express unease about apparent extensions of the royal prerogative in the early Stuart parliaments. Donne seems to have mingled with both sorts, many of whom were the same people. He certainly did his fair share of writing poems and play-going, but he also (as the depth and detail with which he employs legal vocabulary in his verse indicates) studied the law with enough seriousness to land a pretty much ideal job for an ambitious young man in the late 16th century. After trying his hand as an adventurer and soldier in the Earl of Essex’s Cadiz expedition in 1596 and its embarrassingly useless sequel in 1597, he became secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the Keeper of the Great Seal.
Donne eloped with Ann More, Egerton’s niece by marriage, married her in 1601, and then wrote to his employer to apologise. His father-in-law, George More (whom Stubbs presents as a windbag, but who in this instance was surely only doing what fathers do), was furious, and Donne was locked up in the Fleet Prison. On his release he became one of the unemployed. In this early period, his poetry chiefly consisted of smart and up-to-the-minute adaptations of classical elegy and satire to suit the lifestyles of blokeish and highly sexed Inns of Court men. It performs acts of persuasion and deliberately failed argumentation before a variety of imagined audiences, and is so artfully constructed that any relationship to life must be extremely oblique. But because Stubbs is writing literary biography, and because literary biography is a genteelly philistine genre, he has to treat the early verse as evidence and symptom of randy John’s doings. He was happy when he and Ann finally got a house together, and so he wrote ‘The Sun Rising’. Stubbs’s comment here (‘The sun rapped at the windows and squinted through the curtains, but Donne lifted his head and shooed it away’) misses much of the point and irony of the poem, which is that the sun will carry on and rise whatever our eloquent lover says to it. ‘The memory of lying with a woman at the side of a river, and just lying there, for hours, saying nothing’, Stubbs claims, gives us ‘The Ecstasy’, which starts with two lovers or would-be lovers lying on a bank (although there is no sign in the poem that it is a riverbank). Literary biography is allowed to be imaginative, of course, but often the kind of imagination it provokes is sentimentality by another name. When imagining Donne and Ann’s feelings for each other when they were apart, Stubbs lets rip: ‘Ann could only wonder which flirt from Donne’s past might have caught his eye at some glamorous soirée. Both were stuck with the nauseous romance of living with an absence, feeding the heart on thin air.’
Whether or not his marriage and sacking turned Donne into an Heir of Sorrows worthy of Sylvie Krin, it certainly led to the dreariest and most difficult period of his life, in which he depended partly on the charity of members of his family. For a couple of years he lived at Pyrford in Surrey, before moving to Mitcham. A Londoner by birth and inclination, he couldn’t stand ‘the barbarousness and insipid dulnesse of the Country’. He studied divinity in a room ‘having under it a vault . . . that by raw vapors rising from thence . . . I have contracted a sicknesse which I cannot name nor describe.’ Here he feared that his ‘hydroptique immoderate desire of humane learning and languages’ would be the end of him. Children kept on coming (four in five years), and some died. But the recondite learning which he absorbed along with the raw vapours of country damp appealed to James I, to whom he dedicated his first published work in 1610. Pseudo-Martyr was a long prose treatise aimed at persuading English Catholics to swear the Oath of Allegiance which had been introduced in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, and arguing that it was wrong to believe that those who died seeking to overturn the English crown were martyrs (hence the title of the treatise).
From here Donne inched his way towards preferment. He became an MP, and found favour with Sir Robert Drury, who took him to France and the Low Countries in 1611-12. Absence always worked powerfully on Donne’s imagination, and according to Izaak Walton, his friend and first biographer, he had a vision while on this trip: ‘I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms.’ On his return he discovered that his wife had miscarried. She was to die in 1617 after giving birth to her twelfth child, which was stillborn.
He was, Walton claims, encouraged to take holy orders by James I, and after doing so in January 1615 – with what degree of enthusiasm or reluctance it is impossible to know – he rapidly became a royal chaplain. He accumulated a number of livings, as well as the decently paid office of reader in divinity at Lincoln’s Inn. After some heavy-duty petitioning of the Duke of Buckingham he finally received in 1621 one of the juiciest offices in the English Church: the deanship of St Paul’s Cathedral. Strangely enough, after his appointment a large quantity of Portland stone set aside for the refurbishment of the cathedral found its way to York House, which was being restored by the Duke of Buckingham.
Reading for, meditating on and writing sermons occupied much of Donne’s later life. These tread just within the bounds of the theological and political orthodoxy of Stuart England, and sermon-writing required all of Donne’s ability to hear and pre-empt what his audience might be thinking. He rarely got it wrong. In 1627 he preached on the text ‘Take heed what you hear’, and something in the sermon – perhaps what it had to say about libels against those in power – unsettled Charles I, who asked to see a text. The dean nervously scrutinised it for political error: ‘I have cribrated [sifted], and recribrated, and post-cribrated the Sermon,’ he declared anxiously, and his ‘recribrations’ (the neologism – which Stubbs misprints – may have been intended to obscure whether he was rereading or rewriting) have left us a sermon which seems to display nothing more than his customary political prudence.
As well as being remarkably well tuned to its audience’s sensitivities, the later prose shows as fine a sense of what it is to be carnal as the erotic verse had done more than a decade before, although for the ageing Donne the body’s pains rather than its longings become the principal means of registering his embodied nature. He did not (as Eliot famously suggested) feel thought ‘as immediately as the odour of a rose’. Thought was for him a bubble of spirit which almost instantly lost itself in a mire of flesh: ‘Yea words which are our subtillest and delicatest outward creatures, being composed of thoughts and breath, are so muddie, so thick, that our thoughts themselves are so, because (except at the first rising) they are ever leavened with passions and affections.’ Late in life Donne suffered from a collapsed uvula (the little piece of flesh that dangles down at the back of the throat) and lost his voice for an extended period. The progress of a severe fever in 1623 was documented hour by hour in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, meditations which range from the curiously carnal (‘they apply pigeons’ – to his feet – ‘to draw the vapours from the head’, which was apparently standard medical practice) to the airily reflective ‘no man is an Island . . . Any mans death diminishes mee, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tols; it tols for thee.’
His accommodations between the carnal and the intellectual continued until his deathbed, and often it was performance that best united the two. He posed for a last portrait standing on an urn and wrapped in his funeral shroud. This provided the model for a statue by the sculptor Nicholas Stone, which somehow survived the destruction of the old St Paul’s in the Great Fire. While terminally ill Donne preached a sermon called ‘Death’s Duel’, which contemporaries saw as his own funeral oration, dwelling as it did on ‘this death of corruption and putrefaction, of vermiculation and incineration, of dissolution and dispersion in and from the grave’. Instead of dying in the pulpit, as he may have wished, he expired a month later, on 31 March 1631.
Donne was always uneasy about presenting his life as a unified story. He described Biathanatos, a treatise on suicide written at the depths of his career, in about 1607, as ‘a Book written by Jack Donne and not by Dr Donne: Reserve it for me, if I live, and if I die, I only forbid it the Presse, and the Fire: publish it not, but yet burn it not; and between those do what you will with it.’ A desire to be ‘between those’, whether between body and spirit or between print and manuscript, ran through Donne’s life, which he wanted to claim did not add up. His poems often explore different forms of personal discontinuity, from the volte-face of an argument, through sexual infidelity, to a curious fascination with the ways a body can connect to a soul.
Inevitably, biographers have sought to see all these forms of division as faint images of the great divide in Donne’s life between his early Catholicism and his later Anglicanism. John Carey twenty-five years ago gave us a Donne who was an anguished and unconvinced apostate, whose verse burns with the guilty flame of his old faith. Donne himself was always (understandably) coy about his Catholic background. In Biathanatos he said: ‘I had my first breeding and conversation with men of a suppressed and afflicted Religion, accustomed to the despite of death, and hungry of an imagined martyrdom.’ He is careful not to say that he ever was a Catholic, only that he had ‘first breeding and conversation’ with Catholics. His caution transmitted itself to Izaak Walton, who in his biography of 1640 does not allow that the saintly Dr Donne was ever anything other than an irenic Anglican (and who also, incidentally, barely mentions that he was a poet). In all likelihood Donne’s conversion was not sudden. Nor, probably, was it the result of a slow and venal recognition that getting a job mattered more than the truths of religion. Patient and painstaking reading about the relationships between temporal and spiritual authority (which was sufficiently engrossing to make him forget how desperately he needed a job) probably led Donne through something like national loyalism towards membership of the English Church. By 1601 he was sufficiently un-Catholic to be married according to a Church of England service.
Stubbs insists that Donne ‘certainly did not become a Protestant for material gain or convenience’, and is good on this aspect of the life: he sees Donne as gradually, through the Cadiz and Islands expedition in the late 1590s, aligning himself with the nation rather than the Catholic Church. Like Walton, he is perhaps too keen to emphasise moments when Donne declares that all churches ‘are all virtuall beams of one Sun’, and too quick to ignore some of his more vehement condemnations of his old co-religionists. And it’s hereabouts that the need of a literary biography to present a theme or a thesis or a key to the life begins to cast a malign influence. Stubbs takes the ‘no man is an island’ passage from the Devotions as indicating Donne’s philosophy more or less throughout his life. He thinks that Donne was driven to enter the English church by a non-Roman but Catholic sense that all people are finally one. ‘For Donne, every individual is linked to every other on the planet.’ Although this makes Donne sound jolly nice, indeed at times like an amiable sub-Buddhist, it does not ring true; and, indeed, Stubbs’s belief that Donne was a oneness man is partly what makes his accounts of the poetry unsatisfactory.
There are times when Donne is interested in corporate or incorporated unions between souls or factions or nations, and there are times when he is not; and usually even when he is arguing for the consubstantiality of all men he is aware that he is performing before an audience who might not all think the same way, or who might believe that they are definitely not one with Donne. The love poems are acutely responsive to – and even in their way create – a resistant audience that will not quite believe that the two lovers are one even though the speaker says that they’ll be just like gold to airy thinness beat when he disappears on a long journey. Even the passage from the Devotions has an ear for an audience. Its claim for corporate unity among men is not delivered with sagelike detachment; it says: ‘You know I’m lying here terminally ill, and I know that, but I am telling you that the bell tolls for thee.’ It does not deliver a universal truth, but enacts an interpersonal shiver, which has more than a touch of vengefulness. In this respect the Devotions do reveal something central to Donne’s output, although that something is not anything quite as formulaic as a philosophical principle. It is more like a rhythm of mind that moves between acute individual fear and a salving sense of community, but never quite forgets that the community for which he is writing is also an audience before which he must perform.
Some of the letters to Sir Henry Goodyer written during Donne’s period at Mitcham display this rhythm particularly clearly. They are always affectionate, though often also querulous and egotistical, and they seek to make a drama, and a letter, out of not being very well, not being with Goodyer, and being in the country with rather more children than one would like and no job. Several of them touch on the special unity between friends, and these invariably represent that intimate community as something just short of complete concinnity. He and Goodyer are not one, but they might be symmetrical, with a little bit of forcing: ‘I often compare not you and me, but the sphear in which your resolutions’ – presumably ‘revolutions’ – ‘are, and my wheel; both I hope concentrique to God.’ The ‘I hope’ there is very important. So is the sense of disjunction: Donne and Goodyer aren’t planetary spheres wheeling round the sun in perfect harmony. Nor are they one being. Goodyer’s ‘sphear’ is also the social sphere of the court. Donne’s ‘wheel’ is the routine of daily life at Mitcham, a source of tedium and perhaps also an instrument of torture. When he writes of community in another letter to Goodyer, Donne presents it as only part of a regime of self-tuning, in which withdrawal into melancholic loneliness and participation in society must alternate, as though either alone would swamp him:
Sometimes when I finde my self transported with jollity, and love of company, I hang Leads at my heels; and reduce to my thoughts my fortunes, my yeares, the duties of a man, of a friend, of a husband, of a Father, and all the incumbencies of a family: when sadnesse dejects me, either I countermine it with another sadnesse, or I kindle squibs about me again, and flie into sportfulnesse and company.
There is no oneness there, rather a yawing and a pitching between moods, and between a variety of social roles.
The microscopic word by word and line by line equivalent of this process of self-tuning and untuning runs through the best of the poetry. And this makes the poetry evidence of a life only in a very dispersed sense. It does not sit there telling us what it feels like to lie next to a girl on a bank, or that Donne thought of saying ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun’ while lying in bed with Ann. What tends to happen in Donne’s verse is that a conviction of some sort of union or affinity between disjunctive elements plays across a recognition that they are not conjoined. A person is a body and a soul, a merry friend and a preoccupied father, and simultaneously a person is a mechanism that tunes the relationship between all those different elements. If we are looking for Donne’s ‘life’ it is more likely to be found in his writing’s arrhythmic movement from role to role, from argument to argument, and in his anxious glances out to his audience, than in even the most painstaking literary biography. A sense of performance, rather than of confession, runs through almost every word he wrote.