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Love & Heresy in John Donne

John Donne is remembered as a great Elizabethan love poet, some would say the greatest love poet in the English language. But he might easily, had things fallen out differently, have been remembered as a Catholic martyr. He was born, in 1572, into one of the foremost Catholic families in England. His mother was related to the martyr Sir Thomas More, and her brother, Donne’s uncle Jasper Heywood, was the head of the Jesuit mission in England. This was a time of anti-Catholic persecution. It was high treason for a Catholic priest to be found anywhere in Queen Elizabeth’s realm. Those who were captured were executed in a manner designed to strike terror into the beholders. They were hanged, then taken down while still alive, their genitals were chopped off and thrown into a brazier, and their bowels were torn out. Donne was educated by Catholic tutors “hungry,” as he recalled, to become martyrs themselves, and it seems that they took him to witness these exemplary penalties. He remembered seeing Catholic bystanders praying to the priest’s mangled body, in hope that the new martyr would take their petitions to heaven.

These scenes haunted him. “I have been ever kept awake,” he wrote, “in a meditation of martyrdom.” While still a child he was dragged into the very eye of the storm. In 1583 Jasper Heywood was hunted down and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Donne’s mother visited and nursed him, carrying messages from a fellow Jesuit, William Weston. She eventually took the risk of smuggling Weston into the Tower in disguise to consult with Heywood, and she made her twelve-year-old son an accomplice, taking him into the grim fortress with her, presumably hoping that the sight of a child would allay the guards’ suspicions, as perhaps it did.

Soon after this hazardous adventure, Donne and his brother Henry, who was a year younger, were sent to Hart Hall, Oxford, a favorite college of crypto-Catholics. Taking a university degree was impossible, because it involved subscribing to the Church of England’s articles of faith, so Donne left Oxford early, and may have traveled abroad, perhaps in Catholic Spain and Italy. In 1592 he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn—one of the Inns of Court, which were law colleges but also finishing schools for young men-about-town. A portrait painted at this time shows him wearing crucifix-shaped earrings, an abomination to earnest Protestants, and bears a Spanish motto, Antes muerto que mudado (Sooner dead than changed)—a defiant assertion of loyalty to the old religion. The very choice of language was provocative, much like an American citizen displaying a Soviet motto during the cold war.

He was soon able to judge whether he would really rather be dead than changed. In May 1593 Henry Donne was arrested for sheltering a young Catholic priest, William Harrington, in his rooms. Harrington was condemned and executed in the usual obscene manner. Henry, having knowingly harbored a priest, was guilty of a felony, but he did not come to trial. Imprisoned in Newgate, where plague was raging, he died a few days after his capture. The tragedy seems to have concentrated Donne’s mind. Catholicism debarred him from most careers. Now it was made newly clear that it might cost him his life. He began to question its teachings, and decided to show his loyalty to the English crown. As a gentleman volunteer, he joined the Earl of Essex’s military expedition to sack Cadiz in 1596, and the next year he sailed to the Azores with Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh in a bid to ambush the Spanish treasure fleet.

For devout Catholics, Donne’s abandonment of their church would have meant his certain damnation. But it carried worldly rewards. While serving with Essex he made friends with young Thomas Egerton, son of Lord Egerton, one of Queen Elizabeth’s great ministers of state. Within weeks of returning from the Azores Donne had been appointed Lord Egerton’s secretary, and took up quarters in his London residence, York House. It was a dream opportunity, placing him at the hub of national affairs, with ready access to the royal court. He became a member of Parliament—the seat was in Egerton’s gift—and was an eyewitness of one of the most celebrated episodes of Elizabethan history, Essex’s attempt at an armed rising on the streets of London, which ended in his trial and execution.

But Donne’s luck was running out too. While living in York House he had begun a closet liaison with Lady Egerton’s ward Ann More, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy Surrey landowner, and they were secretly married just before Christmas 1601. When the news broke, Ann’s father was furious. Donne was flung into prison and dismissed from Egerton’s service. Worse, having shown himself untrustworthy, he had no hope of another post. His career was over. For the next fourteen years he and Ann lived on the charity of her relatives and whatever Donne could beg from the patrons he courted and flattered. Only when all his attempts to gain employment had failed did he take orders in the Church of England, encouraged to do so by King James I, whom he had pleased by publishing a scabrous attack on the Jesuits, and a book ridiculing Roman Catholic beliefs and denying that those executed for their faith were true martyrs. Success, which had eluded him in the secular world, shone upon him in the Church. Appointed dean of St. Paul’s by James, he became one of the celebrity preachers of the age.

John Stubbs’s biography has been rightly praised for the verve and dash of its style. It does not add materially to the findings of R.C. Bald’s John Donne: A Life (1970), but it is far stronger in recreating Donne’s world. Stubbs is particularly good at scene-setting and at fleshing out the supporting cast. Sir George More, Ann’s peppery little father, can never have seemed more alive than this, even when he was actually walking and talking, and the account of the Azores voyage captures the wonder and cruelty of Elizabethan travel writing. When Essex’s ill-fated band gallops out to raise the city of London in revolt, leaving the Queen’s emissaries fuming and locked in their quarters, you can almost hear the clatter of hoofs over the cobbles. Stubbs has the imagination to find the past in the present. Coming up from Charing Cross underground station, he takes us down Villiers Street to the Embankment Gardens, where a forlorn stone gateway, bearing a family crest and motto, is all that remains of York House, where Donne lived and worked. When nothing remains except a printed text, he still strives to make us see beyond it, evoking the pale winter sunlight filtering through the rose window at the east end of old St. Paul’s as Donne preached there on Christmas morning 1621.

Donne’s thoughts and motives are a more elusive matter, and Stubbs’s interpretation of them is often questionable. He states flatly that Donne “certainly did not become a Protestant for material gain or convenience,” and the proof of this, he believes, is that Donne “quite knowingly surrendered” his career “for the sake of the woman he loved.” It is hardly a clinching argument. Donne turned away from Catholicism before he met Ann, and even if marrying her was free from thoughts of material gain (which it may not have been), it does not follow that his earlier decision was. The truth is that he strained every nerve to keep both Ann and his job. Writing to Sir George after his secret marriage became known, he seems to have thought, reasonably enough, that his father-in-law would stop short of ruining him, since that would mean ruining Ann too. He was wrong. But there is a difference between miscalculating and knowingly surrendering one’s career.

The book’s worst moments nearly all occur when Stubbs is combing the poems for biographical information—a process that necessarily undervalues the imagination. “I did best,” Donne told a friend, “when I had least truth for my subjects.” It is one of his few surviving comments about his poems, and it hardly encourages us to read them as autobiography. They seem to be more like dramatic monologues—unsurprisingly, Donne was Robert Browning’s favorite poet. Perhaps because he loved the theater (he was remembered as a “great frequenter of playes”), or perhaps because as a Catholic in Protestant England he had grown used to dissimulation and pretense, Donne delighted in writing poems from opposed and contrary viewpoints. Interpreting them as what he “really” thought is a recipe for confusion. He wrote, for example, the first lesbian love poem in English, “Sappho to Philaenis” (a breathtakingly beautiful piece, not mentioned by Stubbs), and whatever else may remain doubtful about Donne we can be sure he was not a lesbian.

With his love elegies, another consideration enters. These poems, written during his Inns of Court days, purport to recount his swashbuckling success in cuckolding honest citizens, seducing their daughters, and generally causing mayhem among the female sex. Stubbs thinks they are based on fact, “detailing and embellishing Donne’s earlier affairs.” But if we put the poems in their historical setting, that may seem overcredulous. Inns of Court students were renowned for their erotic braggadocio. It became a joke. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two Justice Shallow boasts of his wild days at the Inns of Court, and Falstaff dryly recalls the feeble reality behind Shallow’s lies:

When he was naked he was for all the world like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it…. He was the very genius of famine, yet lecherous as a monkey, and the whores called him mandrake.

Deriving from Ovid’s Amores, love elegies were, like much Renaissance literature, variations on classical models rather than personal outpourings. Partly because of that common source, other Inns of Court poets wrote elegies almost indistinguishable from Donne’s, and several elegies that used to be printed as his (including “The Expostulation,” which Stubbs still cites as Donne’s) are now thought not to be by him. That, too, may deter us from reading the elegies as autobiography.

But even if they were autobiography they would need to be read correctly, and Stubbs is an inaccurate reader of Donne’s poems. Occasionally you wonder whether he actually understands Elizabethan English. A case in point is Elegy 17, “On His Mistress” (“By our first strange and fatal interview”). The speaker in this poem is about to go abroad, and his mistress wants to accompany him disguised as his page. The speaker assures her it would be a bad idea, particularly as the foreigners among whom he will travel have untrustworthy sexual inclinations. The French will see through her disguise and debauch her, and the “indifferent Italian” will not care whether she is a boy or a girl but will have her either way. It’s clear that the mistress he addresses is very young—she still sleeps with her “nurse.” It’s clear, too, that the lovers’ love is still a secret from the rest of the world, and the speaker wants to keep it that way. He warns her against revealing their “long-hid love” by her looks, or by anything she says while he is away, or by having nightmares and frightening her nurse with “midnight’s startings.”

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