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.”

The pageboy disguise and the nurse have reminded many readers of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Romeo and Juliet, and they have concluded, reasonably enough, that Donne’s poem recalls his visits to the theater. Stubbs, however, reads it as autobiography. Early in 1605 Donne decided to go abroad for some time with Sir Walter Chute, and this led, Stubbs assumes, to a “row” with Ann, who did not want to be left behind, and offered to dress up as a boy if she could accompany him. Donne wrote the poem to dissuade her. Why Ann should be urged to keep their “long-hid love” secret when they had been living openly as husband and wife for four years, and why she should be sleeping with her nurse like a child when she was already the mother of two children, are questions Stubbs somehow doesn’t ask himself. At the time, too, Ann was six months pregnant, and a pregnant page might surely have aroused the curiosity of others besides the French and Italians.

Stubbs tries to relate the love poems in Donne’s Songs and Sonnets to Ann as well, and this spawns further misreadings. “The Ecstasy” is a poem about two lovers lying side by side like “sepulchral statues” while their souls, released from their bodies, converse in the air above them. It is based on a passage in the Neoplatonist Leone Ebreo’s Dialogues of Love, though Stubbs does not mention this. He thinks it really happened. It was one of Donne’s “happy memories,” and the woman he was lying beside was probably Ann. In the poem, the speaker imagines there is an onlooker, purified by love, who can understand the language the souls converse in, and we should realize, Stubbs tells us, that this onlooker “would see the couple by accident, and then considerately depart.” But that is just what the poem does not say. It invites the onlooker to stay and watch while the couple make love: “Let him still mark us, he shall see/ Small change when we are to bodies gone.” To the pure all things are pure; the body is as necessary for love as the soul—those are the poem’s meanings. It is Stubbs who makes the spectator tiptoe tactfully away, and he does so because, if the poem were autobiography, it would be an embarrassment to have a third party hanging around while Donne and Ann made love.

As Stubbs’s subtitle suggests, his book’s central theme is Donne’s progress from youthful mistakes to sanctified maturity. But Donne was strange, complex, and fanciful even in his religious thought, and this seems to pass Stubbs by. He misreads “The Relic” because he fails to grasp Donne’s rather elaborate interest in arrangements for the Last Judgment. On the last day, Donne thought, souls would rush around the world gathering up the fragments of their scattered bodies and fitting them together again. In “The Relic” the lover goes to his grave with a lock of his mistress’s hair wound around his arm to ensure that, though they cannot be buried together, her soul will come looking for its missing lock of hair at the last day, and they will be reunited. In Stubbs’s reading of the poem, the grave contains both the man’s and the woman’s skeleton from the outset, which misses the whole point.

Another of Donne’s interests, it seems, was mortalism, that is, the belief that the soul dies with the body. Some seventeenth-century mortalists, such as John Milton, believed that though the soul died, it would reawaken with the body at the Last Judgment. Others held that it would die permanently. The pioneering Donne scholar Helen Gardner was the first to notice that Holy Sonnet 4 (“At the round earth’s imagined corners”) is a mortalist poem. The “numberless infinities/Of souls” are commanded to “arise/From death” on the last day. Another Holy Sonnet, “This is my play’s last scene,” survives, Gardner found, in two versions, one mortalist, and the other adhering to the orthodox belief that the soul remains conscious at death and goes to heaven or hell where it waits for the body to be resurrected.

Stubbs seems unaware of any of this, and does not mention mortalism. Yet it could affect the meaning of poems he refers to in ways he does not suspect. In “A Hymn to God the Father” Donne confesses, “I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun/My last thread, I shall perish on the shore.” That sounds like a mortalist fear. The less extreme form of mortalism, soul-sleep, attracted Donne, it seems, because it canceled the thought of the body putrefying in the grave, which haunts his sermons. If the soul slept, it would be unaware of the long years of decay. The very next moment after the body closed its eyes in death, it would open them again in the light of Christ’s second coming. There would be no interim. This seems to be what Donne means in “Hymn to God, my God, in my Sickness”:

As West and East
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

Though in a map of the world the furthest west and the furthest east seem far apart, they are actually the same, and if the map is wrapped round a globe, as Donne imagines in “A Valediction: Of Weeping,” the two will come together. So, too, with death and resurrection, if the soul sleeps. Donne’s first biographer, Isaac Walton, famously related that when Donne was dying he clambered out of bed, put on his shroud, and had his portrait drawn on a wooden board, with him standing on an urn and the shroud turned back from his face, which looked toward the east “from whence he expected the coming of his and our Saviour Jesus.” Then Donne had the drawing put by his bed, so that he could gaze at it. Perhaps he found comfort in the belief that that was what he would look like the very next second after he had closed his eyes in death.

Mortalism was, of course, heretical, and there was no question of Donne mentioning such a scandalous doctrine when preaching. His sermons were strictly orthodox, and he obediently supported King James’s ban on controversial issues being mentioned in the pulpit at all. Stubbs notes correctly that this entailed dissimulation on Donne’s part. For example, he condemns suicide in a sermon, since that was the Church’s line, but he was in fact the author of the first-ever English treatise defending suicide. He gave the manuscript to a friend for safekeeping, urging him to preserve it, though it could not be published until long after Donne’s death.

In his religious poems, too, even those that seem most passionate and intense, he could vary his beliefs to suit his audience. Stubbs takes the Holy Sonnets to be “very private” poems. They represent, he says, the “bursts of great anxiety” that would secretly convulse Donne while he was “kissing ladies’ (and gentlemen’s) hands and relaxing with his pub cronies.” But in fact they were not private. Donne sent six of them, with a flattering accompanying sonnet, to the young Earl of Dorset. He also showed them to his patron, Lucy, Countess of Bedford. In a poem she wrote in reply to one of Donne’s in 1609, she picks up and quotes back at him the first line of his Holy Sonnet 6, “Death be not proud.” It seems likely that for Donne the thought of Lucy reading the Holy Sonnets affected their composition quite fundamentally.

The “bursts of great anxiety” they express arise from Calvinism. The burning issue in the Protestant church when Donne joined it was the Calvinist doctrine of salvation. Calvinists believed that all souls had been predestined by God, even before they were created, to be saved or damned. It followed, for Calvinists, that Christ had not died for everyone, but only for the elect. Only the elect received the grace needful for salvation. The counter-doctrine, put forward by the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, was that Christ had died for everyone, and everyone is supplied with grace even before they ask for it. In the Holy Sonnets Donne takes on the role of a tormented Calvinist. He feels he is damned. The devil has him, and will not let him go. He believes that if he repents he will find grace, but he needs grace in order to repent, and does not have it. “Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack,” he tells himself, “But who shall give thee that grace to begin?” It is the standard Calvinist double-bind.

Stubbs thinks the Holy Sonnets record a “crisis of spirituality.” Maybe so. But it is worth noting that the Countess of Bedford was a Calvinist. Stubbs seems to think she developed Calvinism only late in life. But the poem of 1609, in which she quotes “Death be not proud,” is openly and chillingly Calvinist. It contrasts the young woman friend, clearly one of the elect, whose death Lucy’s poem mourns, with “people cursed before they were,” that is, the reprobate, damned by God’s eternal decree before they were created. It may be, then, that Donne poses as a Calvinist in the Holy Sonnets because he knows that it will appeal to his Calvinist patron, who pays him the compliment of reading and imitating his religious poems.

For a different patron, a different theological position could be produced. The sequence of sonnets called La Corona that Donne wrote for George Herbert’s mother, Magdalen Herbert, is usually dated 1609, and its views on saving grace are markedly dissimilar from the Calvinist agonies of the Holy Sonnets. The first sonnet of La Corona ends resoundingly, “Salvation to all that will is nigh.” If you want to be saved you can be saved. There is grace for all. This is clearly Arminian, and would have outraged any self-respecting Calvinist. Stubbs does not mention the La Corona sequence at all, but it can hardly be ignored. If Donne was indeed having a Calvinist spiritual crisis in the Holy Sonnets, we should at least note that he could also sound remarkably carefree about it in a set of poems written for a different reader at the same time.

Donne was complicated, changeable, and fathomless, and Stubbs’s view of him seems, in the end, oversimple. He sees him as, above all, a man of “principle” with a “searingly moral nature.” He left the Roman Church, in Stubbs’s opinion, not with any thought of self-advancement, but because he had come to realize that for “law-abiding English subjects,” the Church of England was “truly ‘Catholic,’ universal.” Catholics who failed to see this showed a regrettable inability to adapt to “the historical moment.” It is hard to make sense of such claims. A universal church can hardly be universal only for a section of the English population, and adapting to the historical moment sounds like expediency rather than principle.

The “great thought at the heart of Donne’s life,” according to Stubbs, is expressed in a famous passage from the Devotions:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

If this was truly the great thought at the heart of Donne’s life, it must be said that the aggressive, abusive, self-regarding poet of the Satires, Elegies, and Songs and Sonnets managed to conceal it with remarkable success. Even the later, holy Donne was hardly the universal philanthropist Stubbs would like to think, for whom “every individual is linked to every other on the planet.” Like other Christians of his day, Donne took it for granted that non-Christians would burn in hell forever. In a sermon of 1623 he tells his congregation that it should be a “true comfort” to them to consider that God has taken them into his church, whereas “infinite multitudes” of pagans and idolaters “shall receive an irrevocable judgment of eternal damnation.” Even the passage from the Devotions is less selfless than it looks at first. It instructs us not to bother to find out which of our neighbors has died, but to concentrate on our own condition.

The faults of Stubbs’s biography do not cancel its merits. It displays great gifts and would be remarkable even if it were not his first book. If he had taken the time to bone up on the full gamut of Donne scholarship before writing it, he would probably have dissipated its bravura and dulled its edge. It is vivid, ardent, and engaging, and no one will regret reading it.

This Issue

June 14, 2007