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But none of these, in fact, may be the actual John Donne: They are generated by his poems, his sermons, the imagery of his death, the panegyric rhetoric of Walton's Life - by texts and artefacts, in short, that cannot be read as empirical evidence of what Donne did or who he was. But neither can such texts be discounted.

John Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs

Without them, we have little more than the cold inscrutable stone of Donne's monument. The statue stops breathing and Donne ceases to be the poet whom we still read as 'we read the living'. We lose too the evidence of how Donne saw life and how he saw those alive around him.

The various Donnes that posterity has inherited represent stages in the life and growth of a singular individual, the different forms one soul took on, and reflect different aspects of that developing person. Part of the job of this biography is to trace the strands between these personae and point out the unity underlying them. However, it also has to be accepted that inconsistencies and enigmas will remain insofar as Donne alone lies under scrutiny. We expect the words and actions of an individual to conform, overall, to something that is a logically coherent whole in itself.

However irrational it might seem to others, everyone follows their own inner rationale.

From paradox of life to poetry of love

Yet lives do not always form neat stories. Aristotle warned all writers treating historical subjects that it was a bad idea to put a single person at the centre of an epic and expect the resulting narrative to be tidy and resolved. Coherence in a biographical life often emerges by putting that life off-centre, placing the subject back in the crowd as well as picking him or her out from it. This is certainly the case with Donne. The plot of his life, to adapt Aristotle, becomes unified when it is built around the much larger social story of which it formed a small yet meaningful part, and of which it provides a revealing testimony.

John Donne The Reformed Soul A Biography

A singular portrait of Donne, from all the very different likenesses we have of him, becomes possible when the historical background swarms back into the foreground. This, it might be said, is nothing more than an expression of standard biographical practice; but it is worth restating here because Donne himself was immensely conscious of the principle. No man is an island, entire of itself.

For Donne, this is because the bell tolls for everyone. All people die, and all know it, no matter how each one deals with that knowledge, and no matter how he or she meets their particular moment of extinction. Donne realized that this is possibly the one absolute that everyone has in common.

Seeing this, as he did, was not so much a case of seeing the bigger picture - he did not claim to be all knowing, all seeing - as realizing that a bigger picture was there. We can understand Donne not by treating him as an island, but by seeing his place on the volatile island he inhabited. Looking back, he could position himself in the broader historical movements that had shaped his existence. In spite of all the suffering, suffering he experienced personally and recognized in his writing, he had truly positive thoughts on the social, political and religious upheavals of the sixteenth century:.

God shin'd upon this Island early; early in the plantation of the Gospel, for we had not our seed-corn from Rome , howsoever we may have had some waterings from thence and early in the Reformation of the Church: God continue to us the light of this Reformation, without re-admitting any old Clouds, any old Clouts, and we shall not need any such re-Reformation, or super-Reformation, as swimming brains will need cross the Seas for.

Such a statement makes Donne one of the most sophisticated but also most genuine defenders of the English Reformation.

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It was its peculiar Englishness , in fact, that he most admired. In speaking of 'this Island', Donne blurs together the distinct religious and political histories of Scotland and England. Later in the seventeenth century, the Scots would show they took issue with that generalization.


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Britain was only just emerging as a political idea rather than a fully fledged nation, under James I; but although Donne lends support to that idea by speaking of it here as something that was already a reality, his real point is directed at England's recent past. For Donne, the Reformation was not ultimately a betrayal of the English Catholic tradition.


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  • In his opinion the Church had been 'watered' by Rome, but had never eaten corn out of the Pope's hand. When the time came to reform, England had made the necessary changes to its ways of worshipping, but had not gone to the annihilative lengths seen in northern Europe. The Church was not stripped bare, he insisted, but had retained her ceremonies and possessions. Available Our Retail Price: The Reformed Soul A Biography.

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    Donne: the Reformed Soul by John Stubbs

    Overview Formats Inside the Book. Though a number of his sermons and works of prose has survived, Donne is known today as being one of the greatest English poets. In a biography of a poet, we depend a great deal on the ability of the author to interpret the poetry.

    On the whole, though I am largely unqualified to make such judgments, I felt that Stubbs was accurate in his interpretations and presented Donne as he appears in his works.

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    Donne lived in a time of great political and ecclesiastical complexity, a time when religion and politics were hopelessly intertwined. Thus it can be difficult to separate what Donne truly believed from his studies of Scripture and what he almost had to believe in order to maintain his position. The sermons and poetry combine to provide a glimpse into an odd, uneven faith that seemed to yearn for much of the Catholicism Donne had left behind and also yearned for God to be someone other than who He reveals Himself to be.

    Whether Donne truly knew and loved the God of the Bible is difficult to know and certainly not ours to judge. Reading his works, though, presents enough confusion and slightly unorthodox theology that it becomes quickly apparent why Donne is known as a poet and not as a great Christian or theologian. This biography is a long read and certainly not always an easy one. It turns often and obviously to seventeenth century language and this can take time and effort to unravel.