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John Donne: The Reformed Soul: A Biography Hardcover – April 17, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For his first book, Stubbs has produced a biography of the enigmatic, conflicted poet familiar today to many people mostly thanks to a single, lovely line: "No man is an Island, entire of it self." John Donne—born in 1572, at the outset of the most politically tumultuous and religiously violent era in English history—searched throughout his life for passage to a continent, to find a homeland, to involve himself, as he put it, in mankind. Beginning life as a secular Catholic, Donne ended it as a pious Protestant priest; a dissolute young man, he evolved into a serious intellectual of delicate demeanor; a swashbuckler who fought against Spain for loot and adventure, he buckled down and became one of the finest poetical craftsmen of the Renaissance; a promiscuous loner once focused on making money and powerful friends, he married for love and left it all happily behind. Throughout his life, Stubbs shows, Donne was a study in paradoxes, and one of the strengths of this book is his ready acknowledgment of his subject's contradictions. "Part of the job of this biography," writes Stubbs, "is to trace the strands between these personae and point out the unity underlying them." He succeeds admirably. (Apr.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* The greatest English metaphysical poet was and wasn't a man of letters, as Stubbs shows in as engaging a work of scholarship as a biography could ever be. Donne (1572?-1631) was more obviously a lifelong bureaucrat than an author. Initially hampered by his family's Catholicism, he studied law. He fought with Essex at Cadiz and Raleigh in the Azores, got a plum secretarial post, but fell in love with a wealthy squire's daughter. Their elopement brought immediate dismissal and years of scraping by. Only after Ann Donne's death did he take holy orders and rise swiftly to the deanship of St. Paul's Cathedral. He had written poetry since his late teens. Circulated in manuscript, it made him famous in society, enough so to allow Donne a sideline in writing commissioned verse that kept him afloat during the lean years. Adroitly employing Donne's poems to illuminate his life and arguing that Donne was always animated by his vision of the interdependency of all human beings, Stubbs opens a large window on the most durably fascinating society in English history. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st American Ed edition (April 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393062600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393062601
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,079,965 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Biography can be so tedious and boring but I think we have entered into an age of the Biography as art form. And I feel the Donne by Stubbs is a fresh example of the new biographers who are grounded not only in the material but also in writing skillfully enough to keep the reader entranced. When I think John Donne I think Milton and Spencer and I think of boring school days and relentless English courses. Stubbs does us a great service in bringing Donne back to life. Some found this book repetitive but I feel the repetitiveness serves the purpose well here as it weaves a tapestry of a rich life fully lived. And given the difficulty of the topic reminds the reader of previous territory covered. Stubbs should win some awards for this sterling bio. If this be his first let this not be his last!
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on May 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The complex life of a former rake, politico, and then dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. And, above all, a master of the written word. The author of this biography writes in a lively style that does credit to his subject.

I do not usually think "Afterwords" are justified. In this case, this device provides for a nicely done close, with its linkage between Dr. Donne and our age's great physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. (Dr. Donne's words still speak to our largely unchanged human condition.)

By a young scholar, John Stubbs. This is an excellent first book.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Tim Challies TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 31, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have long had a bit of a fascination with John Donne. A poet and eventual clergyman who lived from 1572-1631, Donne's poems are among my favorites. His Holy Sonnets have given me much cause to think and his early works, so often sexual and vulgar, have shown a man who underwent a clear and profound transformation in his life. From writing poetry which described forbidden and clandestine affairs that involved bribing servants, hushing siblings, and sneaking past parents in order to consummate love, Donne progressed to poetry celebrating Christ and his triumph over death.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;

For those, whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.


One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Donne was born into an English Roman Catholic family at a time when belonging to the Roman church could and often did carry grave consequences. Though his father died while Donne was only a young boy, he still received a good education and soon learned of his ability to mold language. He also learned of his ability as a lawyer and a statesman and soon converted to the Anglican Church in order to enhance his career prospects. Proudly profligate, Donne spent his youth and early adulthood attempting to satisfy every lust of his flesh. Yet in an age where marriages were strictly arranged by fathers to further their own ends, Donne secretly married for love and was to suffer the consequences of such an uncouth arrangement for the rest of his life.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Cameron-Smith TOP 1000 REVIEWER on May 4, 2010
Format: Paperback
In this biography, John Stubbs divides the life of John Donne (1572-1631) into three separate stages. During the first, he grows up (sows those famous wild oats) and then marries. During the second, he tries to obtain secular preferment. Finally, pushed by his friends, patrons and also by King James I, he takes holy orders, finds a religious vocation and becomes Dean of St Paul's.

This biography provides details of the historical setting in which he lived, and of the religious politics which he - with his deep Roman Catholic roots - was never entirely free of. His mother was the great-niece of Sir Thomas More; his brother died as a result of harbouring a priest who was himself executed. At the time of his marriage, John Donne was Chief Secretary to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal (Sir Thomas Egerton) and quite probably well placed for secular preferment. Alas, his secret marriage to Ann More, niece of Sir Thomas, ruined his career and earned him a brief period in prison.

But what of John Donne the man? It is tempting to read his early poems, as John Stubbs does, as reflecting the man himself. It makes Donne an even more romantic - and tragic - figure: torn at times between desire and spiritual devotion. Ann died five days after giving birth to their 12th child (10 of whom survived), after sixteen years of marriage. Donne never remarried.

I found this biography very interesting and while I am cautious about the boundary between fact and interpretation, I learned a lot about the life and times of John Donne. And, knowing a little more about the man I feel moved to read more of his poetry.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on December 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I'm using "difficult" as a euphemism, but I'm not certain, in Donne's case, what it's a euphemism for. Did the indiscretions of this youth make him an earnest clergyman, or a sycophant? Was his conversion (no ordinary conversion) and later oratorical attitude sincere or was it based on guilt or the necessity of making a living? The poems that live after him reflect a life he all but renounced at the time of his death.

Stubb's research yields only lame excuses for Donne's irresponsibility to his family. Ann, whom his poems extol, at 16 years old, gave up everything for him and bore him 10 (12?) children before her death at age 33. He would leave her for travels, be unfaithful (or so the evidence points) and despite his very public professions of love, prefer a burial apart.

Marriage and post marriage negotiations for daughter Constance are insulting to her just as not leaving his papers to John Jr. were insulting to his son. Rejecting support when it finally came from his father in law shows more personal pride than concern for the well being of his family. What became of other children is not clear, and not a topic of interest to Donne who leaves no written record expressing concern.

The book presents larger issues than the character of Donne: religious persecution, the politics of religion, the rigidity of society, the lure of the new world, the effects of the autocracy of the monarch, the politics of the clergy, the societal consequences of the plague, etc. are all described.

I chose this book because of my interest in this historical period more than an interest in Donne. The author did not disappoint in this.
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