Books that emphasise the conflicts in Donne are hardly rarities. Paradoxes haunt the previously standard John Donne: A Life (published by RC Bald in 1970) and the best critical studies (including John Carey’s landmark Life, Mind and Art, 1981). But no biographer has taken more trouble than John Stubbs to put them in a post-Reformation historical context and to examine their causes and their effects. His evocation is at once highly readable – because it’s dashing as well as detailed – and sombre: although the poems may sometimes be playful, they arose from circumstances that were often frustratingly difficult. By giving these problems due weight, Stubbs manages to make Donne seem recognisable and sympathetic, and also the inhabitant of a world that has long since disappeared.
Donne was born in 1572, the son of Catholic parents who understood that if they wanted to get on in the world they would have to play down or actually disguise their faith. As it turned out, his father didn’t have much time to make his mark: he died when Donne was four. (It’s tempting, though, to think his trade influenced Donne in deep and subtle ways. He was an ironmonger: images of hammering, beating and forging occur throughout his son’s poems, and his gradual move from a secular to a religious life might also be said to represent a larger sort of re-shaping.) His mother was a different matter. Long-lived and devout, she helped to shape Donne’s career both by reminding him of first principles and by proving how dangerous they could be. Her faith required her to spend much of her life outside England.
Donne and his younger brother Henry got used to treading carefully from the start. They were educated first at Hart Hall in Oxford, where they hurried to finish their studies before turning 16, at which age anyone wishing to take a degree had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Reformed, Protestant church. Then they went to Cambridge (probably: the record of Donne’s early life is pretty vague), where they were able to continue working – though still cautiously. Catholics were generally treated as outsiders at best, and at worst (and the worst happened to several members of Donne’s family) were harried, tortured and put to death. Two years after Donne became a student at Thavies Inn in 1591, his brother Henry was visited by some of Topcliffe’s papist-hunters; they discovered he was sheltering William Harrington, a young Yorkshireman who had trained as a seminarian priest in Europe. Harrington was brutally mutilated, then executed, and Henry dispatched to Newgate. As Stubbs says, incarceration in the plague-filled gaol "was all but a death sentence": he only lasted a little while.
We don’t know the degree of Donne’s original devotion to Catholicism, and therefore can only guess what it cost him to suppress his faith. But we can easily see the effects in the poems he began writing during this time. The tension of their arguments, their interest in reconciling opposites, and their compacted logic may be aimed largely at affairs of the heart, but they are matters of the mind as well, and as such reflect the larger picture of Donne’s circumstances. To stand apart, wittily putting down women, might have been a (sometimes misogynistic) way of asserting independence and superiority; the same things are also a sign of exclusion and anxiety – characteristics that are often missed by critics who highlight the poems’ wittiness.