In the first paragraph of John Stubbs’s John Donne: The Reformed Soul, the young Donne (1572-1631) is found sneaking into a mansion to visit his girlfriend, whose family disapproves of him as a suitor. The girl’s father literally sniffs him out, however, for the intruder is wearing a “loud perfume,” and his daring invasion fails. As a result, Donne chides the young woman, for her father suspects him of a whole series of such invasions of his household, and she has done nothing to set him straight. That Donne succeeded in consummating a secret marriage with Ann More, then about sixteen years old, against the wishes of her father is an established fact. This episode makes an arresting beginning of this biography, but it is entirely based on one poem, an elegy called “The Perfume.” Is it a piece of Donne’s life or simply part of his poetic imagination?
In the second paragraph, however, Stubbs assures the reader that “the girl about whom ‘The Perfume’ was written may never have even existed.” Stubbs has told no lies; he has artfully suggested that in some sense “The Perfume” can be materially related to an important aspect of Donne’s life. If the young woman did exist, to be sure, her name would be Ann More.
This initial page of Stubbs’s first chapter raises questions that biographers of literary figures have to confront. A poem is one thing; a life is another. In Donne’s case, the biographer may safely draw on a considerable supply of facts about the man. However, the biographer of a great poet surely must consider the poet’s work, and a number of Donne’s poems can indeed be linked to life records. Furthermore, the emotional content of these poems is frequently strong. A poem that seems to throw light on a high point in a poet’s life must be considered, but in what way should it be considered?
It may be worthwhile to compare Stubbs’s manner of relating poetry to life to that of a previous Donne biographer, R. C. Bald, whose John Donne: A Life (1970) is generally considered definitive. In it, Bald also refers to “The Perfume” early in his book. This poem, he said, could have “started rumors,” but he advises caution. “One does not claim that Donne, before his marriage, was devoid of all sexual experience, but rather that he was not the licentious figure that some of the elegies might suggest.”
To take an example of an early Donne poem that clearly refers to one of the poet’s early adventures, his verse letter to his friend Christopher Brooke, “The Storme,” clearly pertains to his participation in a voyage to the Azores in 1597, a foray in late Elizabethan England’s intermittent hostilities with Spain. Bald quotes once from it but claims that one of Donne’s prose letters is “more valuable for the additional personal details which it contains,” whereas Stubbs prefers to make a series of specific references to the poem. Throughout their books, both writers of course make extensive use of Donne’s letters, especially those to Sir Henry Goodyer, his most important epistolary friend.
The differences in the two biographers’ use of poems is more striking in regard to Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, unpublished in the poet’s lifetime. Of Donne’s aubade “The Sunne Rising,” Bald comments only that it “must belong to the early years of Donne’s married life”; Stubbs envisions Donne “with Ann curled beside him,” able to put the old fool [the sun] firmly in check.” Of another aubade, “The Good-Morrow,” Bald says nothing, while Stubbs uses it to exemplify the point that “he realized that the relationship with Ann was the awakening he had been waiting years for.” There are many other instances in which Stubbs relates the emotional content of Donne’s poems to the poet’s experiences or to the thoughts and emotions that these experiences presumably aroused.
Bald and Stubbs reflect two interpretations of the art of literary biography. The earlier biographer employs a more conservative approach, whereas the more recent biographer is inclined to discern Donne by sprinkling segments of his poetry through the biography. Bald’s style and techniques seem more typical of the 1960’s when he wrote, Stubbs’s of the early 2000’s. The fact that Bald wrote his book in his later years, Stubbs when he was less than thirty years old, may also help explain...
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