At only 29, John Stubbs is one of our youngest literary biographers and already greatly admired by the likes of Robert McFarlane. He was awarded the 2004 Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for Donne: The Reformed Soul as a work in progress.
Mark Thwaite: I can't help noticing that you are a comparatively young writer. Presumably you studied Donne and that was when your interest in him began?
John Stubbs: I first came across Donne when I was a teenager, in an old paisley-covered Penguin selection my father had had with him at university. The spine had bleached in the sun and the pages had turned brown, and childishly I probably wanted to think it was a much older book than it really was. At that time I was still reading poetry and listening to it, but somehow not hearing it. But at some point when I read some of the Songs and Sonets it was like being shaken awake. The poems are like transcripts of actual speech – Donne’s sheer straightforwardness with interrogating, invoking, disputing completely grabbed me. Perhaps because so much of one’s teens pass by in protesting and defying over small intricate convictions that no one else really appreciates. This was a voice to learn from, I thought, if I could only get to grips with it. The effect of the poems on me was strange, though, because at the same time I was hooked I still couldn’t make their sound fit a rhythm I was used to; I was both alienated and attracted by them.
I didn’t get to study Donne at A-level, but even at college, when I started reading – or rather, learning to read – the prose, I couldn’t quite manage to approach him in a formal academic way; and that, I suppose, was the point at which I became interested in who he was, his life and the society he inhabited. For my doctorate I worked on the intellectual context of Renaissance rhetoric and poetics, which naturally has an important bearing on Donne’s writing; but it was away from the academic setting that I kept in touch with Donne, and got more and more interested in him as a thinker as well as a poet, and in his place in Elizabethan and Jacobean society. Getting to know him as best as I could seemed the best way of understanding his work better.
MT: How long did your biography take to write? What were the biggest challenges in the writing and in the research?
JS: The writing took about three and a half years, but even though it’s out of my hands I feel as though I’m still writing it. The greatest challenge was being true to Donne himself, to be honest. He’s such a subtle character, yet so strikingly coarse too at times; so elusive, so masked, yet so approachable, so manifest and honest with himself, especially in his letters and sermons. His poetry too has a strange grainy brilliance that distorts as much as it illuminates.
I was first nudged into writing the biography one winter evening in a Cambridge pub, when a good friend, who maybe just saw that I was in a bad way with my other work and needed something to do, suggested this was something I could try. I was very excited by the idea, and very daunted. One of Donne’s nineteenth-century biographers said he was afraid of meeting Donne in heaven and being rebuked for misrepresenting his character. Perhaps the fact that we don’t think so much of that kind of accountability any more has something to do with the profusion of biographies, and the liberties we might be taking with the dead. I was certainly afraid of disturbing Donne’s ghost, and coming to terms with that was my greatest mental block. The thing is that people are very possessive about Donne, and rightly so; I know I am. I’m afraid of a response that says “How dare you write this?” and when I hear it I think, “Yes, how dare I?” All I can say is that a sense of the injustice he has suffered since, well, since the beginning, really, proved stronger than the fear of upsetting his shade. I also just felt I had something to add, and the exceptionally strong tradition of Donne scholarship was both a support and a challenge to that. John Carey’s iconoclastic study of Donne, modifying R.C. Bald’s monumental, but much more pious account (which in its turn decisively revised the popular view of Donne as a rake and an intellectual demon), was a truly vital book. It was a wakeup call to readers who idolised Donne unthinkingly and it will keep energising close readings. There has been a massive amount of significant biographical work since Carey’s, notably by Dennis Flynn, on more specific areas of Donne’s life. But I still felt that a tendency emerged afterwards to diminish Donne’s strengths and treat his limitations uncharitably, often on very personal grounds; and that people have begun missing his humour, his ironic compassion, and also his seriousness. My book isn’t the equal of these or many other books about Donne and I still dread what he might make of my blunders - but my hope is that it offers a synthesis of the different attitudes that have emerged towards him. Being fair is the greatest challenge, perhaps to any sort of historical or critical writing.
MT: Did Donne maintain your interest throughout or were you glad to see the back of him!?
JS: There were times when I needed to be away from him, but overall my interest only grew. I miss him more and more, to be honest; miss working on his biography, I mean. Historically, I think the generation or so after his death missed him too. The 1630s and the 1640s really missed a great voice of moderation, a writer capable of seeing the other side of an issue and spotting the irony in his or her own. There were tremendous partisan writers, notably Milton of course, during the years of Civil War through to the English republic in the 1650s. I really whether Donne would have been sucked into factionalism – something he was far from impervious to – or whether, if and when he became a bishop, his words would have exercised a restraining influence, making people at least stop and think; as they did, I believe, when he served as Dean of St Paul’s in the 1620s. Then again, had he lived until 1642 (he would have been seventy), and remained in the Church, he would probably have died in exile or seclusion in any case.
MT: What was the most interesting/surprising fact that you learned about him?
JS: It’s all shocks with Donne, really, twists and turns; ask anyone who likes reading his writings. You get accustomed to being surprised, though never to the surprises themselves. Yet when you look back, and puzzle out the links in his incredible arguments, it’s amazing how consistent they are within themselves, how they generate a logic all of their own and bear out their paradoxes. Similarly, what surprised his contemporaries most, his marriage and later his ordination, aren’t so shocking, I think, when you trace what he was doing and saying in the years before he made those decisions. Learning about Donne in a way involves recovering from surprise.
MT: The historical orthodoxy seems to be in a state of flux with regard to whether England stopped being a Catholic country almost overnight or whether it retained a Catholic heart (or underbelly, perhaps) for longer than we've previously envisaged. Where do you stand?
JS: There will never be a total consensus on that question; nor should there be. I think one’s sense of the Reformation depends very much on one’s teachers, which particular archive one begins with, which certain set of sources lay the foundation of one’s view of what happened. Working from what I’ve read, I’d go along with the idea that while politically England did stop being a Roman Catholic nation, in the aftermath of intense bursts of iconoclasm daily religious life retained much of the rhythms and imagery and engrained expectations of the old faith in a vernacular form. That continuity, albeit in drastically altered form, was what allowed Donne to feel that he could take part in the Reformed national religion (the Catholic – “Universal” Church of England, not that of Rome) while talking with God in his own language. It captured his simultaneous longing for stability and transformation. But the situation changed rapidly from decade to decade. By the time Donne was setting out his views on the Catholicism of the Reformed Church in the 1620s, the capacity of that Church to contain and address the different factions of its communion had almost certainly diminished; largely because it slipped back into rituals and ornaments that smacked too much to many of “Popery”. This problem only deepened, of course, through the 1630s.
MT: In the final regard, was Donne a Catholic coward or an honest intellectual?
JS: I don’t think there really is a final regard on something like that, thank God. That sounds like a formula for damnation. Shakespeare’s sonnet about the dyer’s hand is an important one to keep in mind. No biography is definitive; it’s just one person writing about another, and the senses that emerge from two biographies of the same individual can and should be as different as the views that two friends take of the same person. I try to avoid judgements and just let people make what they will of him. But you have to come clean with your own opinion too. I give mine briefly at the beginning and the end, by saying that Donne was “a brave and principled man”: brave in that he more often than not took a courageous (or admittedly sometimes just rash) decision rather than an easy one; and principled in that he always seems to have acted from a rigorous (if sometimes slightly skewed) moral position. His conversion from Catholicism was not, for me, an opportunistic or simply rebellious move on Donne’s part. Unhappily pragmatic, yes, but far from amoral. Other aspects and periods of his life are less savoury – the way he curried favour with unpleasant powerful people in the 1610s, for example; but even then, he was just trying to feed his family. As to the honesty of his intellect, he did often have to compromise by taking on work he would clearly rather have avoided (writing complimentary verses, for example, for people he may not really have cared for and in some cases had not even met); but what does emerge, at every stage of his life, is his honesty as an intellectual in the sense I think you mean. Even his most toadying verses have an absolute dedication to unsettling the conventional view, through paradox and inversion. Donne never settled for the easy answer, the cliché or the philosophical cop-out. That is one reason why all those rather unattractive aristocrats appreciated his work, and why it still startles.
MT: I would guess that you must think, in some way, that Donne's life and work is instructive for us today. What are you most hoping your readers will learn from your book and from Donne's life?
JS: Part of the answer to this I’ve probably given already at the end of the last. It’s an interesting question, because it suggests to me that our expectations from biography may still have something in common with what Renaissance readers looked for in Plutarch: we look for an example, some sort of lesson in a life. In that sense, for me Donne is most instructive in the way he questioned and modified the patterns and precepts he inherited. By switching from the Roman Catholic to the Reformed Church he reformed within himself an immensely powerful family tradition, without scrapping that legacy altogether: he didn’t commit his life to an adolescent rebellion, but thought things through for himself. In doing so, he found strong words to address those who he felt had failed to position themselves maturely in an historically real world by clinging to lost causes: he urged the victims of religious persecution against cherishing their own victimhood, against contriving to sacrifice themselves and their peers as what he called “Pseudo-martyrs”, and thus widening the spiral of sectarian retribution. His thought has to be kept in an early modern Christian context, but it still has a lot to teach.
MT: You mostly seem to read Donne's poems biographically. But Donne always wore masks and played with the persona of the "I": are you, as a biographer, in danger of a biographically reductive reading of Donne's art?
JS: This is a very important question. The poems are not transparently autobiographical documents. But many of Donne’s poems are explicitly connected to a specific occasion or experience (for example his verse letters “The Calme” and “The Storme”, which give an account of his ordeals at sea in 1597; more generally his Satires), and many more are addressed to a particular person, invoking a specific setting and time. Others (such as “The Sunne Rising”, with its caustic allusion to King James) can be dated with some degree of certainty, and I follow a rough chronology by a long tradition of Donne scholarship, while questioning it here and there, which was first synthesised authoritatively by Bald. The manuscript evidence assembled by Herbert Grierson, Helen Gardner and many later Donneans suggests that some were intended for a fairly wide social audience, while others, especially many of what became his most famous love poems in the “Songs and Sonets”, were of a much more personal nature – kept even from his closest friends. Other texts again have been traditionally associated, since the time of Donne’s earliest readers, with particular moments in his biography. Verbal testimony connected his great poem of farewell and consolation, for example, “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” (with its famous image of the couple as “stiffe twin compasses”) with Donne’s departure for France in 1611. That tradition has become an inescapable part of the poem’s meaning as we receive it now. Similarly, the social and literary contexts to which other Donne texts were attached are crucial to their style: the settings of the poems, in other words, are vitally important to their register. For me the really grave reduction would be to annul or simplify these contexts, especially in what is after all a biography. We would lose all sense of Donne’s art by losing touch with the historical reality he lived and breathed in and worked with, and which much of his language’s peculiar vividness is given over to revealing.
MT: Who are your other favourite poets and writers, John? And your favourite novel?
JS: I have strong interests in the classics, and I’m sad that I probably can’t truly feel them as poetry. I used to like a lot of eighteenth-century and Romantic literature but haven’t read any in ages. Yeats, Kavanagh, Heaney, have also been very important to me. I like very English voices too; W.H. Auden, John Fuller, Philip Larkin. I’m encountering a lot that’s new to me as well, getting to know some Slavonic writers. There are poets too I know I haven’t reached the right time for yet: Louis MacNiece, for instance. The contemporary poet I enjoy reading most is Iggy McGovern: I thought his book The King of Suburbia was tremendous. My favourite English novel is Middlemarch: that’s the one I’ve always been able to re-read.
MT: What are you working on now?
JS:I have a lot of interests in the early modern period that I’m following up when I get chance. But the biography of Donne was just one book that I felt I could write, or one that could be written, at least. In a way I’d quite like to do it all over again.
MT:Anything else that you would like to say?
JS:Thanks very much indeed to everyone who has read or is reading the book, and to everyone I learnt from in order to write it.