In this issue:John Donne is an eminently readable book for the layman, especially for those of us who have read and loved John Donne’s poetry or sermons; Loving Frank is a remarkable piece of research, a novel, if you will, built on truth, and in the hands of a first-rate writer; The Italian Lover is about an American book conservator/restorer, who discovers a unique copy of Renaissance erotic drawings, Pietro Aretino’sI Modi.
The Reformed Soul
by John Stubbs ©2006, (2007 American edition)
Published by W.W. Norton & Co., Ltd, London; hardcover, 478 pp
For anyone interested in English history during the Reformation brought on by Henry VIII, this book is a must-read. The tumultuous years during Queen Mary’s return to Roman Catholicism after her father’s death, followed by Queen Elizabeth’s swing back to the Church of England, followed by King James’s mixed messages, followed by his ill-starred son Charles’s beheading, have possibly never been described so well. John Stubbs’s biography explains the perilous times in great detail and in terms the modern day reader can understand, which is no easy feat.
John Donne, the great satirist, poet, essayist, and writer of sermons, did not live to see the end of the monarchy and the takeover by Parliament, or the years of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector that followed. One can only guess where his sympathies might have fallen.
Born to a family of Roman Catholics during a time when Protestantism was the rule, Donne’s early years entailed furtive worship and constant vigilance. His great grand uncle was Sir Thomas More, who was beheaded for refusing to forsake Rome and swear allegiance to Henry VIII as head of the Church. His uncles were Jesuit missionaries who suffered death and exile. His younger brother languished and died in prison for harboring a priest. He himself had to leave Oxford at a young age, before the taking of an oath (required at age 16) to support the Queen as head of the Church.
To call John Donne’s life conflicted is an understatement. In addition to his search for religious tenets he could follow openly, he found himself caught between two classes, his mother being a minor aristocrat and his father a wealthy iron monger of lesser status. Donne was brilliant and successful in school, but had to change courses a few times, ending up studying law at the Inns of Court in London. He loved earthly pleasures (taverns and girls), but had also elegant tastes (nice clothing, books, refined company), and a deeply spiritual side to his nature.