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date: 05 December 2019


Abstract and Keywords

This Introduction outlines the contents of Part III of this book. Part III gives equal place to paired work by biographers and historians. The analysis presented here aims to supply readers with conceptual tools for removing obstacles and developing new paths towards an understanding of Donne’s life and writings. The Introduction outlines the content of the specific topics that follow.

Keywords: biographers, historians, conceptual tools, Donne's life, Donne's writings

Part 3 gives equal place to paired essays, by biographers and by historians. These pairs work as teams, for the most part maintaining their distinct disciplinary approaches: talking to each other; creating perspective on what is known about Donne's life; showing how Donne's life and writings epitomized and affected important controversial issues of his day; and bringing to bear on Donne studies some of the most stimulating and creative ideas developed in recent decades by historians of early modern England, ideas that have been too often ignored in literary studies and are thus unfamiliar to many students of Donne. These historical ideas suggest reasonable conjecture about Donne's biography and imply the need for reconsideration of many fundamental assumptions underlying the work of Donne critics. To this end, Part 3 essays supply readers with conceptual tools for removing obstacles and developing new paths towards an understanding of Donne's life and writings.

Patrick Collinson and Dennis Flynn review Donne's family background and early years in the context of earlier Tudor, and especially mid-Elizabethan, religious reform. The importance of this approach is highlighted by Flynn's conclusion that ‘Donne's first biographer Izaak Walton (whose influence in Donne studies remains incalculably great) expressed little interest in most of the details discussed in this essay’; Collinson emphasizes the recent insights of historians of the period, who have explored complications newly discovered in misleading binary concepts such as ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’, ‘conformist’ and ‘recusant’, and ‘apostasy’ and ‘conversion’.

Alexandra Gajda surveys the ordinary educational options available to a boy of Donne's background, noting that ‘in the confessional conflicts that divided Christendom, education—and education of youth in particular—was seen as a vital (p. 366) tool for the propagation of true religious belief, and an essential weapon in the fight against the false’. Observing prevalent obscurity about Donne's later childhood and adolescence, Dennis Flynn invites refutation, conjecturing that, in view of the boy's background and the neglected evidence of his prentice-work in poetry (his lost Latin Epigrams known only in posthumous translations), he likely rejected all standard alternatives, enrolling (pace Walton and later biographers) only briefly at Oxford and instead travelling to the continent in early 1585, in conjunction with the deportation of his uncle, the Jesuit Jasper Heywood.

Reviewing Donne's participation in the Cadiz raid and the Azores voyage during 1596–7, Albert C. Labriola notes that ‘Donne's references to these expeditions emphasize life at sea and maritime warfare, not assaults overland. If, therefore, Donne saw action on the ground at Cadiz, he did not write graphically about his experiences. He may have been in the rear guard, not the vanguard’. Paul E. J. Hammer places Donne's combat experience in the context of larger political events, especially the rise and fall of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, regarded by Walton and following biographers as the courtier/soldier towards whom Donne gravitated in the late 1590s. Hammer points out, however, that while service as a gentleman volunteer ‘offered young gentlemen the prospect of adventure, new social contacts through military comradeship, the possibility of plunder, and first-hand knowledge of war’, on the other hand, gentlemen volunteers ‘attached themselves to a military commander—often a colonel or another senior subordinate officer, rather than directly with the general himself—and served at their own expense as private soldiers in order to acquire the personal experience of war which was expected of their class’; this was ‘an expensive business, especially as gentlemen soldiers were expected to live as befitted their rank and the costs of food and other essentials were often exorbitantly high in a war zone’.

Steven W. May starts from the perception that Donne returned from the Azores ‘aware that he was no “swordsman”, despite the belligerent aura of the portrait he had commissioned in 1591’. Yet, as May admits, Donne's employment by Lord Keeper Thomas Egerton remains something of a puzzle: no evidence tells us what this work entailed. Oddly inflecting the puzzle is Donne's attitude towards the royal court, the arena for a large part of Egerton's work, but a place Donne seems nowhere to mention except with the bitterly ‘negative sentiments of a court outsider’, surpassingly expressed in Sat4. Andrew Gordon's discussion of the court mentions its ‘atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue’ during the later 1590s. Gordon concludes that, unlike friends such as Henry Wotton, Donne ‘confidently avoided factional allegiance’, in particular allegiance to the ill-fated Earl of Essex. Donne's work for Egerton, Gordon conjectures, may have involved his careful rhetoric, performing ‘some junior role’ in connection with the Lord Keeper's correspondence.

Dennis Flynn tells the story of Donne's wedding to Anne More, showing that it was ‘carefully planned, not a reckless adventure of love’, but instead the product of a scheme including intricate timing and litigation. He stresses our need to know more (p. 367) about Anne More's personality and active agency in this matter, and in the marriage as a whole, dismissed or minimized as these have been by Donne's biographers since Walton. During the earliest years of the Jacobean reign, while Donne and his new family stayed with Anne's cousin Francis Wolley at Pyrford, Donne regarded the developing political scene at considerable distance from London and the court. Concerning this period, Anthony Milton describes the outlook of Catholics and Catholic sympathizers as one of hope that King James would grant toleration to Catholics, hope that was disappointed by 1604. In particular, Milton observes that ‘Donne's patron Northumberland, who had urged James before his accession that “it weare pittie to losse so good a kingdome for the not tolerating a messe [sic] in a cornere” soon lost favour (at least temporarily) when he pleaded for a full toleration now that James was on the throne’. Milton extends his discussion of Donne's political attitudes in these years to considerations that culminated in the publication of Pseudo-Martyr (1610).

Johann Sommerville looks back at Donne's Mitcham years from the vantage of the May 1612 death of Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, maintaining that during this period Donne agreed with Cecil on matters of political principle. Reviewing Donne's Pseudo-Martyr and Ignatius His Conclave, as well as Cecil's writings, all regarding implications of the Gunpowder Plot and the Oath of Allegiance, Sommerville finds that Donne and Cecil both distinguished between the general culpability for the plot of English Catholics as a whole and the particular responsiblity of the Jesuits and other hard-line papists. Further, Donne agreed with Cecil that certain practices and teachings of the latter could not be tolerated, although Catholics who did not subscribe to these should be treated with mercy. Donne and Cecil agreed, for example, about the papal deposing power, an issue controverted between Venetian and Gallican writers on one hand and Jesuit and other Roman Catholic writers on the other. Concerning this same period in Donne's biography, Dennis Flynn argues that Donne's attitude towards the plot and the Oath was more complicated than has been thought, citing the work of Michael Questier concerning the effects of the Oath on English Catholic consciences. Reviewing events connected to Donne's puzzling travel on the continent in 1605–6 and features of Donne's relationship to Catholic friends, such as Toby Matthew and Ben Jonson, Flynn argues that while Donne did conform to the general lines of government policy in regard to the plot, attacking Jesuit controversialists and advising English Catholics to swear the Oath, he was careful (while publicly identifying himself as a member of the Church of England) to preserve space for traditional Catholicism within this kind of conformity: ‘He repeatedly contested the notion that the only Catholicism was the Roman Catholicism propounded by the Council of Trent; and he continued to express fundamental sympathy and concern to accommodate traditional English Catholics, intending help to secure for them some limited toleration within the English Church.’

Chapters by Jeanne Shami and Alastair Bellany probe the years just prior to Donne's decision to take orders in the Church of England, especially Donne's murky (p. 368) relations with the royal favourite Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset. Bellany's essay maps ‘the multiple centres of power and the complex articulation of influence at the Jacobean court’, contextualizing Donne's movements within the factionalized politics that emerged in 1612–13, factions ‘fluidly composed and never ideologically homogeneous’, culminating in Carr's decline and the rise of George Villiers as the King's powerful favourite. Shami's essay steps back from the events and forces depicted in Bellany's account to focus primarily on Donne's extant correspondence as it illuminates his uncomfortable relations with Carr, and the pressures exerted by that relationship as well as by Donne's relationships with his friends, family, in-laws, and other patrons in 1614, but concludes that ‘it is likely that in 1616 Donne and his mother shared the same religion, if not the same church’, and that Donne's ordination as a divine was a career choice ‘not only tolerated but approved by his closest family members’.

Peter McCullough and Kenneth Fincham combine to consider the complexities and ‘hazards’ of serving as court chaplain first to King James and then to Charles I. McCullough points out that the ‘explosion’ of court-centred preaching, leading to an ‘exponential growth’ in the number of court chaplains appointed by James, cannot explain the unprecedented effort that James put into Donne's creation and clerical promotion: ‘Donne went from laity to clergy, from no degree to doctorate, from unemployment to royal chaplaincy, in no more than a few weeks’. Further, Donne's appointment as chaplain to the embassy of James Hay, Viscount Doncaster, read as an extension of his court chaplaincy, again shows an ‘extraordinary degree’ of royal favour, esteem that carried over into the reign of Charles, although Donne's position became more tentative by 1627, in part because of disfavour by Bishop William Laud. Fincham's account of the character of ecclesiastical politics during this period—especially the role of George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury—confirms that the extraordinary arc of Donne's promotion—especially as Dean of St Paul's—was a signal mark of royal favour in line with James's pattern of personal religious patronage in the period. Donne's ability to avoid being drawn into the turmoil of emerging religious factionalism appears all the more remarkable in Fincham's account, although he concludes that Donne's ties with evangelical Calvinists were strong.

Emma Rhatigan and Malcolm Smuts handle the years 1616–20, during which Donne was made Reader at Lincoln's Inn and subsequently chaplain to Doncaster, on his diplomatic embassy to mediate between James I's Protestant son-in-law, Friedrich of the Palatinate, and the Catholic Prince Ferdinand, soon to become Holy Roman Emperor. Rhatigan's essay focuses on Lincoln's Inn as a formative institutional context for Donne's development within the English Church during the first years of his ministry. His rhetorical and diplomatic skills also fitted him, as James's chaplain, to act on the state's behalf on the delicate political and religious matters boiling over on the continent. Malcolm Smuts's essay focuses primarily on this international context for understanding Donne's churchmanship and theology (p. 369) in the early years of his ministry. This essay provides students of Donne with a fascinating window onto James's ‘intricate middle path’ between most of the period's oppositions—Catholic/Protestant; English/continental—thus illuminating Donne's own conflicting allegiances. Moreover, Smuts's essay offers a paradigmatic example of how important it is to distinguish—in Donne's writings as well as those of other public figures, including James's—between rhetorical formulations of problems and beliefs and their pragmatic expressions in times of crisis. Smuts thinks Donne is best understood as a ‘moderate Calvinist royalist’ trying to ‘preserve a middle ground on which British and European evangelicals might remain united against their common foes’. He cautions scholars to resist the impulse to align Donne with players in various contests of religion, thinking of him instead as one ‘struggling to prevent such contests from developing’.

Chapters by Clayton D. Lein and Simon Healy cover the crucial years—the 1620s—during which Donne established his churchmanship first as James's and subsequently as Charles I's royal chaplain, one who maintained amiable relations with people at entirely opposite ends of the political and ecclesiastical spectrums (e.g. William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, and George Villiers, James's favourite and Duke of Buckingham). Donne's key pulpit performances—defending James's Directions to Preachers, preaching the first Sermon before King Charles, and a 1627 court Sermon that offended William Laud, Bishop of London—are interpreted within this complex network of relationships, allegiances, and circumstances to reveal a Donne who, while not a major political player, was nonetheless influential in defining and maintaining his vision of the English Church among those increasingly in competition in the 1620s. Lein's essay provides insight into what is emerging as a key issue in understanding Donne as divine—the dizzyingly complex character of late Jacobean and early Caroline religious and political factionalism, and Donne's characteristically Erasmian moves to resist such divisions while still maintaining the official orthodoxy of the English state church. Healy expands the picture of domestic politics within which Donne operated in these years, characterizing Donne's own position as one of intelligent and well-informed caution, unlike that of more politically ambitious figures such as John Williams, with whom Healy contrasts Donne. Donne's topical pulpit utterances are woven into the web of his allegiances and associations involving church (and thereby state) matters. Donne's glancing comments on matters being debated in Parliament, including his essentially ‘non-partisan’ remarks on many current controversies, confirm for Healy that Donne was preaching in the eye of the hurricane, amid increasingly factionalized parties who fought against or sought to profit by alterations of the status quo.

The final chapters of Part 3 mark Donne's death in 1631, but look forward to the moment historically even as they resonate with the full weight of Donne's passing. Arnold Hunt gathers up the historical threads that have woven the narrative of Donne's ascendancy in the English Church at the same time as they have marked the evidence of Donne's growing alienation from some features of that institution's (p. 370) development. Hunt's crucial conceptual insight is that ‘climate change, however profound, is not always obvious to those living through it’. So while it is clear, in retrospect, ‘that the accession of Charles I in 1625 was indeed a critical turning point in religious and political affairs’, Donne's prominence as a court preacher ‘was a visible symbol of continuity between the two reigns’. In Hunt's reading, ‘Donne did not negotiate the transition to the reign of Charles I entirely smoothly or seamlessly, and the Sermons preached in the final years of his life often betray a mood of ambivalence, looking back to the reign of James as well as forward to the political and religious changes of the 1630s’. Donne's appropriation after his death by both Laudians and Catholics for their own purposes leads Hunt to conclude that at his death Donne's style of piety ‘seemed to belong to an earlier generation’, a conclusion shaped by the weight of evidence adduced in this essay. This view of Donne's last days in the pulpit is enriched by Alison Shell's essay on ‘The death of Donne’, which examines ‘how Donne used his consciousness of mortality and his own deathbed to forge bonds with family, friends, and mankind in general’. Working from the perception that, for Donne and his contemporaries, ‘death was a public matter’, Shell's insight into the communal effects of death, its impact on the kinship bonds within a religious community, leads her to dissociate Donne from the ‘Puritan instinct to consort only with the elect and pull away from the wider community’, and to see him paradoxically as one of the age's most individual voices articulating ‘the limits of religious individualism’. In his poems, Sermons, and even in his seal, Shell traces a pattern common in Donne's writings, whereby real-life experiences ‘could act as a foretaste of heaven’. Strikingly, the essay evokes ‘Donne's consciousness of the excitement of death’, imbued with the Christian hope that death is not ‘an end in itself, but a journey towards a new beginning’. Shell's concluding words provide a fitting conclusion to this section of the Handbook: ‘Few can have been as concerned as he was to give directions to future voyagers’.