JOHN DONNE (1572-1631) has a reputation that ebbs and flows. One generation will praise the wit, beauty, and invention of his language; the next will say that he is too clever by half (“his brain went to his head,” as one critic put it), or that his religious complexity and self-obsession is not worth the reader’s effort. Contemporary work on his theological writing, not least the superb recent volumes of his sermons, under the general editorship of Peter McCullough, has quite rightly renewed interest in him again.
Hadfield offers this book as part of this reassessment, arguing that “read as a poet of sexuality he undoubtedly looks outdated, perhaps even offensive,” but that, as a poet, theologian, and writer who examines the self, the body and the soul, and the relationships to belief, authorities, and friends we live with, he “looks like a significant thinker”.
Hadfield is Professor of English at the University of Sussex. His book is not written for his academic colleagues. It is introductory, accessible, and, although focusing on the sometimes overlooked influence of religion on Donne, it does not set out to be startlingly original. He says that it “has much in common with a biography”, and that his aim is to help make sense of Donne’s life and times so that we take greater enjoyment in our encounter with his poems.
The chapters clearly identify Hadfield’s areas of interest in his subject: “The Soul and the Self”, “Religion”, “Sexuality”, “Marriage”, “Learning”, and “Friendship”.
How successful is Hadfield in his aim? Some might find his book too conventional in style, sometimes failing to provide a literary context to Donne, or wondering whether his paraphrases of the poems are a bit flat or, even, misleading at times. It is true that I wasn’t wholly convinced by his readings of one or two of the poems — but that is all part of the democracy of poetry.
Nevertheless, I found this to be a comprehensive and thoughtful invitation to read Donne and one that does not shy away from his “omnipresent but elusive” Christian faith. By putting himself on display, Donne showed us how much remained hidden, and Hadfield helps us appreciate rather than avoid the beguiling and creative complexity of a poet and priest in whom “both Adams met.”
Canon Mark Oakley is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge.
John Donne: In the shadow of religion
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