In The LRB this fortnight is this review by Colin Burrow of Donne: The Reformed Soul by John Stubbs, the “decent” new biography of the irreverent Reverend:
Literary biography is one of the background noises of our age. It’s a decent, friendly sort of hum, like the Sunday papers or chatter on a train. It gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip, and what’s more it saves them the trouble of reading history. And poems too, for that matter. Not to mention the ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism.
One might also argue that with such thoughtful reviews, the punters need never even buy the book, especially with lines like this:
Reading poems is usually, if things go well, a process of losing and finding one’s balance, and then wondering if one has really grasped the thing after all.
Quite. Indeed Burrows’ advice is to read the poems (and, I would argue, the sermons) if you want to understand the man – don’t bother with a biography.
But I suspect I will have to read the book, as I’ve always had a soft spot for the old flirt and all his contradictions. Sunne Rising remains the poem closest to my heart, no matter what any biographer may say.